Hadrien Laroche - The first, orphaned by history, still mourns a father who was sent to a Nazi concentration camp, never to return. The second, orphaned by pathology, has a rare disease, and is facing madness alone in a mountain chalet. The third, orphaned by philosophy, is a teenager who has decided to cut all ties with his parents

Hadrien Laroche, Orphans, Trans. by  Jan Steyn, Dalkey Archive Press, 2014.

A forlorn traveler is taken in by three suffering orphans, who, in the midst of their pain, give him food and shelter. The first, orphaned by history, still mourns a father who was sent to a Nazi concentration camp, never to return. The second, orphaned by pathology, has a rare disease, and is facing madness alone in a mountain chalet. The third, orphaned by philosophy, is a teenager who has decided to cut all ties with his parents.
Never one to avoid challenging questions, in this poignant triptych Laroche examines the relationship between a writer and his words: suggesting that, perhaps, he is the orphan of his own work.

“Hadrien Laroche is one of the most talented and original thinkers of his generation.” — Jacques Derrida

“An original and challenging short novel, structured in three stories, subtly and enigmatically connected and providing a high literary quality to the excellent narrative.”— Norman Manéa

The central characters of the first season of The Returned, an addictive and deeply unnerving French television drama available on Netflix, are identical twins, Camille and Léna. When we first meet Camille, she walks briskly up the road to her parents’ house in a polished town in the high Alps. Léna, meanwhile, is doing shots at the town’s rather youthful bar, the Lake Pub, named for the massive hydroelectric dam down below.
Léna drinks and drinks some more, apparently chasing a demon. Ravenous, Camille devours a sandwich. What’s to account for the intensity of their behavior? Four years earlier, at the end of a school field trip that Léna should also have attended, Camille was killed when the tour bus went over a cliff as it returned to town.
Soon, we are to realize, Camille isn’t alone among the confused and hungry dead who have just returned to walk among the living. A retired schoolteacher, Mr. Costa, has hidden his wife, who died in 1978, in the kitchen. She stuffs herself with spaghetti. Simon, who died on his wedding day, desperately searches for Adèle, his fiancée. Victor, a seven-year-old boy, lurks near a bus stop. He attaches himself to a woman with distant eyes. Indeed, the living here are as lonely as the orphan dead. And the dead feel their betrayal and exile as powerfully as do the living. “I lost my sister too,” insists Camille, when their father reminds her of Léna’s emotional wounds. Compounding the viewer’s discomfort: the script suggests that to execute the lie that allowed Léna to stay home on the day of the accident, the sisters had switched identities. Who exactly is living and who is dead?
The question seems gaudy, but it isn’t just a throwaway logline for a zombie show. Not at least to the French writer Hadrien Larouche, Derrida disciple, Sebaldian investigator, playful and meticulous prober of contemporary life, whose first novel, the 2005 Orphans has just been brought out in the English translation by Jan Steyn and Caite Dolan-Leach. In this season of Patrick Modiano, Larouche is another French writer of intense and insistent vision — in one place in this novel, he gives us Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, in another a man plugging his nostrils with cigarettes to keep off the stench of Serbian war dead. He is hot after the sense of personal spiritual identity in contemporary Europe, where the scars of the Second World War still bleed. He wants to know, in this meeting ground of living and dead, can anyone find comfort? “Death,” he writes, “held the living between its fingers. The dead finger kept the others prisoner.” In Orphans, the living likewise can’t let the dead be.
The narrator of Orphans, a man named Hadrien, lives in self-made exile, writing, collecting fragments of others’ lives. “I, someone who was determined to never become a collector have seen the most troubling, obscure, and subtle of collections,” he writes, in a voice that seems determined to beckon W.G. Sebald, the novelist of collected memory and material who died in a tragic accident in 2001. Hadrien’s specialty is “living apparitions,” women, mostly, “a vision of the living body from birth to death,” but, of course, who here, among the observer and the observed, is really alive? Larouche, a writer of precise and palpable sensation, wants the reader to feel the writer’s characteristic isolation, a kind of solitary death, even as he tries to immerse himself in the real lives of others. This tension frames his approach to Jean Genet in The Last Genet: A Writer in Revolt, his only other book to be published in English. “I’ve always felt well-placed in a room equipped with a bed, a table, and a stool, in someone else’s home,” observes Hadrien. “Of course, I am no longer living in my own home in any permanent fashion.”
Cut loose and yet not quite trying to connect intimately with others, Hadrien finds himself in the different houses of three people, each of them an orphan of sorts. Two of the orphans he visits in the real time of the narration itself; the third is a recollection from childhood. Larouche employs various devices to move us from one place to the next, but these are transparent — he isn’t concerned with narrative. Rather Orphans is a work of observation and inquiry.
Hadrien’s second visit — we’ll return to the first momentarily — is to the home of a friend, Helianthe née Bouttetruie, who has recently married and along with her husband purchased an old farmhouse they have to renovate. The house is located in the Swiss Alps, in a village that at first seems appealing and bright. “In truth,” says Hadrien, “it slowly worked on the bodies of its inhabitants, gently annihilating them, rendering them unrecognizable, and, finally, plunging them into despair.” This doesn’t seem far from zombie television, after all.
Helianthe’s house is a mess. Her father, an architect, has drawn up an impossible plan. Her husband, Hector — every name here starts with H, as if to reinforce the author’s own sense of exile — keeps getting injured. Worse still, she suffers from a degenerative disease, an orphan disease, according to Larouche for the way its pathology isn’t connected to any other syndrome. “One day, out of the blue, the orphan disease takes shelter under a man’s or woman’s roof, and suddenly, his or her body harbors a new creature,” he says. Helianthe is short of breath, often off balance, and prone to falling down. Her left leg is three and half centimeters shorter than the right.
In spite of the disease, Helianthe wants a child. The not yet born, Larouche would say, perhaps like the dead, have a handle on the living. But what of this prospective child? Helianthe’s doctor warns her that pregnancy and birth will kill her or the baby or both. She desires an orphan.
Larouche is a post-modern writer of considerable feeling; Helianthe, essentially a subject of exploration, stands up — crookedly, for sure — for her sense of humanity. He’s best in this space, close up to the living — here where contemporary people struggle, sometimes with the dead, for identity. At times, this puts him in conversation with Zadie Smith and Elena Ferrante, two quite different European writers. Helianthe, for example, speaks at least 14 languages and regional dialects. “Arriving in a foreign country meant at once a new life and a new language,” says Hadrien, of Helianthe’s global exile. “She experienced the joy of feeling foreign to herself.”
After Hector’s latest accident, Hadrien, walking in the mountains, sees an old man that must be his cousin, Henry né Berg. This jars his memory. As a child, Hadrien had once visited Henry’s family. Henry’s father, a sadistic banker, forced Henry to use the servant’s entrance to the house. The exiled boy rejects his father’s world until at some point the desire for his own power consumes him. Now, “becoming a man exactly like his father,” he embodies the old man, who lives on inside him. In this story, the least interesting of the three for Hadrien’s lack of personal connection, Larouche echoes the tone of Portuguese writer Gonçalo M. Tavares, whose novels often explore themes of father-son domination and revenge.
Those themes play out differently in the book’s first chapter, which takes place in the uncomfortable city apartment of Hannah née Bloch, a middle aged woman whose family was put in a Nazi camp in German-occupied Poland and was later exiled to France.
Hannah’s story, of a Jew in the diaspora, is the most familiar here. By type, from birth, she lives in exile. Hannah suffers. She pinches pennies; she rarely leaves her run-down apartment. She is a kind of walking dead. But certain tactile things trigger her heart to swell, if only momentarily. In these moments, she touches her childhood, before the war — the last time she saw her father. She cleanses herself according to Jewish custom, she prepares a Sabbath meal, she lights candles and the light filters through the fingers she holds in front of her face. Once, she traveled to Israel, and in the Old City of Jerusalem allowed herself to become intoxicated by the bazaar. The sensations, smells, and visions carried her to Poland, which she couldn’t otherwise remember, and she fainted. She tells this to Hadrien while they travel on a city bus.
When they return to the apartment, they eat pistachios and Hannah recalls her childhood. Her father died in the work camp, but her mother, who she argues with every day on the phone, endlessly, wouldn’t ever admit he was dead. “Everyone in this family lived on the back of the disappeared man,” she tells Hadrien, “on the ruins of his death and, finally, on the spot occupied by a living person we couldn’t bury.” She’d never forgiven the betrayal. Her mother, she says, failed to teach her how to “face up to death, to affirm life.”
At some point, as an adult, she forced herself to stop believing her father would return. This was her only revenge against her mother. Hadrien watches her pray in the light of the candle, “an infinite grievance between her teeth.” She tells herself to gaze forward, there’s more to live. But, Larouche reminds us, our thoughts, like the dead, are restless. They badger us into isolation and then they never let us alone. - 

Interview with Hadrien Laroche, author of Orphans

Hadrien Laroche, The Last Genet: A Writer in Revolt. Trans. by David Homel. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010.

read it at Google Books

During the last eighteen years of his life (1968-86), Jean Genet was preoccupied with the struggles of the disenfranchised and displaced: among them, the Black Panthers, the Baader-Meinhof, and the Palestinians. Hadrien Laroche's book is a careful philosophical and historical reading (though fascinating as a political thriller) of the acts and thoughts of various international political movements in the seventies and the eighties, and of Genet's own experiences and writings. It describes the adventures of a writer engaged with the "real world," as opposed to what Genet called "the grammatical world."
This translation of Le dernier Genet (Seuil) considers Genet's insights, failures, and critique of humanism, and examines the way in which his energetic prose forged a new political, aesthetic, and philosophical relation between literature and the world.
The Last Genet focuses on a critical moment in western culture, but also, on a broader scale, questions of borders, language, and identity, offering an alternative to Sartre's concept of engagement.
The original edition was nominated for France's prestigious Prix Femina as best essay, and the book has been praised by Elisabeth Roudinesco, Bernard-Henri Levy, Albert Dichy, and others.

"A beautiful book, painting the dark side of Jean Genet: those moments that are the most fascinating about a writer."—Bernard-Henri Levy

"This is a magnificent book that gives us the metamorphoses of the last Genet, the poet of the jouissance of evil saved from abjection by his sacred relation with the language of the sublime."
Elisabeth Roudinesco

"Genet's last journey, as revealed by Laroche, is imbued with beauty, metamorphosis and emancipation on one hand, and monstrosity, nihilism and hopelessness on the other. An indispensible study for readers interested in Genet, the Black Panthers, the Palestinian/Israeli conflict or, more generally, the philosophy of humanism."—Kirkus Reviews

"Laroche's exhaustive research provides a historical framework for examining Jean Genet's later non-fiction work, particularly Prisoner of Love, and the ways in which his political ideals and experiences shaped his worldview."—Publishers Weekly

Hadrien Laroche's eloquent, evocative meditation on mid-20th-century French writer Jean Genet focuses on the last and surprising phase of the life of an author remembered as a scandal-causing gay novelist, experimental playwright and defender of the oppressed. Laroche, a novelist himself, and former cultural attaché at the French consulate in Vancouver, first published The Last Genet in 1997 as part of his graduate studies with philosopher Jacques Derrida. Now, suitably updated, ably translated by David Homel, Laroche's book serves as a timely homage that marks the centenary of Genet's birth on Dec. 19, 1910.
Outside select literary circles, Genet is today an almost-forgotten writer, so it's probably appropriate not only to consider the "last Genet," but also to recall the story of the "first Genet." One of the most remarkable encounters in modern French literary history occurred during the Second World War, in Nazi-occupied Paris. An unknown writer in his early 30s, Genet was brought before celebrated French writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau.
A witness to the meeting, a visiting painter, described Genet as a "curious character, half convict, half bantamweight boxer." The "curious character" with manuscript in hand could also be described as an orphan, petty thief, homosexual, occasional prostitute and homeless vagabond, recently released from his latest stint in prison.
Genet said to Cocteau, "Master, I'd like to read you passages from my manuscript." For the next hour or so, Genet, standing, read extracts from Our Lady of the Flowers. If Genet read like a man "unveiling a masterpiece," as the visiting painter noted, it was for good reason. Written in prison, inspired by masturbatory fantasy, erotically glorifying society's outcasts and transgressing the rules of conventional fiction, Our Lady was unlike any novel of its time.
At first, Cocteau resisted. "I don't much like all these stories of drag and queens," he said after Genet had left. But he knew he was wrong, and sent for the manuscript. That night, Cocteau wrote in his journal: "Jean Genet brought me his novel. Three hundred incredible pages in which he pieces together the mythology of 'queers.' " And a few days later: "The book is here, in the apartment, extraordinary, obscure, unpublishable, inevitable. … For me, it's the great event of the epoch. It disgusts me, repels me, astonishes me. … I've reread Our Lady of the Flowers line by line. … Here, there's the solitude and the shimmering of a black star."
As it turned out, Our Lady of the Flowers, backed by Cocteau, was not unpublishable. Seemingly overnight, in the years immediately after the war, Genet burst upon the literary firmament as a fully accomplished writer of novels, poems and even a couple of one-act plays. He was the subject of Saint-Genet: Actor and Martyr, a book-length "existential psychoanalysis" by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.
Then the peripatetic Genet more or less disappeared from the Parisian scene, often travelling in North Africa, where he pursued various long-standing amatory affairs. It wasn't until the mid-1950s that his literary sabbatical ended and the "middle Genet" emerged as a successful playwright. He was part of a "new wave" of French-language dramatists and filmmakers that included Samuel Beckett and Jean-Luc Godard.
Though Genet's plays, such as The Balcony and The Blacks, continued to be performed to acclaim, he pretty much stopped writing by the 1960s. This time, the silence appeared to be permanent. Apart from the occasional newspaper piece or rare interview, usually in support of some political cause, he was seldom heard from. Genet was seen in the United States speaking in defence of the Black Panthers; he peered into the embattled Sorbonne during the student revolt of 1968; he wrote about Germany's Red Army Faction, and he travelled in Jordan and Lebanon, living among Palestinian refugees. But in the quarter-century until his death from throat cancer in 1986, he published no books.
As Edmund White remarks in his 1993 biography, Genet, "When Jean Genet died in 1986, many people … were surprised to discover he hadn't died years before. … the astonishment mounted when a few months after his death a long posthumous work, Prisoner of Love, was published."
The book was a collage of vignettes, both romantic and self-doubting, recalling Genet's experience of living with the Palestinians, especially in the camps of the Palestine Liberation Organization's guerrilla fighters. Though Prisoner of Love is politically supportive of his young militant hosts, it is neither ideological nor propagandistic; though its portrait of men and landscapes is sensuous, its eroticism is chaste. White adds, "It was unlike anything Genet had written before and few people had even suspected he remained capable in his 70s of such a sustained effort."
This is the "last Genet" whose meandering itinerary on the side of political outcasts Hadrien Laroche takes up. Laroche writes in the tradition of the French essay, at once lyrical and densely analytic. It's a line of thought that runs from Montaigne through Camus and all the way up to Derrida. Laroche meditates on the images of the era (including that emblematic triumvirate of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll), the oscillations of politics and violence, and on the last years of the paradoxical Genet, rebel and humanist.
Genet's life, early and late, is eerily reminiscent of that of his 19th-century predecessor, boy-poet Arthur Rimbaud, who ceased writing at 19 and went off to Africa to work as a commercial trader until his premature death, turning his back on literature forever. Genet, too, stopped writing and went off to metaphoric and literal deserts, but in his case, unlike Rimbaud's absolute silence, there was a final, magical literary work as Genet returned for a last time to the "grammatical" or literary world, to give an account of the "real" one. If Laroche's reflection on the "last Genet" does no more than return us to the "first Genet," it will have served its purpose. - Stan Persky