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Going to meet the man

HALLUCINATING FOUCAULT by Patricia Duncker, Serpent's Tail pounds 8.99
IN her first novel, Patricia Duncker has chosen to live dangerously. Not only does she use the now weary convention of putting a famous name in the title (Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot is probably to blame for setting this vogue in train), but she also bases the book on a tiresomely over-worked theme, a writer on the trail of the "truth" about his biographee - or, in this case, the subject of his research. However, the news is good: on both counts, Duncker sails close to the wind, but on both counts she gets away with it, triumphantly.

Our narrator, a swotty and quasi-naive young PhD student, sets out to find the object of his study, a mysterious, wild and (therefore) glamorous French writer, Paul Michel. Such decisiveness is quite out of character, but he is goaded into action by his Cambridge girlfriend, a spiky, owl- eyed Germanist with a mysteriously rich and svelte father with some surprising friends. The Germanist, a cleverly drawn licentious puritan, challenges the narrator's passion for his subject until he realises that life must take over from scholarship. Where is Paul Michel? Dead? Locked up in a mental institution? In need of rescue?

The ensuing quest takes him to Paris, where he discovers a cache of (perhaps unsent?) letters from Paul Michel to Foucault. Inspired, he travels to the provincial French town where the writer is indeed incarcerated, and persuades the doctors first to let him visit daily, then to release Michel. Through a steamy summer in Provence the growing link between the two is used by Duncker - who is refreshingly unEnglish in her relationship with things intellectual - to delve into her Big Themes: madness, sexuality, love and identity, writing and the writer's relationship with his reader. Such a list immediately makes the book sound less readable than it is: in fact, Duncker manages her brainy material with a touch so deft it is almost skittish, inserts little hooks into the heart as well as the mind, and rounds the whole lot off with a thriller-like twist. Catherine Storey