26 February 2015

Dominique Fernandez: La Gloire du paria (1987)

Dominique Fernandez's La Gloire du paria (lit. 'The Glory of the Pariah') is set in 1986, at about the time when AIDS was creating havoc in the developed world but also when very little was known about it. Wildly distorted media scares called it a 'plague' and perhaps inevitably represented the gay community as largely responsible for the phenomenon.

Bernard Morin (45) is a novelist from a staunch middle-class background: his father is a teacher of French in a lycée, and his mother is a well-read worker in a bookshop in the quartier Latin. For three years he has lived with in Paris with Marc Lavergne (25), a law student from a more modest background with a father who works in an office and a friendly Sicilian mother.

Marc has grown up in an era of tolerance whose his parents have – although certainly not as readily as he thinks – accepted the fact that he is gay. Bernard, though, has grown up in an age when homosexuality was taboo, something to hide, but essentially something illegal.

It is the difference between the two main characters' background experience of homosexuality which creates the tension and the interest in the novel, which begins at the time of the death of Jean Genet. Genet's death is symbolic, being the end of the days when homosexuality was associated with the outsider, the outcast, the criminal, the worship of the underworld.

It is just such a backcloth from which Bernard comes, and which he misses with considerable nostalgia. His partner Marc never knew the days of the thrill of illegality, never experienced the multiple revolutions of Paris (and beyond) in 1968, never enjoyed the casual sex of the period. Because of this, Marc accepts that Bernard regularly feels the  need to go out at night, to experience vicariously – on the street, in the metro, etc – the closeness with other men that he once enjoyed much more directly: this is a monogamous relationship.

And then Bernard (against the advice of his friend Xavier Laronde) decides to write a play about AIDS, but before it's completed he is diagnosed as having the disease, and can't complete it. Suddenly all his friends – with the exception of Laronde (and apart of course from Marc) find petty excuses not to visit Bernard on his deathbed.

Bernard's mother has previously visited Marc when her son was well, and reveals that she has known all the time that he is gay, that she pointed him towards Proust and works by Gide, although very near the beginning of the novel the reader knows that Bernard has written off imaginary attempts to question his parents (for instance) about the nature of Balzac's character Vautrin. It is almost as if he wanted his parents to disown him for his sexual persuasion. And sure enough the near-blind mother doesn't want to see her son again, although not because of any disgust but because she realises that Bernard is actually happy being a pariah.

When Bernard is diagnosed as having AIDS and close to death, Marc wonders – not with retrospective jealousy, as he's not that kind of person – if his partner had in fact been unfaithful during his night-time journeys. Then  Nicole, the former wife of Robert – the 'friend' of Bernard's who deliberately avoids sitting in the front rows at theatres to miss any (imagined AIDS-related) spittle hitting him, and who for the same reason has his wife sit between him and Bernard at Les Deux Magots – tells Marc she's discovered the truth.

Some years earlier Robert had badly injured Bernard's thigh in an accidental shooting incident, and Bernard as a result had to have two blood transfusions: one of which was contaminated with the AIDS virus. All of Bernard's friends have been deserting him, but this of course 'proves' that he was 'innocent', doesn't it? Marc, Nicole insists, must reveal this evidence to Bernard, as the friends who've deserted him will realise he's not a screw-around gay, won't they?

Well, perhaps, but that is the worst possible scenario, as Marc – unlike Nicole – knows Bernard and how he has always prided himself on his pariah status, knows how the re-demonising of homosexuality has brought a kind of fresh blood into his veins. Marc has also discovered about friendship, about the nature of hypocrisy, and prefers to give his dying lover the lethal injection, and knows that there's just enough poison in the syringe to take them off together at exactly the right time.

La Gloire du paria is an original novel about the nature of friendship and love, and the ugliness of the hypocrisy that so often rears its head when things get difficult.

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