Tristan Garcia, Hate: A Romance: A Novel, Trans. by Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein. Faber & Faber, 2010.
"Paris in the eighties. Four friends. Three men and one woman. Two affairs that destroy a life.
In a controversial first novel that took the French literary world by storm and won the Prix de Flore, Tristan Garcia uses sex, friendships, and love affairs to show what happens to people when political ideals—Marxism, gay rights, sexual liberation, nationalism—come to an end. As Elizabeth Levallois, a cultural journalist, looks back on this decade and on the ravages of the AIDS epidemic in Paris, a drama unfolds—one in which love turns to hate and fidelity turns to betrayal, in both affairs of the heart and politics.
With great verve and ingenuity, Garcia lays claim to an era that promised freedom as never before, and he paints an indelible, sharp, but sympathetic portrait of intellectuals lost in the age of MTV."
“Among the first novels we read this season, the most mind-blowing is by twenty-seven-year-old Tristan Garcia: Hate: A Romance, a morality tale that grapples with the political and intellectual battles of the last two decades of French life and how those are caught up in the sex lives of the protagonists. A novel we’re still reeling from, and which we’ve chosen to put at the very top of our honor roll.”—Les Inrockuptibles
“One of the revelations of the literary season . . . An intimate, romantic, political, and cultural fresco [of the 1980s], a portrait startling in its accuracy.” —Christine Rousseau
“The real eye-opener of the season . . . A novel that made me reassess a decade that I’d lived through with my eyes closed. It took an upstart philosopher . . . to make me understand what was going on when I was twenty years old, when the Left became the Right.” —Frédéric Beigbeder
"Tristan Garcia's La meilleure part des hommes gained both fame and notoriety in France when it won the Prix de Flore in 2008. The prize often validates narcissism: past winners have included titles like Rapport sur moi and Autobiographie érotique. But Garcia’s novel inverts this paradigm by using an intensely personal topic—unprotected anal sex, or "barebacking"—to illustrate a dramatically larger one—the political transformation of France in the eighties. Duvert and Stein’s translation of the title, Hate: A Romance, captures the relationship at the heart of the novel: Willie Miller, a bohemian writer, and Dominique Rossi, a militant Corsican, fall in love. After both are infected with HIV (who infected whom becomes, later, a point of contention), their relationship devolves into a public squabble that veers between obsession and revulsion. Doum soon starts Stand-UP, an organization advocating personal protection and safety, while Willie writes diatribes reclaiming homosexuality—“AIDS saves, condoms kill.” All this is narrated by Elizabeth Levallois, a journalist and friend who describes their love and their hate with attempted indifference. Her narrative switches from extended biographical sketches to long-form reportage and finally reminiscences. The book gradually takes on a somber tone as the two men find themselves increasingly irrelevant in a country that has turned its sights from gay rights and MTV to anti-immigration sentiments and the Internet. Ultimately, Tristan Garcia’s explorations of the shifting philosophies of the eighties pale in comparison to the deeply human relationships in his roman à clef. The men flare in and out of public consciousness, but derive their fame and their passion from each other. The book’s final revelation—“As for the best part of men . . . [which is kept] within their hearts, for lack of any outlet, to the final hour, it lives and dies with them”—grows all the more poignant when contrasted with the dense analysis of French politics and culture in the preceding pages." - Jeffrey Zuckerman
"It's Paris in the late 1980s and Aids is "the new look". Freshly assembled gay activist groups are staging a "die-in" with their mouths gaffer-taped shut, "because the dead don't speak". The personal relationships of the early 1980s have suddenly become political.
Tristan Garcia's compelling first novel, Hate: A Romance, which won the Prix de Flore (previous winners include Virginie Despentes, Florian Zeller and Michel Houellebecq), follows four lives, public and private, from the rise of the Marais gay scene to the Sarkozy era. An intellectual describes his best friend's lover as an example of the "emptiness of contemporary thought"; ex-partners denounce each other on radio; no one can bring themselves to say anything nice about anyone else's hair. "Hate's important. It's the most important thing … Hate brings you to life," as one of the characters, Will, puts it.
Will has come to Paris from dull Amiens to live in squats and work on arty "projects", and is profiled by Liz, an arts journalist starting her career on an underground magazine she describes as "a pretentious piece of shit". Liz is having an affair with Jean-Michel Leibowitz, who was her philosophy professor at Sciences Po. He's a public intellectual – he never finished his thesis but is always on telly – and is now courting the establishment. Leibo's best friend is Doumé, a journalist and the founder of Stand Up, the protesting gay activist group. He's one of the last to have experienced the joie de vivre of the early 1980s as well as its fatal consequences. Liz introduces her new find, Will, to Doumé; they become inseparable. For Doumé, their relationship is a way of forgetting what's happening to his friends but Will is jealous: "he would have liked to live through what they lived through".
In France, Garcia's book cover announced it as a novel about "Paris, the Aids years", but it isn't just about being gay and having Aids. It tries to capture a moment in recent history. So while Will and Doumé are establishing Stand Up, Leibo is diagnosing the ills of the age – a too unquestioning acceptance of the latest right-thinking trend – and Liz has got a job on Libération, a proper paper, writing about the "latest thing. It leaves a funny taste in your mouth. You smell death in the life all around you, and all the while you keep waiting for something new."
Hate becomes the story once Will and Doumé break up. Leibo tells Doumé he thought Will was a "bum" and attacks him in his book; Will rebels against Doumé by advocating unprotected sex and breaking away from Stand Up; Doumé accuses his former lover of "crimes against humanity" for infecting people with HIV. They are characters not just in love with hating each other, but also with speaking up, causing trouble and making the media agree with their way of thinking.
Liz tells the story in short, spoken-seeming sentences that give Hate: A Romance a purposefully documentary feel. Garcia, who studied philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure, has said that his novel was written against the trend for "autofiction": novels that are based on something its writer has lived through. So Garcia, born in 1981, chose to write about documented things he couldn't have experienced. Hate: A Romance has been called a roman à clef: Will is clearly based on Guillaume Dustan, the novelist (winner of the Prix de Flore) and advocate of barebacking; Doumé resembles Didier Lestrade, founder of Act Up Paris and the gay magazine Têtu. Could Leibo be based on Alain Finkielkraut, the right-leaning TV philosopher? But Garcia is more interested in imagining other people's lives than in revealing secrets. In fact he's at his best when he makes things up. There is a very funny episode when Will is called into the jobcentre to try and get him off benefits; he camply taunts the well-meaning civil servant until he resigns to get away from him.
Garcia's clever narration moves between private and public spheres: between the cosy lunch in the Bouillon Racine and the public debate at the Théâtre du Rond-Point; between Friday night at Bar Thermik and the cherry red sofa in Liz's flat, where she watches her friends insult each other on TV. The reader becomes as addicted to the unfolding drama as the narrator is. The private people behind the public personas can still just be glimpsed; Liz's way of telling the story has caused us to "know better", as she puts it – to know that the political can be more personal than it seems." - Joanna Biggs
"You know those delicate debut novels, the ones that take place in coastal Maine, in which, if the author is searching for any truth at all, it’s only for a small, particular one? Well, “Hate: A Romance,” Tristan Garcia’s first effort, is not among them. It’s frenetic and French, for a reader who knows Deleuze from Derrida, who will chuckle when Garcia refers to the “domestic troubles” of Althusser. (That’s a joke, by the way, but you may need Wikipedia to figure it out. I did.)
Despite its cultured Gallic sensibilities, “Hate,” as translated by Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein, is surprisingly taut and readable. Garcia, a trained philosopher, has managed to write — in fewer than 300 pages, no less — the kind of social novel his American counterparts too often avoid in favor of solipsistic musings.
He certainly doesn’t write what he knows: born in 1981, Garcia was a toddler when the Marais became the epicenter of gay life in Paris. But through his narrator, the journalist Elizabeth Lavallois, he credibly describes (at least to this outsider) that world as AIDS encroaches.
The plot is a neat trajectory of three lives — too neat at times. On the left is William Miller, an awkward kid from Amiens who becomes the darling of Paris’s clubland as he seeks ever greater fame. His lover is Dominique Rossi, or Doum, an elegant Corsican who dabbles in journalism and befriends Liz, who in turn introduces him to Will. At the same time, Liz begins an affair with Jean-Michel Leibowitz, a hawkish Jewish intellectual.
Garcia gives Liz a staccato, culturally omniscient voice. She recalls the ’80s as a “wasteland except when it came to TV, free-market economics and Western homosexuality,” and summarizes AIDS with quintessential French cynicism: “People died, people protested, people protected themselves, people gave money.” If Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” became a classic for the compassion with which it treated victims of AIDS, “Hate” is noteworthy for its cool analysis of both the disease and la condition humaine.
Both Doum and Will have H.I.V., and it leads to an irreparable rift between them. While some on the left dismiss the disease initially as a “protofascist creation of the hospital state,” Doum presciently founds an advocacy organization, Stand, that endows him with mainstream respectability.
Will celebrates the virus as a mark of outré status: “AIDS belonged to us queers, it was our treasure,” he announces. He blithely advocates unprotected sex in books that have chapter titles like “AIDS Saves, Condoms Kill.” The American press (but of course) calls him “the new Michel Foucault.”
Drug-addled and increasingly unstable, Will veers into self-caricature, joking to Liz that Jews invented AIDS. But his loathing is primarily reserved for Dominique, whom he mocks as an outdated leader trying to remake the gay community in the vanilla image of straight society. Doum’s effort to distribute condoms is branded as sedition. “Prevention = Repression,” reads the T-shirt of a clueless Will acolyte.
Garcia is fluent in the currents of thought that have animated recent French history, and he has the dexterity to be flippant and morbid within a single paragraph. But he has more digging to do in the human heart. The novel is hermetic in its singular occupation with the disastrous relationship between Doum and Will and the corollary romance between Liz and the married Leibowitz. Though all four have plausibly prominent roles in French culture, at times it appears as if no other figures of consequence exist, with secondary characters strutting too quickly across the stage.
Garcia’s fullest character is the tragic Will, whom Liz describes in his final days as a “cracked jar of T4 cells.” She claims from the beginning that her project is to rehabilitate the troubled party boy turned philosopher, to show that his irresponsible behaviors were caused by a glimpse of some deep, unsettling truth. It was that truth, perhaps, that made him embrace AIDS. For as he tells her, “There’s no condom against death.” - Alexander Nazaryan
"Who doesn't appreciate a good controversy? And what book lover can resist when the controversy surrounds a breakout new author -- especially when that author is French? Francophile or not, it's easy to ascribe an ascendance to the French literary arts -- belle lettres, anyone? -- and it was very much by the allure of that sentiment that I pursued Tristan Garcia's Hate: A Romance.
Garcia, a philosopher by training, won the the Prix de Flore for young authors in 2008 for Hate, and no doubt it was both the prize and the book's notoriety that won it translation into English. As it goes. (No doubt there's plenty of French drivel that stays in the country, which should dispel any illusions I maintain regarding the magic of the French novel.) And who knows? Had the book come out under a more literal casting of its original title, La meilleure part des hommes ("The Best of Men"), I might not have given it a first thought.
Regardless, I read it, and it wasn't hard to understand the controversy it caused. The book has all the easy makings of a sensational debut: radical politics, sex (gay sex in particular), betrayal (political, sexual and on the grounds of sexual politics) -- even (mon dieu!) a questioning of the fundamental integrity of the Republic -- all of it told on account of a ruined love affair. With Hate, Garcia delivers an utterly human take on the novel of ideas, a book about the often ugly personal motivations that underpin our most high-minded and heavy-handed intellectual convictions.
The story of Hate is the story of four lives and their intersections over the course of the last two decades of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first. William Miller, the youngest and the first to be introduced, is the product of a solitary childhood in the provinces who, after a stint in sales training, makes his Paris debut in 1989 as a derelict, pontificating street kid. Dominique Rossi, a fixture of the Communist party in the seventies, trades politics for the flourishing gay nightlife of Paris in the late seventies and early eighties, during which time he falls victim to HIV and emerges as a major AIDS activist. Jean-Michel Leibowitz is a professor, philosopher and lapsed champion of the left, who finds himself constantly torn between the worlds of academia and action. Our narrator, Elizabeth Levallois, is a journalist. In her own words, she’s “Willie’s friend, Doumé’s colleague, Leibo’s lover,” and from that privileged personal and professional vantage she gives us their stories -- and her own.
Leibo and Dominique know each other from academic circles, a shared history on the left. Dominique and Elizabeth work together as writers for a magazine called Libération (a fictive extension, I assume, of the monthly New Left magazine that ended its run in 1977). Elizabeth takes Willie in from off the streets after meeting him at a party. She helps him publish some articles on culture. Willie meets Dominique. They love and fuck for five years in the early nineties. Then it ends. Paris takes sides. Willie is infected. Elizabeth sleeps with Leibo, whom she's known since her days as his student. Leibo also sleeps with Sara, his wife. And Leibo, in and out of league with Dominique and Elizabeth's constant cultural foil, is an essential contrarian (a flip-flopper in modern American parlance), or, "in other words," as Elizabeth puts it, "he was an intellectual."
The central action of Hate surrounds the falling out of Willie and Dominique, after which Dominique, leader of the gay rights and prevention organization Stand, fights Willie, the upstart novelist and prevention opponent (in Willie's casting, the condom is a normalizing tool of the hetero-normative state), both in public and in the press. Leibo rails against whatever and whomever as suits him. His enemy is whatever happens to be the prevailing zeitgeist of the moment.
The intellectual scope of Hate is impressively wide, and, as a result, it's impossible to treat it successfully in description with any brevity. But to be necessarily brief (everyone in Hate gets the benefit of contradiction, why shouldn't I?), I suspect that Garcia himself supports the right of Muslim women to wear the headscarf in schools, is on the fence about Israel and Palestine (it's an intellectual exercise more than an issue) and considers Spinoza adolescent but remains enamored of Derrida and Deleuze (really, this book is all over the place). I look through my haphazard notes and read an "urge to write my review in the polemics of the articles in the text." Consider yourselves spared.
Surely there are recent historical persons from which the personalities of the characters in Hate were collected. The political and ideological conflicts described in the book are real. Thankfully, Garcia exonerates readers of having to investigate analogs between his characters and any real life persons in a short introductory disclaimer. If we might happen to see in Willie, Dominique, Leibo or Elizabeth similarities with anyone real or imagined from the last half century, it's "simply because other persons or characters would behave no differently under similar circumstances."
And that's the point. Hate is a gripping narrative of ideas in the early information age and, in particular, of sexual liberation and the AIDS crisis. This was the exciting age of cultural freedom and ironic for-the-record redactions that somehow saw the old left brought into the fold of a new conservatism. American readers will inevitably draw comparisons with the neoliberalism that consumed our intellectual and political discourse during that same time. But ultimately, Hate is a personal novel. It's hate after all, and love and sex; and by extension, in Garcia's telling, that's politics. As Spinoza wrote, hate is nothing but sadness with the accompanying idea of an external cause. And so Garcia's characters move, and the success of his novel is in its deft inquiry into whether our commitments to ideas and their associated public causes aren't just the result of circumstance, nurture and the vendettas of lost love.
To his credit, Garcia chose to narrate his novel in a female voice. Elizabeth is smart, aware and convincing. Her voice (and the novel as a result) is sympathetic and compelling. As narrative structure goes, Garcia's effort is impressive. Elizabeth tells nothing more than she could know, and refrains from speculation on the motivations of her friend, her colleague and her lover. She is, however, in an unfortunate irony, the only (permit me) intellectually castrated character, as Garcia allows her only the role of the stereotypical nurturer, the only of the four principles who isn't permitted the dubiously arrived at convictions that she investigates in her intimates. In all of his incisive insights into his other characters, Garcia relegates Elizabeth to a passive role. Despite her admirable sympathy and equanimity -- believe me, she's a comforting companion when the novel gets heavy, Elizabeth is wanting as a woman in a novel about the tumult of the socially and politically dispossessed.
Still, Garcia deserves his notoriety, and not just for his controversial themes. Hate succeeds not just for his deep and studied familiarity with his subjects, but also because of his keen understanding of the human conditions that drive our conflicts of ideas. Hate is a sad romance, and maybe the ability to step back from ourselves and admit that uncomplimentary truth is really the best of man. Or maybe I'm just incredibly uninformed; maybe I missed something essential. But, as Elizabeth, resigned, says at one point: "I'm the one telling this story, so I get to have the last word." Get it?" - Christopher Merkel
"A fair warning to contemporary novelists: Reading Tristan Garcia’s debut novel may cause you to hate the 29-year-old French author. It’ll be a hate born of sincere admiration and maybe a little jealousy, but you just might feel it all the same. Some of it might stem from the economical way he covers a large chunk of time in the lives of his four protagonists—an intellectual, a queer activist, a comet of a party boy, and the culture journalist who knows them all. Some of it might come from his nimble control of tone, which can swerve from heady discussion of the intersection between contemporary politics and moral philosophy to the intentionally glib name-dropping of Foucault. More than anything else, though, that feeling may brew in your belly because Hate: A Romance is one of the more movingly recognizable accounts of the fickle ways that love and sex and joy and friendship can so easily decompose into their opposites.
Published in France in 2008 and translated by Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein for this American paperback, Hate stretches from the 1980s—a “cultural and intellectual wasteland except when it came to TV, free-market economics, and Western homosexuality”—to the 2000s, as experienced-qua-endured by two interconnected couples. Occasional journalist Dominque Rossi, whom everybody calls Doumé, is a gay Corsican who comes from a line of political outsiders and emerges as the de facto spokesperson for the queer activist organization Stand as AIDS meanders through the gay community. He falls in love with the younger William Miller, the son of an Ashkenazi Jew, from a small town north of Paris, who slowly becomes an underground gay celebrity during his relationship with Doumé—who met Jean-Michel Leibowitz through some political organization, before his study of eastern European dissidents, The Hydra of Power, made him a public leftist intellectual. Journalist Elizabeth Lavellois, the novel’s narrator, works with Doumé, introduces him to her friend William, and carries on an affair with the married Jean-Michel, whom she calls Leibo, about 10 years her elder.
And for 300 pages spanning nearly 20 years, Garcia follows Doumé and William, Liz and Leibo as they fall in and out of bed, talk about and organize around the rise of AIDS, fret over the changes in Paris and France, worry about how the Left is becoming the Right, split hairs over anti-Semitism and homophobia. There are plenty of ebullient, ribald moments, to be sure—a section detailing the unemployed William’s trips to the employment placement office are laugh-out-loud hilarious—but Hate is a document of relationships and romances becoming torn and frayed.
What gives the novel such force is Garcia’s recognition that both love and hate are intensely powerful emotions, fires that demand constant kindling. And Garcia is unabashedly willing to present the ways in which his characters supply fuel for love/hate’s roaring inferno. William even provides a formula for the feeling—“hate = (love+death) - lies”—and reveals himself as a man who has spent considerable time on the subject:
Because hate’s important. It’s the most important thing. We live in a society where hate is incredibly underrated. Hate brings you to life. It’s everything. Real hate—like Spinoza said, hate is where it’s at.
And Garcia lets his characters act petty, malicious, and hurtful to one another. By the mid-’90s when a different generation of queer men are making the party scene and the dangerous thrill of bug chasing and barebacking has entered the discussion, the internet is also this new thing. And William, with some old photos and the single-minded focus of the cast-off, hurts Doumé in a way that only somebody who has shared a life with him can. It’s brutal, and it’s entirely believable.
This empathy is what makes Hate so impressive. Born in 1981, Garcia was a child during the decade he recreates with such a vivid understanding. But his talent for recreating this period culturally and intellectually and imagining characters, their histories and personalities, and their unsavory weaknesses and impulses, turns his fictional world into something recognizably flesh and blood." - Bret McCabe
"Elizabeth Levallois is a “cultural journalist,” as she glibly puts it in the first few pages of Tristan García’s debut French novel Hate: A Romance. A chic Parisian intellectual and arbiter of the fashionable, Elizabeth believes in pills, has been called “pretty” enough to believe it, is a self-professed bitch, and has terrible taste in men. Of all of these qualities, the last is the most important for us, as it is Elizabeth’s willingness to surround herself with destructive personalities—and then meticulously recreate them in print—that drives Hate’s central narrative. “I’m Willie’s friend, Doumé’s colleague, Leibo’s lover,” Elizabeth flatly explains early on, naming the main characters of the book. The three men and one woman began as friends and lovers in the elite cultural circles of Paris in the ’80s only to emerge from the tumult of the ’90s as culturally iconic enemies, trying with varying levels of success to destroy one another’s lives.
Hate: A Romance is a bold, ambitious, provocative novel told in the mode of long-form narrative journalism, and it’s to García’s credit that we soon forget about him entirely. As the narrator Elizabeth explains to us early on, Hate comprises her reportage—pieced together from her interviews and memories, from transcripts and excerpts. The book serves partially to critique the cultural battles of the ’80s and ’90s in Paris, revealing the sex and personal disputes that lurked behind public politics and nasty, contrived intellectual debates. But the book’s primary objective, Elizabeth says, is to restore the biography of her dear friend William Miller. The prevailing public image of William, we’re told quickly, is a grisly one—a shallow, volatile “public intellectual” with a known history of purposefully infecting partners with HIV.
When Elizabeth meets Willie, she’s already a fixture in Parisian intellectual society, along with her colleague Dominique (or “Doumé). The two journalists write about parties, music, art openings, literature, and high society for a handful of small, hip Parisian magazines. In short, they’re snobs who write about that catchall “culture”—a role that Elizabeth clearly both loves and abhors.
Elizabeth first encounters Willie with the intention of writing about him for a magazine. A teenager from the countryside, Willie comes to Paris with passionate ideas on literature, music, philosophy. (He adores Spinoza, for instance, and namedrops him constantly.) But by the time Elizabeth meets him, he’s homeless, drug-addled, and rambling to anyone who will listen. Their meeting does not go well: Willie smells and looks terrible, is basically a junkie, speaks incoherently. And yet, she finds something beautiful and alluring about him; he possesses a kind of punk charm, an attractive recklessness (perhaps psychosis). It’s that rough, naïve beauty that convinces Elizabeth to bring him into her life, to clean the boy up.
Dominique, too, is drawn to Willie, who is several years younger than him. Like Elizabeth, he takes Willie under his wing, brings him into their elite circles. Practically overnight, the odd pairing becomes a devoted couple, and for the only time in the book—practically a blip in the narrative—they have a surprisingly content relationship, lasting five years.
Then the AIDS epidemic hits. It’s not entirely clear who is first infected—and the question becomes a key point of contention in the novel—but both Doumé and Will are diagnosed with HIV just as the outbreak hits the cultural fore. For a number of reasons—including how the HIV diagnosis affects them—they break up, or, more accurately, declare war.
“The eighties were a cultural and intellectual wasteland except when it came to TV, free-market economics, and Western homosexuality.” Elizabeth is making fun, a bit, but it’s all too serious to Doumé and Will. Doumé starts an organization to raise awareness about safe sex in the gay community and distribute condoms. Will, outraged for reasons that don’t entirely make sense, decides Doumé must be stopped—and he founds his own counter movement, built on promoting unsafe sex. To Will’s faction—whether or not he believes his own rhetoric is unclear—safe-sex campaigns deny gays the right to express the part of themselves that makes them unique, that makes them important and culturally significant. It’s as provocative as it is intellectually suspect, and it propels the volatile, bipolar Will onto the national stage. He becomes a media phenomenon.
Much of this exposition, might I add, is revealed fairly early in the book—and Hate, then, charts the duo’s slow, public, political escalation of hostility. As this feud plays out, Elizabeth maintains her reportorial detachment, even when she’s caught in the crossfire. But she’s not without opinions; much of the book reads as elaborate deadpan, and Hate’s characters can be comically earnest. There’s the sense that, while intensely serious, Elizabeth also realizes that they’re completely ridiculous. But the detachment can also be frustrating; why does she indulge, for instance, in exposition about specific superfluous political debates if she does find them ridiculous? Why not just say so, and move on?
One explanation, perhaps, is that Elizabeth does not want to adulterate her elaborate piece of journalism by inserting too much of her life, or her opinions, into the story. But she does run the risk of alienating her reader. At times the very human figures of Doumé and Will even become obscured by the political debates that roil around them. They’re powerful political icons, and yet they stop existing as people.
Ultimately, though, the story is a human one. Elizabeth—or should I say García—reminds us that the politics of sex, no matter what the intellectual foundation, are still about the physical human body, about individual people at their most private and primal. By inserting themselves into a public debate about sexual politics, Willie and Doumé give over their personal lives to become political fodder.
Late in the book, with the Internet in full-swing, Willie asks for Elizabeth’s help in creating a webpage. It appears, like many things with Willie, at first like a harmless request. At this point, Will and Doumé are both known figures in French intellectual society, their bylines appearing in alternative weeklies, their books on store shelves, their faces on talk shows and news programs. On a low-tech Web site, Will posts thirteen photos of Doumé. The photos are utterly private, most of them nude or during sex, all taken during their relationship many years earlier. The captions William provides are, somehow, as malicious as they are clearly nostalgic: “This was before Dominique got in bed with the government,” he writes of a Polaroid of the two men engaging in oral sex.
“Everyone in Paris had seen it,” Elizabeth says. “I couldn’t imagine how [Doumé] must have felt when someone told him to take a look at what was on the Web.” And Elizabeth, ever the journalist, presses Will, asking him if he understands what he’s doing, if he feels some remorse as he destroys what’s left of Doumé’s life:
I said, “Do you realize, Will, that since it’s on the Web everybody’s going to see it?”
“Oh, Liz, the Internet is so over. It’s done. You have to keep up. It’s ancient history.”
And then, “There’s no joy to the past, it’s always sad, even when it used to be joyful. It only proves that the past is shit. The best you can do is forget.”
This short chapter—which could stand on its own from the rest of the book—is succinctly devastating, an example of the book at its most successful. The passage reminds us (or, in the fictional world of the novel, reminds those who remember Will and Dominique) that before they gave up their personal lives to political movements, they were normal people. The photos Will posts are all personal, even domestic, and have no political meaning until Will reinterprets them for his political purposes. To everyone else, the Web site is simply the gossip of Parisian intellectuals; but Elizabeth shows that the feud between the two has nothing to do with politics at all. For a moment, from the commotion of the political and cultural movements that had been waging war on their behalves for a decade, William and Dominique emerge again as human beings; as to two lovers absorbed with jealousy, nostalgia, and anger; as two people that never quite got over one another." - Adam Eaglin
"Fiction often trails some distance behind the traumatic events of the present. It took a decade before there was a substantial fictional response to the slaughter of the first world war, while the narrative of the Holocaust is still being explored. Responses to the Aids epidemic of the 1980s were, however, rapid. In 1982, a complex series of illnesses were first identified as Aids and "Silence equals Death" soon became a popular slogan for gay activists campaigning for better recognition and treatment for Aids. Gay writers in the 80s felt a moral and political imperative to respond quickly to the crisis.
Fiction of the past 20 years has dealt less confidently with the aftermath of Aids in the west. The contemporary issues are more subtle and complex: we have had the arrival of an effective combination therapy, the continuing lives of a generation who (like me) had assumed they faced certain death, and the "bug chasers" who actively look to be infected with the HIV virus and "barebackers" who enjoy the thrill of unprotected sex.
So Tristan Garcia's Hate: A Romance (first published in France in 2008 as La meilleure part des hommes) is a welcome and a rare novel. Its ambitious narrative begins in the 80s. The story – four young characters coming of age as a city embraces a thriving gay culture which is also starting to recognise the threat of Aids – is familiar territory from 80s fiction. But while the first wave of Aids fiction was overwhelmingly American, Hate: A Romance is a very French story. Garcia's characters are university-educated Parisians, the direct descendants of Jean-Luc Godard's "children of Karl Marx and Coca Cola". The reader senses that Garcia, like Godard, shares a complex relationship with his characters: he is sympathetic to young people who are guided more by their reading of Foucault and Spinoza than they are by common sense (this is Garcia's first novel, but he is a published philosopher), while laughing with us at their more pretentious thoughts and poses.
Something of the freshness of Garcia's perspective can also be explained by his age. Born in 1981, he is writing a historical novel, a vivid imagining of the Paris gay scene of the 80s and 90s and of the feuds conducted by gay activists in the French media of the period. This can sometimes make for disconcerting reading if – as I was – you were there at the time. Garcia's imagined past doesn't always quite match up with my remembered one. But the opening chapters of the book capture a mood that I found instantly recognisable: the excitement of being young, intellectually arrogant, sexually adventurous and bewildered by the arrival of the Aids epidemic.
As his narrative charts events leading up to the present day, Garcia is able to explore new territory for Aids fiction. His characters barely acknowledge the arrival of combination therapy in 1996 and the promise that it brings of turning Aids from a terminal disease into a chronic condition. By then they are too consumed by the feud that provides the central thread of the novel, that between the gay activist Dominique Rossi, who moves ever closer to the centre of the French political establishment, and the radical William Miller, who rejects safer sex as a heterosexual constraint and promotes barebacking as a political act of defiance. There's also an equally bitter rift between Miller and the media philosopher Leibowitz, as Miller moves from a pro-Palestinian stance to a paranoid antisemitism.
Garcia – and his narrator, the journalist Elizabeth Levallois, who is Leibowitz's lover – seem increasingly drawn to Miller, the most obviously colourful character in the novel. But as the pettiness of Miller's feuding becomes reductive and repetitious, the novel threatens to grind to a halt. Perhaps French readers, aware of the similar and very public real-life feud between gay activists Didier Lestrade and Guillame Dustan, would have been carried through some of these duller passages by the jeu d'esprit of a roman à clef.
But just when it seems that the novel has got itself trapped in a corner, Garcia steers the narrative forward: the last hundred pages achieve a depth of insight and compassion that is previously lacking. In this final section, he captures brilliantly the impossible choice facing the radical intellectual in an unsympathetic society: between becoming marginalised to the point of self-destruction and moving into the safer ground of the mainstream. It's ironic that Garcia, who is just 30 himself, only really seems able to look his characters fully in the eye once they are in their 40s and making the sad, sober choices of middle age.
Mark Ravenhill's version of Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea opens at the King's Head, Islington in April." - Mark Ravenhill
"Tristan Garcia’s debut novel La meilleure part des hommes won the Prix De Flore in 2008. According to the blurb on the back cover of its re-titled English translation by Marion Duvert and Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, it’s “a controversial first novel that took the French literary world by storm.” Marketing hype aside, it seems totally fitting if that’s the case, since controversy and the French literary world are two things that Garcia’s novel certainly doesn’t lack. Set in the heady and glamorous world of Parisian cultural circles, and spanning over twenty years from the 80s to the 00s, Garcia’s novel explores the impact of AIDS through the entangled emotional, political and philosophical fall-out from the messily intertwined personal and professional lives of four intellectuals.
Narrated through the voice of Elizabeth Levallois, a journalist covering culture and fashion, Hate: A Romance convincingly sustains a tone that wavers from objectively journalistic to affectionately (for the most part) intimate with the characters depicted. Elizabeth briefly introduces the other three protagonists: William Miller, invariably referred to as ‘Willie’, “a butterfly coming out of his cocoon” who starts the book arriving in Paris with “no job, no nothing. Less than nothing;” Dominique Rossi, ‘Doume’, a journalistic colleague of Elizabeth’s covering music and nightlife, and also a socialist activist, who is introduced to Willie by Elizabeth and the two embark on an intense five-year relationship that ends bitterly; and Jean-Michel Leibovitz, ‘Leibo’, a philosopher who met Dominique through leftist organizations, and who has written a philosophical treatise on fidelity, with whom Elizabeth is having an affair. The character of Elizabeth herself is deprecatingly self-portrayed:
“high cheekbones, difficult wiry hair, legs a tiny bit soft in the calves. I work out. I diet, sort of. What will become of me? In this world some people are distinct individuals while others are no more than paths of transmission. At my age, the signs are unmistakable: I belong in category two.”
As the AIDS epidemic hits Paris, with Willie and Doume both positive, they rawly and painfully clatter against each other and ping off fanatically in opposing high-profile directions, with Doume heading up STAND, an organization advocating protective sex, and Willie finding cult fame as a wild writer of fragmentary, undisciplined often scurrilous books, an outrageously unpredictable chat-show guest, an icon among young gay men and a vocal opponent of everything STAND and Doume believe in. With Doume and Willie bent on destroying the other’s reputation, their personal ‘hate’ spreads like a virus into a philosophical, social and political battle. With death a seeming inevitability, ‘hate’ becomes the main source of energy for Doume and Willie, it’s their mutual hate that provides the spirit and fuel behind their separate, and in some sense mutually-cancelling endeavours. Willie embodies and articulates a perhaps muddled but passionate and angrily convinced philosophical and emotional position of ‘hate’.
"Because hate’s important. It’s the most important thing. We live in a society where hate is incredibly underrated. Hate brings you to life. It’s everything. Real hate - like Spinoza said, hate is where it’s at.”
He was windmilling his arms in the air.
“See I’m going to be famous for that, and if they hate you, even if you die, still it means you’re somebody. And that beats love in a way…”
He thought about it for two seconds.
“Because love, you know, love is conquered by death, because of course you don’t want what you love to die, but the thing is, you do want what you hate to die, and in the end, even death isn’t enough, because the thing you hate did exist and you can’t do anything about that. It’s better than death. Love isn’t even in the running.”
Meanwhile, Doume first falls from favour, then through his newspaper, leftist and publishing contacts, he releases a carefully stage-managed book of conversations with Leibovitz that re-establishes both of their careers by setting out their version of events. Incidentally, Leibo ends up adopting a related, if much less heartfelt, position to Willie, of “always fighting the current,… you know, of the times you live in” while moving surprisingly in-step with the establishment of the day, supporting Chirac early in his campaign and accordingly somewhat emptily ending up offered the position of Minister for Culture.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Garcia’s extremely impressive novel is how he collapses the barrier between emotional lives and the public philosophical positions of the characters. Garcia (who has himself written a book of philosophy) is equally adept at sketching intimate moments, such as the heartbreaking depiction of Willie, publicly out-of-favour having been defamed by Leibo and Doume, abandoned by friends, dying from AIDS at a hospital, visited only by Elizabeth and occasionally his mother who has shut her eyes to his homosexuality. Willie’s convinced and railing that he’s the only one without AIDS, that AIDS is a health-board plot transmitted via meds to contain the ‘threat’ of homosexuality. Since he doesn’t take the meds he can’t have AIDS. Elizabeth can’t bare to dispel his delusion. Her intimate tone, and her obvious affection for the wild and at times unbearable Willie helps add to the sensation of familiarity throughout, the feeling that the characters and the positions of Doume, Willie and Leibo match up to existing real-life characters. In short, this novel is convincing. This is in part because the characters are to some extent based on real writers. It’s hard not to see a resemblance in Willie of the writer Guillaume Dustan (whose real name, in fact, was William Baranes) and in Douminique, of the journalist Didier Lestrade who founded ACT UP in France (an organization fairly analogous to Doume’s STAND). Nevertheless, it’s a great testament to Garcia’s skill as a novelist that he is able so fully and fascinatingly to immerse his novel in the anxieties, fears and obsessions of the time and place, a frightening, confusing and turbulently shifting landscape of middle-eastern tension, AIDS, techno, MTV, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Internet." - Colin Herd
"For contemporary French writers, a willingness to shock seems the only route to find an anglophone audience. In recent years, authors such as Michel Houellebecq, Frédéric Beigbeder and Marie Darrieussecq have played on sexual, political and religious themes, aiming to scandalise their readership.
Tristan Garcia’s first novel tucks comfortably into this Gallic subgenre: yet his precision, intelligence and acute understanding of the complexities of desire mark his debut as much more than that.
In unadorned, clipped prose, Garcia pitches back and forth over the past three decades, illuminating the uneasy relationship between four characters: William Miller, a maddening and flamboyant agitator; Doume Rossi, an Aids campaigner; Jean-Michel Leibowitz, a popular intellectual of the kind found only in France; and Liz Lavallois, Garcia’s narrator and Leibowitz’s mistress.
In an episodic narrative of verve and invention, Garcia explores two generations coming to terms with the crumbling of old orthodoxies and the confused political landscape that it created. All four appear numb, only alive when living in the hedonism of the past, or escaping the present with sex or drugs. It’s only William’s late-flowering political activism that hauls them from their slumber.
While Doume is on television advocating HIV-prevention and safe sex, William – his former lover – is beginning a campaign to overthrow the tyranny of conventional wisdom.
His self-styled movement is against condoms, against prevention: pro-HIV. Doume and his contemporaries are horrified; but William’s cause becomes an underground phenomenon. Soon William is setting up infection parties and describing in public the giving of the disease as “impregnation”. It’s the start of a vendetta that will consume all four characters for the rest of the novel.
If this sounds unsubtle, sensational even, the reading experience is quite the opposite. While there are uncomfortable moments – the scene where Liz is told of a man being “converted” is hauntingly described in the manner of a loving act – these are refracted brilliantly through the chilly, static eyes of Liz. Her withdrawn persona acts as ballast against William’s self-delusion and Doume’s nostalgia and venom.
Early in the novel, Liz describes her life as a journalist as constantly chasing after the next new thing. It’s a sentiment that underpins the book: how can we exist in a world where there might not be another new thing? And what happens if we were happy with what we had in the first place? It’s this tension that makes for a ferocious, sad and moving novel – and a performance of rare originality." - Stuart Evers
"Garcia is hot property in France where this, his debut novel, won the Prix De Flore. A philosophy graduate, he has previously published a book of philosophy and this is reflected in this novel which is one of ideas and politics more than action.
The story, set during the ‘80s and ‘90s, is narrated by Elizabeth, a journalist on the left-leaning paper Liberation, and revolves around her and three friends. Doum is a fellow journalist on her paper. Brought up in a left wing home in Corsica where his intellectual doctor father had links to separatists, he is deeply political, although with the advent of AIDS his left leanings have crystallised into concentration on gay politics, in particular that of prevention.
Will is an inarticulate and cerebrally slow but beautiful young man who has an ill-fated relationship with Doum. And Leibo is a married Jewish intellectual with whom Liz has a long affair. Much of the story is narrated via conversations recorded or remembered by Liz. The novel is a Hadron Collider where these four atoms move at great speed and collide in explosions which leave a mass of destruction. The ‘hate’ of the title refers to the dramatic switch from love to hate that occurs when one relationship here sours.
Garcia inhabits his female narrator well, creating a woman who is inexorably drawn to the wrong men: ‘I seem to have a weakness for the forty-something routine…Midlife crisis as come-on. Perhaps it’s…maternal instinct.’ This thwarted protectiveness finds an outlet in her devotion to the initially vulnerable Will. At many times during the book her acceptance of Will’s egregious behaviour towards her and others without censure borders on implausible, and only the indulgence of a blindly committed parent renders it credible.
As you would expect from a philosopher, the core of the novel is intellectual dialectic. The inherent conflict between contrasting viewpoints provides insurmountable barriers off which characters bounce. Doum is passionate about reducing HIV transmission among the gay community while Will believes – perhaps just to be contrary – that gays should be free to choose whether to toy with death or not. Leibo pours vitriol on the political victim culture whereby any minority can claim it is oppressed and so be automatically embraced by the left; he rails against ‘cowardly totalitarian political correctness’. He clashes with Will’s new lover Ali (who is staunchly pro-Palestinian), and argues the Zionist cause.
Garcia’s background is evident in the many philosophers and writers who are referenced by the characters – Montaigne, Spinoza, Foucault, Kant, Pascal, Tocqueville. There are also knowing nudges – Leibo surprises the intellectual world by writing a book about love; an arch reference to Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse – although Leibo’s is – hypocritically – a rhetoric on the importance on commitment.
As an illustration of the devastating consequences of clashing ideologies, especially those fuelled by personal feelings, Garcia’s novel is powerful and surprisingly accessible. It’s just a shame it’s so theoretical as opposed to human. We are told what characters feel about each other by Liz rather than seeing this for ourselves: despite the five year relationship between Will and Doum, we only glimpse one domestic scene, towards the end of the relationship, and this seems to be there as a cursory explanation for its demise. There are similarly few illustrations of the relationship between Liz and Leibo – it’s all very cerebral. The saving grace is that since Liz is narrating in the first person, this may be construed as her choice rather than the author’s. Still, the book could have been improved by expansion in the human arena. Garcia offers us fascinating flashes of peripheral relationships which we crave to hear more of: Leibo’s attempt to culture his much-loved but happily working-class parents, for example, or his connection to his children, who must have been one reason why he remained married (although we also know, almost without Liz acknowledging it, that Leibo truly loved his wife as well as Liz.) Another minor problem is occasional lapses of Will’s voice into that of an intellectual: it is clear that he is irrational, illogical, has a low IQ and that he spouts nonsense or incendiary diatribes much of the time, so the occasion where he uses the word ‘paradigm’ jars.
Despite these shortcomings there is something about the novel that ensnares. Many of the short chapters end with the promise of secrets and excitement to come: ‘that’s what touched Doume’ and did him in.’; ‘Six months later they’d broken up.’; ‘…that was the day it began.’; ‘That’s how it all got started. That was all it took. That, and of course all the history there was between them…’
At one point Liz tells us of Will ‘for him, falling out was a form of love.’ It’s Garcia’s skill in making us believe in such strange characters as well as the flawless translation that render this novel tight and readable despite its esotericism." - Leyla Sanai
"Winner of the 2008 Prix de Flore, Hate announced the novelistic arrival in France of young philosopher Tristan Garcia, then aged 27. Except that it didn't, strictly speaking, do any such thing. The original title of Garcia's novel was La meillure part des hommes, or the best part of men. Figuring out the gulf in suggestiveness between these two is only the beginning, however. While there are things to admire in Hate, this reader found much more to question.
Garcia earns plaudits for disobeying the advice to young novelists to keep to what they know. In focusing on 15 years in which Aids laid waste a generation of Paris's cultural elite, Garcia took on a period he can hardly have remembered. Inadvertently, too he took up an extremely hard sell. For if there are many reasons for the disappearance of Aids from contemporary fiction, among them is one unavoidable truth. With the odd exception (Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty), readers weren't buying.
Hate ingeniously deploys a female narrator, Elizabeth, to recount the decimation of gay Paris from the outsider's perspective. Within pages we are introduced to "Hervé" (novelist Hervé Guibert) and Michel Foucault – just as Guibert himself fictionalised his mentor in To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. So far, so familiar. As the Guibert/Foucault nexus continues to receive attention in France - take Mathieu Lindon's recent memoir, Ce qu'aimer veut dire - we might wonder how Garcia aims to say anything new, compared to those who witnessed the French epidemic's darkest years.
The answer, surprisingly, comes in the form of leading protagonist William, a gay activist who comes to disavow health campaigning, instead embracing drug-fuelled, unprotected sex, which he promotes through journalism and scandalous novels. In France, this character's closeness to real-life author Guillaume Dustan, who died in 2005, was immediately understood, though Garcia expressly rejects any linkage. Nevertheless, "William's" auto-fictional novel dovetails closely with Dustan's Dans ma chambre (1996; translated as In My Room). There's "this confused guy who keeps getting carried away, who says one thing and then the opposite, and who holds forth on genius, dildos, community, condoms... there are no chapters, just 'fragments'."
Bret Easton Ellis is name-checked in Hate. Certainly his Generation X nihilism might have informed the texture of Dustan's books, and the world-view of Garcia's own characters, including William. Oddly, then, Hate inclines conversely towards a Balzac-like comprehensiveness, layering plots and subplots judiciously, whilst shaping itself carefully towards the foreseen conclusion: the HIV-sponsored demise of the hospitalised, unrepentant William. Elizabeth then abruptly resigns from her tale.
Despite memorable touches – the Aids prevention posters framed in bars "like souvenirs in a museum" – Hate lacks both the bite and conviction implied by its English title. Its acclaim elsewhere, moreover, I suspect stems from a widespread need to historicise this epidemic, rather than from any conviction that Hate revitalises its subject." - Richard Canning
"Hate: A Romance is told from the perspective of a journalist named Elizabeth who spends the best years of her life writing pieces for magazines in Paris. This is how she describes it early in the book:
“I covered ‘culture,’ that is, everything and nothing. I had my little supplement. I went out, I kept up with the scene. Television was my first beat. It’s how everyone starts out. I’d go hear shows, indie rock shows, to compensate for the shit I watched on TV. I did trend pieces, I wrote up the latest thing. It leaves a funny taste in your mouth. You smell death in the life all around you, and all the while you keep waiting for something new. I did ‘fashion,’ too, naturally, and ‘books’ every now and then. If we were sitting across a dinner table and you asked me, I could tell you what people were talking about; I couldn’t tell you how much else, but I knew what was current.”
Holy moly. At the end of the chapter she drops this:
“In this world some people are distinct individuals while others are no more than paths of transmission. At my age, the signs are unmistakable: I belong in category two. I have my work cut out for me.”
Hate: A Romance, which Farrar, Straus and Giroux is publishing in translation this fall, is by Tristan Garcia, but you’re meant to regard it as having been written by Elizabeth. That’s the frame: Elizabeth has written a historical account of what was happening in Paris during the 1990s and early 2000s and that is the book we’re reading. It’s to Garcia’s credit that one barely thinks about him — or the translators, for that matter — while reading it.
The book is Elizabeth’s memoir, sort of, except that it’s not really about her, but three of her friends— the dangerously charming punk William Miller, the conservative intellectual Jean-Michel Liebowitz, and the AIDS prevention activist Dominique Rossi — and how they destroyed each other’s lives. These three guys, in Elizabeth’s telling, are historical figures: separately and together, they were responsible for shaping their era. They captured people’s attention. People cared what they thought.
William is the magical genius in Elizabeth’s universe, her favorite by far. They meet when they’re about 20 years old because she wants to do a story on him. At this early stage, he is an inarticulate, shy gutter punk who wanders around muttering about all the projects he is planning. Elizabeth befriends him and stands by his side as he transforms — unconsciously, of course — into an icon worshipped by “somewhat marginal people.” William turns himself into a careening spectacle: a glamorous, inscrutable figure who rails against AIDS prevention activists for trying to talk him and all other young men into giving up their freedom, a.k.a. using condoms. When William, a master bullshit artist, writes a book and achieves a new level of fame, “Technikart and most of the magazines and ‘avant-garde’ fanzines hailed the emergence of a new voice.”
Dominique is one of Elizabeth’s colleagues early in life — the two of them covered nightlife together and interviewed famous people. At the beginning of the book, she introduces him to William, thus setting off the pair’s five year turn as an “old-fashioned couple.” During this time, more and more people start dying of AIDS, and Dominique, who is HIV positive, gradually trades in his glamorous, old life as a club kid for a consuming role as a community organizer who promotes safe sex. After he and William break up, they become bitter enemies, both obsessed with making sure the other one and everything he stands for is forgotten by history.
There is a third friend, Jean-Michel Liebowitz, whom Elizabeth dates on and off for about a decade while William and Dominique carry on their war. Liebowitz is a professor of strong convictions who begins his life on the left but finds himself, as he gets older, taking unmistakably conservative positions. He rails against cultural relativism, pop music, promiscuity, and what he perceives as the left’s knee-jerk affection for any and all minorities. He is a public intellectual; he writes books for the popular press and appears on television. But he considers himself a philosopher, and as we learn early on, he has contempt for Elizabeth’s line of work. “He was always going on about the unfashionable, the ‘nonmodern,’ the old days,” Elizabeth recalls. She stands for the opposite of all those things, she knows: “each new fad supplanting the last.” Liebowitz makes fun of her sometimes, saying that when finally his books became fashionable, she’ll have no choice but to embrace his views because it’s all she is “programmed” to do.
Elizabeth has her own disdain for journalists. At one point she makes fun of the credulity with which feature writers and critics respond to William’s unserious, self-promotional book. Elsewhere she laments not being able to talk to Liebowitz because she is “not an intellectual.” Still, you never get the sense that she ever takes any of that stuff much to heart. She knows from the beginning how Liebowitz feels about her work, but it doesn’t make her want to do it any less. This is significant insofar as her book — again, we are pretending Hate is her book — amounts to a long, expertly paced magazine piece, one written by an attentive, well-sourced journalist who has great affection for her subjects. Though there’s plenty of first person in the book, it’s essentially a reported history, complete with interviews and scenes and props and anecdotes — killer devices, all, which come from a playbook that you don’t often see being used in novels. Tristan Garcia has applied the storytelling techniques native to fun, middlebrow journalism and used them to tell a fictional story. The framing device — ”this is a book written by a journalist” — is not just an excuse; it actually informs the book’s style.
In the introduction, Elizabeth says she has written the book for William — to rescue him from obscurity and to correct the conventional wisdom that he was never anything but a vapid, reckless buffoon who deliberately gave people AIDS in order to get attention. But William’s memory is not the only thing being rescued in Hate. The other is journalism: Elizabeth, for all her cynicism about the profession, has written an immersive and deeply felt piece of magazine writing. It is a story about ideas told through the people who had them, and the emotions, grudges, and ambitions that informed the things they believed and wrote. Typical gossip for intellectuals, in other words. Also, a decisive defense of the form.
The book is about death, too, and what happens to people who spend their lives trying to be influential when they’re no longer able to make noise — how their mark on the world is registered, remembered, and above all forgotten. William cuts right to the heart of it when his book of nonsense is published to rave reviews and Elizabeth says to him, “Not bad, Will, you’re a writer now.” “No, Liz,” Will answers. “You don’t get it at all. I’m a motherfucking text.”
Elizabeth does get it though, and she knows what she’s doing when, barely 30 pages into the book, she quotes an aging Dominique looking back on the “joie-de-vivre” of gay life before AIDS. “When you’re defining your own era, you’re not aware of it, you think you’re building a future,” Dominique says. “Then one day you realize that this future you’re building is just something that people will look back on one day as the past, as something past and gone. That’s what it means to live out an era, a time, a moment. All of a sudden — yes — it ends.” - Leon Neyfakh
"I just saw in the Times' Book Review that Tristan Garcia's debut novel has been translated under the title Hate (the original is La Meilleure part des hommes, ie The Best Side of Men). I happened to read the book when it came out a couple of years ago, and was a bit startled by Alexander Nazaryan's take.
Well, by one thing mainly: He doesn't mention that the novel, set in the Parisian gay milieu of the 1980s, is a roman à clef. The lead characters are inspired by easily recognizable people, with just enough changes to prevent lawsuits (or so I assume).
Wild boy William Miller, for instance, looks very much like novelist Guillaume Dustan, who made a name for himself by advocating bareback sex. His nemesis, journalist-turned-AIDS-advocate Dominique Rossi, shares quite a few traits with journalist-turned-AIDS-advocate Didier Lestrade. Rossi cofounds an activist group called Stand; Lestrade cofounded the Parisian branch of Act Up. And so on.
Meanwhile, real-life Jewish philosopher and public intellectual Alain Finkielkraut seems to be the model for the novel's Jewish philosopher and public intellectual, Jean-Michel Leibowitz. At least Finkielkraut thought so: When the book came out, he publicly protested "the way I was transparently used," adding, "It's depressing but what can I do? Duels are now illegal."
Come on, this is good stuff!
The novel is so poorly written that trying to figure out who is who and who really did what is the best part. Not mentioning that aspect in a review is like talking about The Devil Wears Prada without mentioning Anna Wintour." - Elisabeth Vincentelli
"If they review this imported, translated paperback original at all, critics are likely to reduce its power to "The first great novel of barebacking." Although the core two (Will, Doum) of the four main characters (also Elizabeth, who narrates; and her married longtime paramour Jean-Michel Leibowitz) are ex-lovers who become public adversaries famous for promoting unprotected or safe sex, barebacking is but one aspect of the book's larger considerations of love, death, power, politics, aids, family, intergenererational dynamics, the rise of gay culture, the Jewish question, and how since the late 80s in France "the Left became the Right." Vital and provocative, the book covers its topics in a fast 273 pages, so deft in its scope and impressive in its empathy that you wouldn't guess Tristan Garcia wrote it before he was 27. Two years ago it won the Prix de Flore.
In France, it was called La meilleure part des hommes but the American title Hate: A Romance [Kindle] also fits. After they've broken up and begin to plot each other's downfall (including posting 13 very private photos on the internet showing the safe sex advocate not using a condom), Will says:
"...hate's important. It's the most important thing. We live in a society where hate is incredibly underrated. Hate brings you to life. It's everything... It's better than death. Love isn't even in the running."
Leib complains to Elizabeth:
"...We can't point out that shit is different from art. We're supposed to tolerate everything. Look at how the homosexual community -- for good reason, it's their right -- look at how they impose their norms on everyone else, by default. Look at the way men are pictured in advertisements, the muscles, the fitness, and that music, everywhere, look at how they've changed the connection that we have to our own sexuality. Even women..."
"it started as a statement. But it's become mainstream. We're all supposed to conform to homosexual standards of beauty, the biceps, the tight t-shirts, putting on makeup, wearing tank tops, and all this sex machine music..."
"Those were the years when cash took on social democratic value, when the stock market, appearances, surface, cheap crap, bad taste all stuck their tongue out and made a great big face at the planet."
Inflammatory Will states, in print:
"Today we know that AIDS is above all the name, you know, of a moral argument that's trying to police our sexuality. All this sex panic, now that AIDS is more or less curable - we can see that it's been co-opted to make the queer community normal, acceptable. That they've assimilated us in order to castrate us. And now when you see a man like Doum, a counterrevolutionary of the right, collaborating with the French Ministry of Health, which dates from Vichy, to advocate a universal ban on free sex - well, what are you supposed to think?"
Much later, this passage:
"Using barebacking as an example, Doum denounced the vice inherent in the dream of freedom, the denial of reality, and the childish titillation with death. Later on these guys understand how stupid they've been and come crying to the organizations, but it's too late, and the ones who'd held out the prospect of an absurd pleasure are no longer around, they've dropped them and gone off in search of fresh blood."
The intellectual big ideas are balanced with domestic scenes of tenderness and, often, regret. A handsome young doctor's exhaustion from caretaking is plausibly conveyed as is his momentary decision that he wants to become infected with HIV. The author gives a quick but unflinching look at him years later, and he details many more scenes with one of the destroyed protagonists, the man who inseminated the doctor, now returned to his grim boyhood town to die in the local hospital shunned by his family and forgotten by his lovers and all but one of his former friends. Nonetheless, the novel is not unhopeful. And it has much more to say than some of this year's higher-profile mopey, middle-aged gay books." - Band of Thhebes
"Tristan Garcia, the author of this striking and slightly dazing first novel, starts on the back foot, protesting that he has not written a roman à clef before anyone has had the chance to make the accusation. If readers are reminded of real people they know or know of - well, "that is simply because other persons or characters would have behaved no differently under similar conditions". Garcia demands that we find the novel universal and truth-bearing rather than parochial and referential, which is odd, given that he is almost exclusively preoccupied with dovetailing his characters with French political history, staging intellectual slanging matches and indulging in cultural trainspotting - a taster menu offered as a three-course meal.
One person who behaved similarly under similar conditions is Bernard-Henri Lévy, the dashing French-Jewish intellectual whose perceived rightward shift seems to be reflected in the perceived rightward shift of Garcia's dashing French-Jewish intellectual Jean-Michel Leibowitz. He is called "Leibo" in the first section, which also introduces "Willie" (William Miller), an uneducated Jew who becomes a star of the gay scene in Nineties Paris, and the Corsican cultural journalist "Doumé" (Dominique Rossi), who has a five-year relationship with Willie. The two eventually fall out, violently and publicly, over Aids, which Willie comes to see as "a moral argument that's trying to police our sexuality", just as Doumé and Leibo fall out over the latter's alleged "heterofascism".
The tale is told, or rather reconstructed, by the Libération reporter Élizabeth Levallois, "Willie's friend, Doumé's colleague, Leibo's lover", who describes herself, in the closest we get to introspection, as "the kind of person one comes across in Paris". Élizabeth is a blank, little more than a pair of eyes and a voice - a Nick Carraway with three Gatsbys to commemorate, an Ishmael surrounded by Ahabs. It is Willie, she says, who most deserves "his due", because he kept his best part - the French title of the novel is La meilleure part des hommes - to himself, whereas the others lived through words and actions and "will live on beyond themselves".
Any novel that long-windedly describes the contents of invented books and identifies Jean-Jacques Rousseau as "JJR" is in danger of seeming flip and nothing more. In Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift, which has a better balance of ideas and those who spout them, the title character invokes Spinoza to reflect on "how the mind was fed with joy by things eternal and infinite". Willie, who loves Spinoza even more than he does Morrissey and Bret Easton Ellis, uses his thinking - or his name - to explain the beauty of the internet, the value of his hate for Doumé and his own spreading of Aids, though not with the greatest eloquence: "It's a mystical thing. Spinoza. I fertilise them."
Hate: a Romance gets off to such a swift and evocative start that the rest of the book, which follows its characters faithfully without really developing them, is doomed to feel repetitious and even redundant. Doumé and Leibo were students at the École Normale Supérieure when "Althusser's influence was on the wane" and "the men of the hour" were Deleuze, Lévi-Strauss and Vidal-Naquet. Bliss was it in that dawn, and so on, yet it remained difficult to stake out a coherent philosophy or political position when ideas were indistinguishable from fads, and when collective action was so much discussed that there was little time left over for it. Leibo, who describes himself as "a man of the left" but not "a leftist" and who says that his first pamphlet was "wrong in the right way", discusses the predicament of finding one's true position in terms of the penalty-taker's fear of the penalty kick: "If he thought I was going to shoot to the other side, then I'd have to shoot to the other side of the other side."
The bulk of the novel takes place during a 17-year period in which Mitterrand gave way to Chirac and Chirac to Sarkozy, when the forces of relativism and toleration - what Leibo calls "la pensée unique" - pitted those who believe in secularism, the State of Israel and a hierarchy of values against Muslims, homosexuals and the anti-American left, in a depressing replay of Raymond Aron ("our forefather") v Jean-Paul Sartre ("over and done with"). At one point Leibo is caught out by what his enemies see as a "chiasmus", in which "a suggestive ellipsis" equates Jews with Nazis; he insists that it was intended as an "asymmetrical chiasmus". But the complications visited on the old divisions between left and right by the fall of the Berlin Wall, the emergence of two opposing forms of gay activism and finally the 11 September attacks have been too well prepared by the juicy dialectical ironies of the first 20 pages. The fun that Garcia has in the age of Foucault steals the thunder he needs for the age of Fukuyama." - Leo Robson
Interview by Sandra Laugier
Interview at The Varsity