BOOK REVIEW / Family portraits off the wall: 'My Parents' - Herve Guibert trs Liz Heron: Serpent's Tail, 8.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THE LATE Herve Guibert was obsessed with his parents: with their personal and sexual identities and with their marriage, entered into lovelessly to suppress a scandal, but held together by affection born of habit and a firm conviction that despair is immoral. A fine blend of autobiography and fiction is the hallmark of Guibert's writing: in his texts 'the I has a petty disguise in the identity of a fictional character'. This, his last book, records the little happenings, huge awakenings, betrayals and reconciliations of life with his parents.

The simplest objects are animated in Guibert's hands. He crafts a marvellous evocation of his babyhood love for a 'voluminous white woollen garment' like a security blanket, with its smothering 'nappy pappy smell' (wonder what the French for nappy pappy was?) - and then, treacherously, having the tired-out woollen thing tricked away from him down a rubbish chute: 'My first notion of death, my first contempt.'

He richly captures family smells, rituals, holiday treats, punishments, the baldness remedy of chestnuts, macerated rose petals and mashed banana he invented and rubbed hopefully into his father's shiny pate. He records childhood intoxications with all things theatrical, and Terence Stamp in particular. 'What do you see in this guy?' his father wants to know, but helps him in his quest for photographs nevertheless.

This is portraiture by anecdote. When he tells his parents he is gay, Mother does a bad performance of fainting and his father briskly asserts, 'You have to put this behind you now . . . It's time you acted like a real man with some young girl.' 'Hey presto' is Father's motto.

This couple in quilted nylon dressing-gowns are hard to reconcile with the blackguard that Father allegedly was in youth or the Mother who seduced a parish priest, which is the yarn spun at the novel's opening. Of course age can take the snap out of your celery, but one also suspects that the discrepancies indicate the join between roguish fiction and mellower fact. Latterly, Father is a fusspot much concerned about the brand names of his toiletries (he shared his choice of mouthwash with the Queen of Denmark), and Mother likes to remind them she would have gone places but for those varicose veins. Such details have a touching whiff of truth, as do Guibert's wild fluctuations between devotion and contempt, awe and boredom. The narrative itself, episodic throughout, does seem to come a little unstuck towards the end, the observation just as penetrating but increasingly disjointed.

To talk about a 'tragic' or 'untimely' death seems stupidly tautological: where are the comic or timely ones? But to lose this wonderful writer to Aids at the age of 36 is bitter. Thank goodness he left his vibrant prose behind.