`Three cheers for pornography'

Pierre Guyotat is an uncompromising author: self-confessed filth- merchant, fervent anti-colonialist, the 20th century's heir to the Marquis de Sade. In France, his novel Eden Eden Eden was banned for 11 years, until President Mitterrand intervened. Now ...
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France's most controversial living writer is virtually unknown in this country, thanks to difficulties in translating his extremist oeuvre - extreme in style and in content. Pierre Guyotat is the uncompromising heir of De Sade, Artaud and Genet. He writes violent and pornographic books in his own invented language. Edmund White has called him "the last great avant-garde visionary of our century." Roland Barthes wrote an introduction to one of his books Eden Eden Eden - a work of which Michel Foucault remarked: "I have never read anything like it in any stream of literature", praising its "startling innovation". It has been labelled pornographic, a charge that Guyotat revels in. "Pornography is certainly more beautiful than eroticism," he observes. "Eroticism is ugly. Eroticism is an ideology... there is nothing more boring than eroticism, it's worse than poetry, even. I say three cheers for pornography."

Born in 1940 in a small town in a mountainous area of France near Lyons, the son of a doctor, Guyotat joined the army while still a teenager and served in Algeria while that country fought France for independence. Guyotat instinctively found himself more sympathetic to the Algerians (one can see a similarity with Genet and Rimbaud here), and incited the Algerian conscripts to desert. After getting involved in brawls with officers, he was arrested by the military police and interrogated for 10 days before being thrown into an earth pit beneath the army kitchens where he lived in semi darkness for three months in constant fear of his life. "They threw me scraps of food, refuse," he recalls, "not fit for a dog." He managed to write on a piece of paper which he kept hidden from his captors. The link with De Sade, scribbling away in the Bastille, is unavoidable.

Drawing partly on his experiences as a soldier, Guyotat has set many of his celebrated avant-garde novels in hallucinatory north African war zones. Soldiers rape and pillage. Bereft of narrative, and using short rhythmic phrases, he detonates sex as bestial act of power, and piles on atrocity after atrocity. With all the eidetic and visionary power of Rimbaud's illuminations, he burns images of war into the retina. War is a monstrously glorified exchange of fluids and solids.

"War is a situation in which one is totally insecure - sexually insecure as well as afraid for one's life," he has said. Imagine if De Sade had written about Vietnam after fighting in it, and you will get some idea of Guyotat's cultural significance for the French - both reviled and adored in equal measure.

Eden Eden Eden is published this week in Britain. The British academic and biographer of Artaud, Stephen Barber, remarks: "It stinks of sperm and killing." It's a novel that has become legendary in its own time. Originally published in 1970, it was immediately banned by the French government until President Mitterrand personally intervened in 1981. That's also the year Guyotat famously nearly wrote himself to death; he was so absorbed in the completion of an intractable work that he forgot to eat properly and ended up being rushed to hospital in a coma. "I was mad," he says. "And at the same time I was living in a camper van. I was driving and hallucinating and getting into very extreme situations. Once I got into a fight on a road near Marseilles, and my attacker threw me off a cliff into the sea. I was covered in blood and so weak it took me a day to climb back up to my van."

Guyotat has been described as a hermit. He has always lived in some poverty, at one time in a grim block of flats in the southern suburbs of Paris, living only on his small royalties and occasional fees from the Pompidou Centre where he goes every few years to deliver long extemporisations in the form of performance art (one photograph shows a naked man and piles of meat on a cart). Edmund White describes meeting him in his book Sketches from Memory. White says: "He has a powerful hieratic appearance and you feel you are in the presence of a priest of Baal - or perhaps he is Baal. He's stark raving mad but a very gifted writer who staked out the extreme limits of how far you can go."

Like many Anglo-Saxons, White betrays an amused and slightly baffled interest in the French passion for the avant-garde. He describes Guyotat as stealing food from his plate at a dinner party, and how he fell asleep in one of Guyotat's two-hour improvisations. "In his language every other word sounded like `testicles', for some reason."

As a biographer of Genet, White was intrigued by the Guyotat phenomena. He recalls asking a doctorate student about Guyotat's sexual proclivities. "She said his sexuality did not involve other living creatures."

I presumed Guyotat would reject labels about sexuality and I was right. At first he was evasive: "to be homosexual, to be anti-sex, pro-sex - "to be" something does not exist." Yes, I asked, but do you prefer men or women? He laughed and finally relented. "I like both - it's very clear - and it's very difficult to like both sexes, it pulls you apart."

He has very little time for sex; for Guyotat work is sex, and not just in the conventional "creation as sex". Guyotat is notorious for his habit of masturbating while he writes. The resulting soiled manuscripts are then shown in galleries as works of art (the Cabinet Gallery in Charing Cross Road is showing these gummed up note books to coincide with Guyotat's first British publication). "Sex is the most relentless and powerful force in the world: it is all life, it is reality. It is not obscene." I asked him about scenes in Eden Eden Eden set in an Algerian boy brothel. Had he visited such a place? He seemed a little shocked. "No, no I 'ate them," he growled while admitting he had been to female seraglios in the desert zones.

Like Rimbaud, who ended up as a gun runner and coffee trader in Ethiopia and Somalia, Guyotat is drawn by the desert. He talks of the Saharan wastes with all the tenderness of a lover; he particularly likes the intermediate landscapes between desert and pasture, the mountainous areas "that look like moonscapes but with beautifully coloured rocks" given a chance, he would happily live in Algeria (he listens to Algerian popular music with a passion). "But it's impossible." He has watched with horror the rise of fundamentalism in Africa. For him fundamentalism is rooted in an attack on the writer (Guyotat has been vocal in supporting Salman Rushdie from the "great gestures of beard and robe"). "Asserting the divine character of a text is an insult to the human writer of it - it erases him, makes him disappear. Fundamentalism is an attack on writing itself and all writers should see this."

The British may laugh at Guyotat or be shocked by him. But his dedication to the idea of "being a writer" makes British literary preoccupations with Martin Amis' teeth and Julian Barnes' pool game seem quite banal. Though Guyotat's preoccupations with remodelling the French language and dwelling on French colonial atrocities may not have quite the same reactive effect in this country, his power as a writer, even in translation, is deadly and pure.

n Pierre Guyotat talks at the Phoenix Gallery, Waterloo Place, Brighton at 9.30pm tonight. A month-long exhibition of his work is at the Cabinet Gallery, 148 Charing Cross Rd, London n `Eden Eden Eden' (£7.95) was published this week by Creation Press