interview by DONATIEN GRUAU
portraits by GIASCO BERTOLI
PIERRE GUYOTAT is a cult writer from the French literary avant-garde of the 1960s. His Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers (1967) and Eden Eden Eden (1970) are masterpieces of lexical creativity. In books about the Algerian War and the world of prostitution Guyotat examines the deep fissures caused by war and homoeroticism with a dense literary style that goes beyond standard French grammar and syntax, by introducing ellipses, neologisms, and aural transliterations evocative of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Guyotat’s books remain fresh today, standing as they do above the effusion of narcissism.
DONATIEN GRUAU — In your autobiography, FORMATION (2007), you wrote that you decided to become a writer at 14. How did that happen?
PIERRE GUYOTAT — I don’t really know. But I remember being inspired after reading Rimbaud, his Bateau ivre, which is in a style like Victor Hugo’s La tristesse d’Olympio or of Corneille. There’s great rhetorical scope — and the idea of having a river speak dates back to ancient Latin poetry. Rimbaud was very Latin. Like him, I studied Latin verse.
DONATIEN GRUAU — You’ve also said you used to want to be a painter?
PIERRE GUYOTAT — I started out as a painter. When I was eight or nine, Schönberg, Gide, and Dufy were all still alive. My ambition as a painter was quite classical. I painted indoors and outdoors, on riverbanks, in winter in the snow. I painted furniture, gardens. My masters were Picasso and Matisse. These painters were still alive. Matisse’s La danse, Baigneuses à la tortue, seemed more modern than Picasso, because they had a touch of coarseness and barbarism. I’m not one to say Picasso was the one god of art. To me he was a Spanish variation. I was fascinated by the circus figures in Picasso’s paintings, and the way he represented the misery of prostitution in a manner similar to that of Toulouse-Lautrec. Those street performers probably had to do more than circus work to survive. What struck me with Matisse was the urgency of his meaning. I thought that he actually deformed faces more than Picasso did. Facing these masters, I realized I did not have the pictoral means to create that kind of tension. I was deeply committed to painting, and I was always terribly unhappy if I ruined a gouache: obviously this was worrisome for a child. And this was probably when my mother began to worry about me. But they helped me more as a writer than as a painter. In 1967, the writer Michel Leiris gave Picasso my book, Tombeau pour cinq cent mille soldats [Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers].
DONATIEN GRUAU — Why did you gave up painting for writing?
PIERRE GUYOTAT — I didn’t have to go to school for it. I wrote quite well. I never felt forced in any way. And I liked the two mainstays of French: Latin and Greek. So I decided to follow my intuitions developing thoughts into a structure.
DONATIEN GRUAU — Did you have a master?
PIERRE GUYOTAT — My teachers were pleased with how well I translated from Latin and Greek, but I did not have a master who praised these precocious gifts. I would have liked to have had a mentor, but I never met an adult who could have been one. When I liked a writer or an artist, I would immediately read his or her biography. Nothing scares an established artist more than a younger talent. And extreme youth is such a strange moment: you are at once your most reckless and very hesitant. I was so young — just beginning to grow up — but I was already my own master. I could already sense my destiny. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about consciousness, morality, specificity, and ontology. Morality is at one with reality, and it rules the intellect and controls abstract ideas. There is a strong, very present, and innate sense of morality that has little to do with education — a conscience so powerful it becomes the master of all thought and seeks to discover the absolute limits of the self, one that is at the heart of one’s destiny. My mother helped because she was fully aware of where I was going. However, the most important, the most ambiguous moment happens when an essay written for a teacher is transformed into literature.
DONATIEN GRUAU — Your first novel, SUR UN CHEVAL (1961), was published when you were only 20. How did that happen? How was it received?
PIERRE GUYOTAT — I’d written poetry when I was 14 and some prose when I was 15 and 16. In 1958-1959 I wrote a piece about my childhood pecadilloes, what you might call my petty crimes, which is in the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and which has not been published. I sent it to Jean Cayrol, a well-known writer who directed the “Ecrire” [Writings] collection at Seuil, where he published exclusively first-time writers, among them Philippe Sollers, Régis Debray, and Denis Roche. He was the first to edit my work. One special thing about him: he’d been a member of the Resistance and a survivor of the concentration camp, Mauthausen. He wrote Lazarian literature, the literature of the resuscitated. He wrote the script for Alain Resnais’ extraordinary film, Nuit et brouillard. I sent him my piece and then a few days later he invited me to come see him. He said, “You’re a writer.” When a renowned writer recognizes you as one of his own, all of a sudden life opens up. He suggested a few little changes to the text, which consisted of short scenes in the spirit of the childhood scenes in Formation. But then in the spring of 1960 I wrote Sur un cheval, which was a more organized but toxic, virulent piece, inspired by the young, fleshy, delicious-looking girlfriend of a friend of mine. I sent it to Jean Cayrol and got a publishing contract when I was in the military. My father demanded not only that I publish it under a pseudonym, but that I take out certain things. So I used the pseudonym Donalbain, the name of one of the king’s son in Macbeth. The choice was symbolically motivated, since Shakespeare was one of my gods.
DONATIEN GRUAU — At 20, you were in the French Army and you were sent to Algeria. Can you talk about that time and its impact on your life?
PIERRE GUYOTAT — If I had used my family connections I might have been able to get out of doing military service, although not without some difficulty. I would have escaped this war that no one really escaped. It was obligatory for a young man of 20: four months of training, then bored in the Army for two years, corrupting yourself, risking losing your life in Algeria, having to take the life of someone else. At the time I was sure I’d die before the age of 30. It was a romantic illusion that I would accomplish everything by then. I’d known that the situation in Algeria was quite complex, a national anti-colonial revolt. What defines legitimacy? My Gaullist family had talked about it since I was 14. It seemed an impossible and inescapable problem. The period from 1954 to 1959 was one of the most political times of my life. It included the Hungarian revolt of 1956, the battle of Algiers in 1957, and the threat of communism, which nobody wanted.
DONATIEN GRUAU — What was your political position when you were in the military?
PIERRE GUYOTAT — I was very anti-military, but I had extremely mixed feelings: a strong Christian overlay but without being a Marxist. I knew about the atrocities committed against the FLN [the Algerian National Liberation Front], so the army represented maximum authority of the stupidest kind. Its function went against my sense of logic. For example, I refused to “present arms” because I thought it was an absurd gesture. Worse for me, the only authority I accepted was of an interior kind. Adults had to prove their worth before I would obey them. What struck me in Algeria was the poverty, the misery of the war, the tragedies and missed connections. I saw the beauty of French Algeria and was fascinated by the European way of life in Algeria. I also saw the racism, destitution, and tragedy of the war, which was the reason I was arrested and spent time in jail. I never wanted to desert. You’d have to be an ideologue to think you can break away from your comrades. Camaraderie is what keeps wars going.
DONATIEN GRUAU — Your second novel, ASHBY (1963), was published when you returned to France. This was the time of the Nouvelle Vague. What was your experience of that time?
PIERRE GUYOTAT — When I returned to France I needed to earn a living. So in 1964 I began working for France-Observateur, which a few months later became Le Nouvel Observateur. I watched the transition from the old regime to the new. I was in charge of the cultural pages, and I quite enjoyed it. It was still old-style journalism. I would deliver my articles in person to the printer of the sports newspaper, L’Équipe. There were some great journalists and I was by far the youngest. I also discovered cinema at that time, and I would go to the Cinémathèque every night and see three films back to back. I met many of the directors that Henri Langlois brought in, like Buñuel, Dreyer, and Hitchcock.
DONATIEN GRUAU — Between Ashby and TOMBEAU POUR CINQ CENT MILLE SOLDATS (1967) [Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers] — your first big book — you became an avant-garde writer in inspiration, style, and form.
PIERRE GUYOTAT — No, not so much. It’s almost the same book. In Tombeau there are bits that refer back to Ashby. It’s just that I moved between the two. It was in the interior of the book that I evolved. When you live with a piece of fiction for a long time the problem arises of staying true to the beginning while incorporating new experiences during the process of writing and of finishing it. The Second World War and the war in Algeria are in Tombeau. The reason for this was partly biographical. I come from a family of Resistance fighters. This family connection was very important to me. I saw very early photos of the death camps. With Tombeau I wanted to write a great book, throwing in everything of what was going on in myself and in the world. The rough draft was ready at the end of 1962. I finished it in late 1965 and continued to edit it until late 1966. It’s filled with rather juvenile violence, but of a type that was real in violent, battered Europe.
DONATIEN GRUAU — During May 1968 you were involved with Philippe Sollers and the Tel Quel group. How did you become friends with Sollers?
PIERRE GUYOTAT — The Tel Quel group was a young movement, and very much in line with what I was thinking. In 1961, back from the war in Algeria, I was at a cocktail party for Philippe Sollers at the publishing house Seuil. He’d just won the Prix Médicis. Some Leftist Catholics interrogated me about torture. I said that it was not a common practice. It did happen, but I’d never witnessed scenes of torture. But I was shocked by many other things, among them the games played with the skulls of the dead. I was still immersed in Greek theatre, thinking about what was forbidden in Sophocles’ Antigone, in which a cadaver is played with and disrespected. I saw Sollers again in 1965, at l’Observateur. I’d read his book, Drame (Event), and we’d agreed to meet for an interview, which never took place. Instead, we spent the afternoon talking about music. Then I saw him again in 1968. That was the beginning of a friendship that still exists. As for Tel Quel, I was not particularly welcome, to say the least. My experience was different. I needed fiction. They didn’t feel that there was a great deal to do. I was interested in re-introducing the epic form into fiction. So I felt quite alone at that time. I was also dealing with the strangeness of coming back from the war, which women understand more than men. I needed to forget it, to rid myself of it. So I wrote Tombeau, which included things you could not know if you had not lived through a war.
DONATIEN GRUAU — EDEN EDEN EDEN (1970). Now a legendary book, it was once banned because of its violence and exaggerated sexuality. Did you want the book to be so subversive?
PIERRE GUYOTAT — Eden, Eden, Eden was banned for moral reasons. As Maurice Blanchot rightly pointed out, it was “too strong.” I wanted to get away from the lyricism and the epic nature of Tombeau and to work with a clear story line. It was a departure from idealism. I needed to use words differently and to find words that harkened back to ancient poets. There are three parts to the book: first, the war and the rape; then the bordello; and finally the desert. This last part is the strongest, and yet it is forgotten. The book was not read wisely. Everyone remembered the wild sexuality, but often they forgot to read the big sequence at the end, the scene where the young man approaches the woman. I was fully aware that I’d written something new. It spoke clearly about my preoccupations at that time: my rejection of idealism and my quest for absolute materialism, which would lead to an intense material poetry, beyond simply using poetic words. The book was both enormously admired and enormously repudiated. But it helped to advance some things. The objective was clear: to get as close as possible to a nearly scientific reality. Ancient elders asked themselves the same questions. Latin literature is hardly uniform, but in The Aeneid a great deal of information is concentrated into a single verse. In Eden, Eden, Eden there is a certain freedom throughout.
DONATIEN GRUAU — The book is famous for having three prefaces — by Roland Barthes, Philippe Sollers, and Michel Leiris. That was unusual.
PIERRE GUYOTAT — How the book was published is also an interesting story. First it was rejected, because it was not in the same style as Tombeau. Then Michel Leiris put his foot down and it was published. As for the triple preface, it was the editor who decided that, in order to prevent its censure. It was a way to preserve the text. In fact, it was supposed to have a quadruple preface. Michel Foucault also wrote something, but they saved that for l’Observateur.
DONATIEN GRUAU — Prostitutes are important in your work — so much so that you actually champion them in PROSTITUTION (1970). What’s your fascination with them?
PIERRE GUYOTAT — Firstly, it’s a political point of view. In the ’70s I wanted to be an activist, but in a different way. I’ve never had a personal taste for prostitution. Selling your body in civilian life is a terrible profanation. It’s the social action that interests me. The spectacle in the street is both enticing and frightening.
DONATIEN GRUAU — Your play BOND EN AVANT (1973)) was staged in La Rochelle. Why did you turn to the theater?
PIERRE GUYOTAT — After Eden I wanted to write a super – Eden. 1972-1973 was a splendid time socially. But for me it was the darkest period in my life, both morally and romantically. I was facing solitude, and separating from the Tel Quel movement, and once more I felt as if I were returning from a war — the feeling of being different mixed with a sort of melancholia. When I’d go to conferences I felt surrounded by those I referred to as “the superb.” I was in a dramatic affair, living with a woman. I was also experiencing a sharp rise in sexuality in both directions. I felt I had to get stuff “out” in a more imperative sense. I began to feel the urgency to communicate the language of my texts. I wanted to write a “basic text,” which was to be the title of the next book. I wrote a few lines for that and then realized it wasn’t feasible. So I turned to theater. The commissioning of the play pushed that along. But Bond en avant was written in a state of terrible pain.
DONATIEN GRUAU — Before LE LIVRE (1984), you’d never gone so far in terms of your inventiveness with language. How do you explain it?
PIERRE GUYOTAT — That’s true — I went pretty far. Even the text at the end of Prostitution  is quite radical in its shape and voice. The texts from the period must be read aloud in order to hear the dread and the fear of history at work. In fact, I’m now working on pieces from that period, starting in the 1970s.
DONATIEN GRUAU — In the early ’80s, when you were clinically depressed, you wrote HISTOIRES DE SAMORO MACHEL (1982), but it was never published. Why is that?
PIERRE GUYOTAT — That book is very dear to me. Yes, it was written during my depression between 1980 and 1982. I needed to rest after Le Livre, which had required a great deal of concentration. Samora Machel was a real African revolutionary from Mozambique, and also the name given to the most attractive whore in a brothel from the period of 1979-1980. The face of the long-haired Samora Machel stayed with me like a reproach. My mental state was that of someone hovering in that intermediate zone between life and non-life, creating a gradual falling down where it was not in the least important to know if I’d live or die. It was as if my mind — normally present in my body — found itself in a sort of liquid bath. When I was in that state Samora Machel seemed to be kind and friendly, but still reproachful. I invented a very free, very imaginary brothel for the book. By then, though, I’d gone too far. No one would give me a serious opinion of what I was writing, which was entirely new for me. I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing. My depression almost got the better of me. But what I was doing in language did not resemble anything I’d been done before — a language at a final stage of consecration, and at the end of grandeur.
DONATIEN GRUAU — WANTED FEMALE (1988). In 1968 one of your poems was illustrated by the Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam. And in 1988 you worked with the painter Sam Francis. What’s your affinity for the visual arts?
PIERRE GUYOTAT — I was visiting Sam Francis in California. During the months I stayed at his house he painted using my body. He had me lie down on my back on a canvas. Then he painted the form of a cross. The cross was me. He thought I had an interesting shape. Apparently it didn’t look French. Then I saw this magnificent girl running on the beach in Santa Monica, undoubtedly high out of her mind. I wrote a text there, which was published in 41 of Francis’s prints. I was the one who found the title, Wanted Female, which has been misunderstood in France, although the meaning is very clear.
DONATIEN GRUAU — Later, you became gravely ill, an experience you speak of in your book, COMA (2006), which marked your return. Tell me about that.
PIERRE GUYOTAT — Coma was written in the present tense and, unlike Le Livre, it was in normal French, not in my own idiom. During my illness the “I” in me left, it disappeared. I could say my name, but I no longer had any internal coherence. I was physically broken and weak. It was the worst of all defeats. I felt scattered and feeble. This book evokes that experience.
DONATIEN GRUAU — In reading your last books, from Coma , to Formation , to L’ARRIÈRE FOND (2010), I get the impression you’ve come back to the French language — after having created your own. Does that make sense?
PIERRE GUYOTAT — Coma was an unusual text for me. Its language was closer to normal. Formation continued along in the same path. But I’m indeed returning to a fresh language in my idiom, in a book entitled Le Labyrinthe. It’s like a workshop for me. I work on several different pieces at the same time. L’arrière-fond is about my childhood fascination until the age of 16, with masked balls where people would dance and love each other wearing masks, playing little games and enjoying the mystery. I’ve always been fascinated by society and its games, many of which have a lot to do with bordellos. Maybe I’m simply transposing those masked balls into my books.
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