In 1984 Guillaume Dustan drafted a personal ad: ‘In brief: young man, eighteen, hypokhâgne, Lycée Henri-IV, short brown hair, 1.7 metres, part preppy, part 1950s greaser, not very sporty – sensual – funny, neither a party animal nor a bookworm. Now let’s see if the feeling is mutual …’ Written when he still went by the name William Baranès, it anticipates the Guillaume Dustan to come: the pointed mention of his prestigious schooling; the importance of cultivating ‘a look’ (often imported from America); the fear of being consigned to a particular identity or sphere (either the nightclub or the library) that might foreclose some as yet unknown experience. The ad’s prose is also typical of Dustan: blasts of detail; a trashiness underpinned by the desire to describe the world exactly as he lives it; a craving for sex conjured by the trailing ellipses.
‘Autopornobiography’ was the way he later described his first three books – a trio of confessional novels that record all he ingested, smoked, fisted, sucked, fucked (or was fucked by) while partying in Paris in the 1990s. Dustan claimed they contained only one element of fiction: the size of his penis, which he had lengthened by a centimetre. The volumes appeared, one per year, between 1996 and 1998. In My Room is mostly confined to the sexual encounters that took place in his apartment; I’m Going Out Tonight records a single evening spent at La Loco, a nightclub next to the Moulin Rouge; Stronger Than Me explores the Marais, with its back rooms and bars populated by sadomasochists. In this ‘wonderful world’, ‘a lot of fucking means like more than three guys a week.’
Dustan was working as a magistrate when he contracted HIV at the age of 24. The idea of death suddenly consumed him – ‘every thought ceded to it,’ making him feel like ‘a dog’ and ‘a loaded gun’. He began writing as a way to ‘explain himself without imploding’, to become both ‘sain’ (healthy) and ‘saint’ (canonised) – hence his choice of pseudonym, a reference to Saint Dunstan, who was said to have outsmarted the devil. His books are not the sort of autofictional Aids narratives made famous by his more high-minded predecessor Hervé Guibert, whose interest in ‘putrefaction, illness, death’ Dustan disliked. Instead they are about the banality of living and fucking with HIV. The point of gay literature, he felt, was not to concentrate on ‘suffering’ but ‘to roll around on the floor and tell people: you’re not having your asses sufficiently eaten and you’re not doing enough coke.’
This earned Dustan a degree of notoriety in France, even though his books never sold more than a few thousand copies. In the early 2000s, he would often appear on late-night television shows in a leather jacket and neon wig to hold forth about Jean Genet (overwritten), incest (occasionally positive) and bareback sex in the gay community (acceptable between consenting adults of the same HIV status). He riled the French chapter of ACT UP, which accused him of ideological irresponsibility and made him the target of a very public and venomous hate campaign, which lasted until his death from a drug overdose in 2005. ACT UP’s obituary, entitled ‘Forgetting Dustan’, described him as an ‘accomplice of the epidemic’. It’s worth noting that Dustan’s position was not that gay men should pursue infection (‘bug chasing’) but that public health campaigns about compulsory condom use didn’t take into account the fact that condoms make sex less pleasurable. A more pragmatic approach was therefore needed. In the years after Dustan’s death, many of his books fell out of print, but they’ve now been compiled into a hefty complete works by his French publisher, P.O.L, and the first volume has been translated into English.
Dustan, who was born in Paris in 1965, had a childhood of scholarly accomplishment and bookish introversion. His mother was an Ashkenazi interior architect, and his father a Sephardic psychiatrist from whom Dustan inherited his asthma, myopia and looks: short, thin, hirsute. His father was ‘the sun’ and ‘the Law’, and Dustan spent much of his adolescence trying to be like him: ‘conventional, bourgeois, respectable’. At sixteen he sat the highly competitive Concours Général and came first in both French literature and English – in the Paris press he was proclaimed a child prodigy. Once he arrived at the Lycée Henri-IV in 1983, he cut his hair short, dressed in tweed jackets and wrote essays about eros in Proust. But something else was bubbling, his own eros, and success came to be measured by his powers of seduction as well as his academic prowess. Dustan kept on cruising men (and dating women) even after enrolling at the elite École Nationale d’Administration in 1988: ‘I didn’t want to blow my chances. I was made to succeed. To have a beautiful and intelligent wife, with a good name and a good family. Beautiful and intelligent kids. A prestigious job. A tasteful house. So what if I have to lie.’
In My Room recounts what happened a few years later, after he had stopped trying to keep up appearances and impress his father. It is the story of Dustan’s messy break-up with Quentin – a huge, mercurial, motorbike-riding sex maniac who taught Dustan how to look like ‘a bombshell’ (Doc Martens, bomber jacket, contact lenses) and fuck like a ‘pleasure machine’ (the aim was to ‘feel different parts of a dick and ass each time’). With Quentin, everything was organised around chasing down more extreme sensation and everything was permitted: butt plugs, nipple clamps, bringing home another guy for a threesome on the bed they’d had custom-made so Quentin could take Dustan more easily from behind. Because of him, Dustan writes, ‘I found my asshole.’ When he eventually leaves Quentin (who was ‘a little schizophrenic’ and prone to extreme fits of violence) for the less experienced Stéphane, Dustan passes down his newly acquired sexual savoir-faire. ‘He is beginning to understand what fucking is all about.’
Sex became Dustan’s ‘main focus’. It determined the way he trimmed his facial hair (a goatee, to accentuate his mouth) and the style of writing he adopted: frank, indefatigable, stripped back to the bare bones of wanting and doing. ‘I push. I stroke. I smack. I hold. I open. I spread. I go. I come. I delve. I piss. I drool. I spit.’ His pursuit of casual sex can seem excessively self-interested, but Dustan was also deeply embedded in a community. Names of friends, bars and nightclubs conjure a closed circuit where everyone knows everyone and partners are passed from person to person: ‘I have a friend who put his two hands around his boyfriend’s hands inside the ass of some guy who’s well known in the community, who also has both his nipples and his cock pierced; he’s got some impressive equipment that he shares to everyone’s enjoyment.’
By presenting promiscuity as a binding agent in gay culture, Dustan veers close to the phobic fantasy that figures gay men as sexually extreme and disproportionately slutty. All of his books consider the meaning of ‘being gay’ against the backdrop of Aids and the stigmatisation of gay sexuality that it exacerbated. ‘Sex is too often guilty and sad or else hyper-codified and clean … It’s time to take the drama out of it,’ he told an interviewer in 2000. Against the assimilationist voices who used the crisis to push for a more palatable form of homosexuality, Dustan was resolute about the re-gaying of gayness: ‘Gay means homo sexual, thus sexual.’
Dustan and his circle were not oblivious or indifferent to the risks posed by frequent casual sex. He and his partners get tested throughout In my Room, and they are pretty fastidious in their use of condoms (about which Dustan is something of a connoisseur). But he is also honest about the times he has offered up his ass to a ‘big glistening condomless dick’ for a few pumps prior to ejaculation, or fucked someone without a condom (with their consent) but then ‘pulled out and shot off on the floor’. Even when these encounters ‘work out’ and ejaculate is avoided, the feelings of shame that overwhelm Dustan afterwards make his books not so much a glorification of bareback sex but, as Oliver Davis has pointed out, a literary representation of an epidemiological reality. ‘If I stay [in the Marais] I’m going to die,’ Dustan writes. ‘I’m going to end up putting sperm in everyone’s ass and everyone is going to end up doing the same to me … In fact, it’s already happening.’ In 1995 he left Paris on secondment to Tahiti.
In I’m Going Out Tonight, his ethnographic impulse intensifies. It was written on his return to France in early 1997, after he left his job to write full time. The book spans just seven hours, from the moment Dustan arrives at La Loco on a Sunday afternoon, until the DJ plays U2’s ‘Lemon’ – a ‘hetero sound’ that signals the arrival of the straight crowd and the end of the party. In between, he roams the nightclub dressed in a tight blue T-shirt with holes burned into it with a joint. The place is a ‘paradise’, wall to wall topless men, though, crucially, ‘only fags’ – ‘only guys I can look at without any risk of getting the shit beaten out of me.’ Dustan indexes every grope and snog; no sensation is too fleeting, no detail too innocuous.
A picture forms of an underworld with a particular ethical and erotic code. ‘The dancers have the right of way’: there’s no shoving, just hands guiding bodies to turn and allow others to pass by. Cigarettes are held aloft, ‘but once they’re half-smoked’ you have to ‘flip the lit end around to the inside of the palm’ to prevent anyone getting ashed on. Drinks are carried through the crowd with skill and attention. When the torsos come out, shirts are tucked into either side of the wearer’s waistband to flag sexual preference. Downstairs is where the ‘nightlife aficionados’ dance and the hot stuff happens. Here eye contact is everything: ‘One. Dance. Two. Scope out. Three. Look away.’
Dustan captures what Barthes – writing about a different Parisian nightclub, Le Palace, in 1978 – called ‘an entire ebullition of young bodies busy in their unsuspected circuits’, ‘a whole apparatus of sensations destined to make people happy’. But if Barthes’s nightclub is a sacred space ‘which is sufficient unto itself’, Dustan’s has been contaminated by commodity culture. At La Loco, jeans are ‘501s’, beers are ‘Heinekens’, boots are ‘Rangers’ or ‘Caterpillars’ – an effect that is all the more jarring in the original French for demonstrating the creeping Americanisation of everything. ‘It wasn’t like this ten years ago, now Paris is like Los Angeles,’ Dustan tells a friend, as they consider the ‘muscle men’ who dominate the dance floor and whose homogenous ‘look’ he calls the ‘American type’. He isn’t immune to the globalisation of gay culture. He’s always hunting down imported dildos, and he writes – presumably as he speaks – in a hybrid slang borrowed from American English: music is ‘trash’, nipples can be ‘overdeveloppé’ and guys are ‘hardos’, ‘snobs’, ‘alphas’ or ‘semi-bodybuildé’.
All through the trilogy, he appraises potential hook-ups like items on a supermarket shelf: ‘Big, beefy. Black bomber jacket, black T-shirt, black 501s, black slicked back hair. Beautiful face. Big mouth, badly shaven, glittering eyes.’ The commodification of bodies can be uncomfortable, but Dustan’s point is that people make shallow judgments like these all the time. At least he’s honest about his market value: ‘There were a lot of people … Big. Muscled. Handsome. Confident. Thank God, there were ugly guys too. At least uglier than me.’
In this harsh economy of desire, it’s unsurprising that the overwhelming affect of I’m Going Out Tonight is anxiety. (This is also what makes it the most accurate account of clubbing I’ve read.) Dustan worries that at 31 he’s getting too old for this, that nobody fancies him, that his shoes are the wrong size, that he’s going to catch a chill from the air conditioning. He worries about money, having just given up his well-paid job, and frets over the cost of a Corona and a tequila chaser. In the end he just gets the beer, which makes him horribly bloated, ‘belly perpendicular to my pecs’. And then there’s a series of melodramatic toilet sagas: no loo roll, no soap, no free cubicle. ‘I wait, concentrating on my sphincter muscles which can barely hold on, and then something settles inside, and I feel OK.’ (‘Toilets,’ he once said in an interview, ‘are extremely important because they’re a place where you have to think about your body.’)
Relief from anxiety comes in the form of an ecstasy pill, which Dustan procures from a friend by the bar for a hundred francs. As he comes up, there’s a shift in syntactic gears: ‘OK, so now I’m hot, I am feeling good, so I take off my shirt and I play with my body. Boom, boom, boom, I roll my arms to the beat.’ Drugs return Dustan to the realm of pure sensation:
I don’t think
I don’t think about Vincent and how the condom broke last year, how there was blood, and how three months later he tested positive.
I don’t think about how I’ve been waiting to die for seven years.
In this euphoric present, everything seems like a good idea and an absolute imperative: smoking and chewing gum at the same time, strutting around ‘like Linda Evangelista’ or sitting down on an empty sofa and shutting his eyes. Right after he does this, the reader is presented with twelve blank pages: pure unthought.
I’m Going Out Tonight is more accomplished than Dustan’s first novel, but it didn’t make him any money. To help make ends meet, he pitched the publishing house Balland a series of ‘books for fags’ to be called ‘Le Rayon Gay’ – an allusion to the LGBTQ+ sections in British and American bookshops, which didn’t exist in France (where the acknowledgment of difference remained at odds with the republican ideal of universalism). The proposal was accepted and Dustan was appointed the series editor; he commissioned translations of Dennis Cooper, Eve Ensler and Paul B. Preciado, as well as original fiction and erotica by French writers.
The success of the series gave Dustan the boost he needed to finish the final volume in his trilogy, Stronger Than Me, an account of his sadomasochistic experiences that rewrites In My Room as a phenomenology of submission and domination. The first time he gets anally fisted by a guy he meets in the street, ‘I couldn’t think about anything other than this feeling of fullness that no one had ever talked to me about. I was so hard. Hard, hard, hard, hard.’ There’s the ‘beautiful leather pussycat’ from a fetish bar who’s into drool play, then a pair of middle-aged guys whom he joins for a scat party. Easily the most challenging episode (for both Dustan and the reader) takes the form of a BDSM ‘training session’ in Beaugrenelle that seemingly lasts for hours. Playing the submissive, he is whipped and urinated on, his chest shaved and his penis covered in molten candle wax that leaves his urethra burned. What is incredible about this scene is the ordinariness with which it’s recounted – a plainness and immediacy Dustan modelled on the ‘bad French’ of his hero Marguerite Duras. ‘I find [literature] old-fashioned. I find it snobbish. I find it right-wing, a prisoner to the aristocratic values on which it was founded,’ he said. What he loved about Duras was that she knew literature wasn’t about ‘writing well’ but about ‘writing life’.
The book has the feeling of a Bildungsroman – achieved through Dustan’s encounters with a series of teacher figures – but he undergoes something more like a deformation: the shedding of the social and sexual mores that had once bound his ego into the solid form of a bourgeois lawyer. Any residual bad feelings about wanting gay sex – the nausea he felt after cruising at sixteen – slowly dissipate as he propels himself into increasingly abased experiences that induce unimaginably intense pleasures. ‘I was the Human Torch. I was The Thing. I was Fantastic,’ he writes after a threesome during which he had ‘one dick in the ass, one dick in the mouth’, as though he were ‘the ham in the sandwich’. Like drugs, sex undoes the self.
Dustan pushed this project of unselving further in the years and books that followed. The title of his next cycle, ‘Bordelmonstrepartout’ (blending ‘brothel’, ‘monster’ and ‘everywhere’), hints at the path he was careening down. The first two volumes – Nicolas Pages (1999) and the immodestly titled Divine Genius (2001) – again centre on his life, but are more formally experimental, interweaving stream-of-consciousness with journalistic articles, political tracts, legal arguments, excerpts from interviews, transcriptions of his grandmother’s diary, a sitcom treatment about his alter-ego, ‘Miss Psiggy’, and a pitch for an imaginary literary magazine called La Revue chic. Dustan won the Prix de Flore for Nicolas Pages, and the prize money fuelled his partying. His enmity with ACT UP began to harden into an unflinching defence of freedom. Provocation became a habit and a form of paranoia, a way of keeping ahead of the recriminations that would inevitably be aimed at him. (In one TV interview he endorsed eugenics on the basis that it could boost the global population’s intelligence and beauty.)
When Le Rayon Gay ceased operations in 2001, things started to come undone. His long-time editor refused to work on LXiR (2002), the final volume in his second trilogy, convinced it was unreadable. The book branches into queer theory and refines Dustan’s liberal individualism – freedom restricted only by the principle that others shouldn’t be harmed. But it was written with such experimental abandon (swapping the letter ‘s’ for ‘$’ and the relative pronoun ‘que’ for ‘queue’, meaning ‘dick’) that hardly anyone bothered to review it, let alone buy it. Feeling overlooked by the literary world and sidelined by the gay community, he slipped into depression. ‘I consider myself totally under-recognised as an author. Unknown, unseen, misrepresented, misunderstood. I’m forced to play the clown because no one has written that I’m a great writer.’ There was a series of autobiographical films and two new book projects, but all of them were doomed by a despair no amount of dope or ecstasy could lift. In 2003, he briefly returned to his role as magistrate.
When Dustan was found dead in his studio apartment in October 2005, a few weeks before his fortieth birthday, no one knew how long he had been there. The postmortem found a toxic level of antidepressants in his system and the death was ruled an accidental overdose. It was an uncharacteristically ambiguous way for him to die. According to Dustan’s biographer, Raffaël Enault, it wasn’t clear to his close friends and family how anyone could accidentally consume a whole packet of antidepressants, and they later found a page of scrawled notes in his diary that seemed to suggest the accident was suicide. ‘Kisses’ were to go to his boyfriend and ‘the others’, everything in the apartment was to be distributed among those who needed it. ‘Too many troubles not enough etc’, Dustan wrote in big, wobbly capitals underneath the circled heading ‘derniers maux’, a bit of wordplay announcing that his death would be a final act of badness and that these would be the last words (‘derniers mots’) he would ever write.
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