Pan MacMillan, 1997. 178pp
ISBN: 0 330 35177 X
"It is absolutely essential to fall in love with your Muse. For most writers the beloved reader and the Muse are the same person."
Paul Michel is a writer, an enfant terrible of the French literary world, homosexual, anarchic and mad. Foucault was his Muse, his reader, and, when Foucault died, Michel's violent despair caused him to be legally restrained by the State in a mental hospital.
Patricia Duncker's narrator is a young man whose life has been drastically changed by Paul Michel, about whom he was writing a Ph.D. thesis. He tells his story with a wry clarity, recalling love, obsession, madness, confusion and homosexual passion in a voice which rarely falters, in spite of his creator's different gender.
Duncker writes for an educated reader and her characters are clever and challenging but not always completely human. Partly, this is deliberate. Her narrator tends to apply bitter labels to others in his story rather than name them. His depiction of "The Germanist", the woman who seduces him and leads him into finding Paul Michel for motives of her own, verges on caricature. As does his picture of her gay father, known throughout his story as "The Bank of England".
In contrast to these, Paul Michel is disturbingly alive and human. And the narrator's experience of Michel's madness, which is often a deliberate flouting of normal conventions (rather reminiscent of Jack Nicholson's zany madness in the film of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) is exceptionally well conveyed.
Duncker's handling of domestic scenes with her odd characters is less sure, but the story is dynamic, curious and a wonderful warning to all post-graduate researchers not to let their thesis subject take over their lives.
As for Foucault, the Sunday Times reviewer noted that "transgression, sexual ambiguity and madness" were his "abiding themes", but it is not necessary to have read his work to enjoy this book.
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