By Patricia Duncker.
London: Serpent's Tail, 1996.
275 pages. ISBN: 1-85242-510-5

Comments of Bob Corbett, February 2001.

Patricia Duncker has created a wonderful book, part mystery story, part intellectual exploration of themes in the work of Michel Foucault, homosexuality and the relationship between author and reader and the relationship between critic/scholar and author. I found the book so gripping that I didn't want to do anything but read it for the duration, which I was doing in the midst of a busy work schedule, yet finishing it in three days.

An unnamed narrator and hero, a young scholar at Cambridge University, is writing his thesis on (fictional) author Paul Michel. In the process he meets a fellow grad student, also nameless except for his designation, "the Germanist." She's doing her work on the German philosopher/poet Schiller. However, she has done an astonishing amount of reading (and annotating) of the novels of Paul Michel.

The narrator feels no need to know anything of Paul Michel's life, rather he chooses to work only with the printed word, believing that Michel's life has little or nothing of value to contribute to his research or analysis. The Germanist is horrified by this view. Yet she essentially agrees with it. She introduces a subtle distinction that the intellectual analysis should, indeed, remain inside the texts themselves, but if one is investing the time and energy in any thinker which it takes to write a doctoral dissertation on him or her, then one should be in love with this person and at least intimately know the person's life. Thus she pushes the narrator to know Paul Michel.

Pushes is the right term. She knows much more about Paul Michel that she has let on, and soon produces a document to prove that he is a quite radical thinker, scorning society and in that scorn, celebrates his own homosexuality.

Michel's view of homosexuality is fascinating. It is so tied with his radicalism. He has withdrawn from society; he's had no choice, he can't see the world as others do. In one passage after the narrator has met Michel, they are talking about loneliness. Michel allows there are two kinds of loneliness; the garden variety in which one is alone and feeling it and needing other people. The other:

"But there is another kind of loneliness which is terrible to endure."
"He paused.
"And that is the loneliness of seeing a different world from that of the people around you. Their lives remain remote from yours. You can see the gulf and they can't. You live among them. They walk on earth. You walk on glass. They reassure themselves with conformity, with carefully constructed resemblances. You are masked, aware of your absolute difference. That's why I always live in the bars -- les lieux de drague -- simply to be among the others who were like me."

As part of this being the outsider, Michel revels in the position of the homosexual as social outcast. He believes homosexuals are self-chosen as homosexual, and were it not such a life of outsider he himself might not even have chosen it. He rejects contemporary movements toward homosexual rights and their rehabilitation into "normal" society. Such a move would deeply threaten his own homosexuality, at least robbing it of one of its strongest attractions: the status of sexual outlaw.

The Germanist also helps the narrator discover that Paul Michel is alive and in a mental institution in France, diagnosed as a schizophrenic and has been years in an institution. She strongly urges the narrator seek him out, vaguely suggesting he do what he has to do.

The narrator does, meets Michel, eventually gets him a temporary leave from the institution and has a passionate homosexual relationship with Michel. This is another fascinating twist on the homosexual theme since the narrator has been a heterosexual and has even had a fairly long-term sexual relationship with the Germanist, though the Germanist has definitely been the sexual aggressor in their relationship. Nonetheless, he accepts this new relationship with Michel without comment, as though it were the most natural act in the world. There is even a complication in which the Germanist enters into this world as well, but that should remain for the story to reveal.

There is a great deal of fascinating and challenging talk of the relationship between writer and reader and less talk, but nonetheless interesting talk of the relationship of critic/scholar to writer.

The book's title comes from the fascinating relationship she creates between philosopher Michel Foucault and writer Paul Michel. Each is the other's "reader," that target person for whom the other writes. However, in their case it is takes a most unusual form in that they each write to the other and reply to the other only in the published works. At the same time they quite carefully and consciously avoid meeting each other in public or person to person though many opportunities present themselves and they even take extraordinary measures to avoid meeting. They've made a tacit agreement that they will only meet on the page, writer to his reader and vise-a-versa.

The narrator wants to be Michel's reader. The Germanist sort of is Michel's reader. The nature of that relationship is a fascinating part of the novel. A reader is basically one whom the author consciously aims at in his/her work. Generally the writer never knows if a "reader" is really there and if the work is "read" in this sense. The relationship between Michel and Foucault is quite unusual.

All of this fascinating intellectual discussion goes on inside what is basically a mystery story and that I won't say more about than I already have for fear of lessening the delights of discovery to any who have year to read this brilliant and charming, yet at times profoundly disturbing novel.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu