2 January 2016

Raymond Guérin: Zobain (1936); repr. Finitude 2015

I'll begin by translating the back cover of this Finitude re-edition of the rather obscure writer Raymond Guérin's bizarrely titled Zobain:

'Zobain has been married for four years. He loves his wife, his wife loves him. They are young, full of hopes, united by the same taste for beauty, for art, for literature.

'Zobain has been married for fours years, and that's where the story takes off. His wife is wasting away, loses her appetite, the doctor is involved. Rest, much rest. Illness is spoken of, depression, specialised establishments. A procession of white coats.

'Zobain has been married for four years, and his wife is still a virgin...

'Zobain is Raymond Guérin's first novel, published in 1936. Already the writer had a penchant for "writing everything", even if it disturbed. He describes his shipwreck of a marriage in minute detail and with touching sincerity, down to the last detail:

"Zobain is an autobiographical story, from which I have drawn entirely from my life.'"

The above paragraph is in part the way Guérin presented his manuscript to Jean Paulhan, adding that he had written 'without falsifying a single episode, nor a date, nor a place'. Well, some of the places are just given capital letters, and as for some of the dates, Thierry Boizet, the editor of this slightly amplified edition, shows by some of Guérin's wife Denyse's letters that there are some discrepancies in what the couple say. In fact, according to the letters of Denyse (née Montauriol), there are a great number of ways in which Guérin's (or Zobain's to be exact) account of things differs from his wife's.

But first, to that odd name: Zobain. Gallimard didn't like it and wanted the novel to have a different title, although Guérin insisted that it would be Zobain or it wouldn't be at all. So there (or here) is it. 'Zobain' was a nickname Guérin had back in his lycée days, when he given to saying 'Je vais au bain', emphasising the liaison and in so doing making the end sound like 'Zobain'. And it surely can't be a coincidence that zob is also a slang for 'cock' as in 'dick': the title of the book contains the very thing that is missing here.

The first hundred pages of this 255-page book might well put many people off as they are self-obsessed, introspective to a painful degree, psychologising, intellectualising, and although the subject is ostensibly Zobain's wife it isn't really because it more concerns the narrator's feelings towards his wife's situation, her (supposed) illness. Which is never actually named by Zobain in this one-sided epistolary novel in which the protagonist writes to an unnamed male friend whose voice is only (briefly) heard after the letters have all been written, after the divorce.

Quite early in the book though, the reader must surely have noticed that there's something seriously wrong: for her health he's sent his wife to a villa for a few months, and then the doctor thinks he can cure her but Zobain must come as soon as possible, which he does, and his wife is obviously desperate for sex, welcomes him with open arms and....he's repulsed by the coarseness and the ugliness of her desires: this, er, coming after a chaste marriage of nearly four years.

This doesn't sound like Zobain's led us to believe, but later he tells the reader that she's frigid: Zobain on the doctor on the subject of his wife: 'He had never seen a woman so ashamed of her sex. Anything to do with it horrified her. He couldn't manage to reason with her'. So it's of course the wife's fault that they're both in marital hell. And having her widowed mother living with them has made things worse.

When we look at the letters at the end of the book though, there are fifteen pages in a one-letter babble in which Zobain, in denial of what's happened to the relationship, lays into his wife's mother, but a few short and very clear letters from Denyse as to why the marriage has failed: he's not made a 'woman' of her, and as a result this non-woman – originally having no mental or physical problems – has been forced to lead what she calls an 'abnormal life'.

Haven't both parties been to blame though? I don't think so. And just take a look at the cover: this is definitely something of a Hamlet figure, thinking too precisely on the (non-)event, maybe even thinking 'to be or not to be', but only in an existential sense as opposed to a physical one: his wife's the one who's attempted suicide at least twice.

This is a fascinating book which deserves to be carefully read.

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