6 January 2016

Tony Duvert: Quand mourut Jonathan (1978)

In an earlier post I mentioned L. P. Hartley's famous phrase 'The past is a different country' in relation to Gilles Sebhan's first biography of Tony Duvert, and indeed the same expression can be applied to Duvert's novel Quand Jonathan mourut. All kinds of sexually liberated ideas sprung from the (almost) anything-goes ethos of the late sixties and seventies, and indeed much of this spirit remains, which is a great advantage: who, for instance, would want to return to the closeted sexual silence of the previous years when masturbation was considered both harmful and even deviant, when it was necessity for a couple to flash a ring to stay at a hotel, when homosexuality was illegal, etc?

During the supposed sexual revolution of this era experiment was the norm, as long as – and this is vital to a historical understanding of Duvert – no one was harmed or persuaded in any way into doing anything against their wishes in the process. So, erm, as children are undoubtedly sexual beings then what's wrong with adults having  consensual sex with them? This is the basic idea behind Quand mourut Jonathan and indeed behind, it seems, much of Duvert's work.

This is not Lolita, and there are not even any remotely grey areas here. In a few words, the artist Jonathan is entrusted during the summer months to look after Serge, an eight-year-old child Jonathan has known since he was six going on seven, and with whom he has had certain forms of totally consenting sex. What we have rather briefly described in the book are the activities between child and adult when the child was eight and ten, and when the man was in his twenties. Serge's mother Barbara senses that there's something not quite right about Jonathan's relationship with Serge, and censors any more stays of her son with the man. End of story really.

But in between, there is the fact that Serge has – particularly as an eight-year-old and a ten-year-old – enjoyed having a limited sexual relationship with Jonathan, particularly the oral and anal sex when he was ten years old. Jonathan, aware that he can be imprisoned for up to ten years for such behaviour, realises that the relationship is over when he understands Barbara's suspicions about the nature of the relationship.

The real problem is that Jonathan doesn't appreciate that he's done anything wrong, sees child sexuality as a normal occurrence that adults have no wrong in indulging in, and sees other children he's met as 'abnormal' when he's 'innocently' exposed himself to them and fled from him on seeing their reaction. But you see, it's adults who have the real problem: they see this as child abuse.

Umm. Yes, they certainly do. As a view into the world of a child, and to which in some respects Duvert belonged, this is an interesting if not valuable novel, although as an example of adult behaviour it is of course reprehensible. But doesn't it show us the workings of the mind of a paedophile, doesn't it have merit because of that? Well, yes but...

Tony Duvert's experimental novel Paysage de fantaisie won the Prix Médicis in 1973. I'll be reading and passing judgement on this in due course.

My other post on Tony Duvert:

Gilles Sebhan: Tony Duvert: L'enfant silencieux

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