‘Dares to be intellectual,’ breathed the Guardian’s review of Patricia Duncker’s first novel, Hallucinating Foucault. But co-opting the defenceless Michel Foucault into a romanticised fantasy about the Reader does not guarantee a novel’s intellectuality. The story of the timid Cambridge student who falls in love with the subject of his thesis – French writer Paul Michel, a malign blend of Dany Cohn-Bendit and Guy Hocquenghem – and carries him off from an asylum, struck me above all as daring to be improbable. Not because this couldn’t happen, nor because of any objection to the post-psychological and post-realist, but because the most artificial kinds of writing usually aim at coherence on some non-psychological, non-realist level, whether emotional, formal or imaginative. Or even intellectual. But here some notions are launched only to stagnate in repetition, while the rest are noisily hammered into shape for our entertainment. Foucault, for instance, stars as Michel’s imaginary interlocutor and ideal reader, antagonist and alter ego; his death may have precipitated Michel’s breakdown. But this promising idea is continually restated rather than developed, and has no significance beyond itself.
The book created a manner all its own in the articulation of incompatible worlds and styles. The student’s quest-turns out to be remote-controlled by his other lover, a woman who formed a mystic bond with Michel in childhood. The story is relayed in a no-nonsense, un-French first person that rubs against the excerpts from Michel’s tormented writing and his own fits of self-importance. Moments of fine physical observation sit awkwardly in a ludicrous account of how the institutional world works, while a very Victorian use of coincidence, magic and destiny does a measure of spiritual duty, as well as rounding off the plot.
Some of the same contradictory elements reappear in Duncker’s present collection of stories. The tone is foreshadowed in a remarkable (auto) biographical document enclosed with the proof copy of the book.
She was born and grew up in Jamaica before being sent to school in England in her teens, where she lost her accent and felt cold. Patricia has been married twice, once to an academic, and once to a Portuguese revolutionary. She has also been a radical, separatist lesbian. When she was 33, Patricia was diagnosed as having cancer and was given weeks to live but, following surgery, made a full recovery. Patricia feels most at home on the road in her bright red, left-hand-drive Renault van.
Monsieur Shoushana’s Lemon Trees also combines the throwaway and the portentous; the plots hesitate, as the novel did, between the mundane, the deep and the spooky. But the only ‘intellectual’ reference is to Monique Wittig, and one theme, which barely lurked in the novel, dominates and unifies the stories: feminism, often extended into an uncompromising lesbian politics.
In ‘Death before Dishonour’, a husband shadows his wife because he believes she is having an affair (she’s been coming home late, and won’t make love with the light on). He sees her leave a building with much hand-kissing from a dwarfish man, and confronts her at home. She triumphantly reveals a tattoo of dagger and rose: ‘I felt dishonoured every time you touched me. I shall never let you touch me again.’ That’s about as good as heterosexual relations get in this book. In ‘The Crew from M6’ they are given even shorter shrift. A TV crew films a lesbian household in the French countryside, aiming to show how human they really are – ‘so that they don’t frighten and disturb ordinary people.’ The three women won’t be normalised, however, and bluntly declare their enmity towards men and their distrust of women who play the game, collabos as they call them. The threesome can be horribly charming, too, performing in a smooth, bonded unison that impresses and terrifies the collabo narrator. A ghost woman with a hearse hovers in the background. Sure enough, the lesbians kill off the treacherous male TV director – who, despite assurances to the contrary, was secretly intending to dilute the material – by supernatural means. His girlfriend concludes: ‘I ill keep his promise to those women. They will see themselves in all their uncanny difference. I will edit the film.’
I may be ill-placed to judge, but I have a problem with this story’s assumptions. Is everyone that scared of gay women? The opinions expressed to camera by these specimens seem conventional enough, yet they’re presented as shock-horror. Brigitte, for instance, understandably miffed when the narrator calls heterosexuality ‘natural’, retorts: ‘People only defend something as natural when all other rational argument has failed. If something simply exists in nature, as women’s love for women always has done, is it natural? You tell me.’ The idiot-narrator glosses: ‘This discussion should have shaken the camera. But Jean-Michel and Sébastien said nothing whatsoever.’ Moments like this mark a puzzling lurch between modernity and anachronism, a bit like the ‘slippage of time’ which befuddles the narrator when the ghosts appear. While she discovers that her watch has lost only a few minutes, the reader seems to have gone back decades. If the rupture is intentional, it’s hard to see what the intention is.
The theme of lesbian difference is handled more ironically in ‘Betrayal’, a grim, funny anecdote about the mismanagement of jealousy in a closed world. Yet here, too, drama undermines what had seemed a good policy of dryness. The narrator’s complaint about there being too few lesbians for comfort quickly jumps from the realm of inconvenience – ‘Your ex-lover is your present lover’s ex-lover but one, which is when she was with you’ – to that of metaphysics: ‘The silk twist that binds us is unbreakable, invisible, eternal. It is like God’s love: theoretical, ever-present and stifling.’ Unsure whether passages like this might not be for members only, I often felt like an intruder reading the book. There is a relish in menace, extra-lovingly sharpened in ‘The Woman Alone’ (‘I am the woman who does your will. I am the woman who kills’), that can only make some readers feel smug and others threatened, a dubious outcome in either case. It is also the staple of an older feminist fiction: women’s violence as cold or fiery, but always liberating. In fact there is a lot of disconcerting déjà-lu here, from elaborate revenges on men whose worst sin is to be obtuse, to outbreaks of primal dancing or screaming. Two stories, written six years apart, give us a woman coming out of an academic interview, bursting into tears, ripping off her ladylike outfit and experiencing a revelation. One dances in her Doc Martens with what seems to be an angelic alter ego in the Métro, the other indulges in the ‘long, exhilarating, joyous shouts which only come to the women who take off their stockings and high heels’. Slippage of time again: one might have been fired up by this in the Seventies, but now the issues of feminism have grown differently complex.
In Hallucinating Foucault, the romantic notion of the lonely, misunderstood genius is tied into Paul Michel’s homosexuality. The narrator is in awe of his hero’s steely espousal of the outlaw life: ‘His perspectives ... were always those of an outsider, a man who has invested nothing and therefore has nothing to lose.’ This attitude brings Michel into conflict with gay groups campaigning for entry into the forgiving arms of society, since ‘to be unnatural, he argued, was to be civilised, to stake one’s claim to an intellectual self-consciousness which was the only foundation for making art.’ Michel is thus a creature apart, condemned to ‘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.’ The same theme, to do with more or less invisible aliens, people separate from and superior to the herd, is emphasised throughout the stories. As a condition of gayness it’s restated in almost identical terms in ‘The Crew’: ‘these women ... who walk through one world while seeing another’, and colours ‘The Stations of the Cross’, ‘Betrayal’ and ‘James Miranda Barry’, the tale of a real-life solitary 19th-century lesbian disguised as a medical officer. Elsewhere we find similar mole-like Others who are not homosexual: stalking us all in ‘The Woman Alone’, feared like a subversive virus by the rulers of a gynophobic theocracy in ‘The Storm’, and supplying the main subject of the most seductive piece in the book, a novella called ‘The Arrival Matters’.
The story kicks off in a cheerfully normal voice, that of an elderly person lounging on the Riviera in the company of an 11-year-old. All is sandcastles and waiters and darkened hotel rooms after lunch; the sympathetic relationship between the commanding child and her teasing, indulgent guardian is established at a leisurely pace. But then small discordancies appear. The guardian has very long white hair, worn loose, and the power of making colours audible. After a while – and here’s the thrill, the tour de force – we realise we do not know what sex the guardian is. And we never find out, though I caught myself scrutinising the text for clues as though it were unauthored, like a snapshot. The thing has jowls; compares itself to a witch in Macbeth; wears cravats and cufflinks, and has been in love with both a man and a woman: all inconclusive. Learning to accept this being as a person, with gaps in the place of gender labels, brings an awareness of how much we fill in and visualise in sexual terms when reading fiction. It also makes our discovery that he/she belongs yet again to some special superior, martyred species of ‘ambassador’ far more gripping than it would be if this were simply an allegory about being gay. These beings, it transpires, can decide the moment of their death and our narrator is living his/her last days. A speech delivered in flashback by Cynthia, a fellow member of the species, brings to mind Duncker’s troubling view of a gay consciousness crucified between arrogance and self-pity:
We are no different from the others, yet we are absolutely separate. We see different things, different patterns, different worlds ... They hear rumours about us, gossip, myths, fairy tales. Mostly, they fear us. They fear difference, strangeness, the ones who are other than themselves ... Their imaginations transform us into priests, or into gods. But sometimes they will regard us as monsters, as demons. They will seek our lives ... You must find your lovers only amongst ourselves. They are a people to be managed, but they are never to be trusted.
Not all ‘ambassadors’ are sexless: Cynthia is a rich, idle woman, and the narrator’s male love is craggily masculine. Is the message about the genderless ness that the I-figure, oneself, feels from within? It’s all a mystery from beginning to end, but told with such charm and fluidity that the unfathomable plot, with its loose ends and revelations withheld, is no barrier to conviction.
In the character of an old person choosing to die, Duncker gives free rein to a nostalgia for some more gracious and by implication morally precious way of life, which appears in several of her stories in the form of a Mercedes with walnut trim or a cookbook-cover rustic spread. Unexpectedly benign in spirit, ‘The Arrival Matters’ also leaves a sharper impression than most of the lapel-grabbers in the book. Elements which elsewhere prove confusing or inconsequential are choreographed with enough assurance to make something memorable as well as uncanny.