29 December 2014

Christophe Donner: Quand je suis devenu fou (1997)

Christophe Donner was born Christophe Quiniou in 1956 and has written a large number of books, about half of them (for children) written as Chris Donner, and one as Hélène Laurens. He narrowly missed winning the Renaudot in 2007 with Un roi sans lendemain, when Daniel Pennac's Chagrin d'école came as if from nowhere to take the prize. This is his only novel I've read, and I'm unsure what to make of it so I'll suspend my judgement until I've read a few more of his books, which should give me a fuller picture of his worldview.

I would certainly classify Quand je suis devenu fou (lit. 'When I Went Mad') as gay literature, and apparently the expression 'coming out' has been used in relation to Donner and this novel, although Donner most strongly denies the tag: he has never called himself homosexual, would deny it under torture(!), and views with horror the idea of anyone being reduced to their sexual practices. So that is categorically clear.

Quand je suis devenu fou is more about obsession than madness, the obsession of the narrator for the male prostitute Nick in Amsterdam. At one point the narrator says 'Quiconque exerce ce métier stupide mérite tout ce qui lui arrive' ('Whoever practises this stupid profession deserves everything that happens to them'.) Interestingly this expression is also the title of Donner's last novel, which concerns acting, and I learn that this is a quotation from Orson Welles, although for some reason – maybe because it's a misquotation? – I can't find the exact sentence Welles used in English. But prostitution is certainly (and no doubt correctly) depicted as a branch of the acting profession in this novel, which reminds me of a particularly brilliantly acted scene by Jane Fonda in Pakula's Klute.

But I digress. The French-speaking narrator, a number of whose biographical details are a lot like Christopher Donner's, is desperate to 'rescue' Nick – who is of Italian origin but speaks English and holds a UK passport – from the 'Boys [sic] Club'. Nick himself says the narrator doesn't know him, and anyway how is the narrator going to, er, pull off such a coup when his beloved isn't exactly wild about him and the whole crazy thing seems doomed to failure before it starts?

But pull it off he does – at the beginning at least: they both make it to San Francisco, but they don't get on, they start leading separate lives, they row, and the narrator pays for him to return to London or wherever. And the narrator sells up in the USA and – sick of Anglo-Saxon culture – heads off for Mexico.

On the way down to Guadalajara the narrator mentions that he plays Brel, although there is no mention – as on the way to Amsterdam from Paris – of a muzzy tape of an interview with Hervé Guilbert (1955–91), a writer much loved by both the narrator and Donner himself.  At his luxury hotel the narrator meets Saúl, who's wearing a tee-shirt of Dalí's Christ, and the narrator quotes Dalí to Saúl: 'The difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad.' Saul responds: '¿ Pero quién es, Dalí ?' We know already that the narrator doesn't like his men to be intellectuals, that just complicates a relationship, so, yeah, obviously he's falling in love again...

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