Obituary: Yves Navarre
Wednesday 26 January 1994
YVES NAVARRE was born in 1940 into a prosperous bourgeois family at Condom (Gers), in Gascony, a region traditionally celebrated for its tellers of tall tales and its romantic braggadocio. In the first of two volumes of his own semi-fictionalised Biographie (1981), Navarre states: 'I never decided to be a writer, I was writing even before I knew how to write. Writing begins at the first glance exchanged with another.' But he did start writing at a very early age, while still a student at the Lycee Pasteur in Neuilly-sur-Seine, and later at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales du Nord in the University of Lille.
Navarre kept his hand in as a writer at 'that other school of composition', copywriting, and for many years worked as editor and creative writer in publicity companies. Some of his fictional characters bear witness to this professional training: Sarah in Kurwenal (1977) or Barbara in Une vie de chat (1986). Yet it was not until 1971 that he was finally able to publish what he described as his 'umpteenth novel', Lady Black. It had a moderate succes d'estime and was followed almost every year by a new novel.
Evolene (1972) was more highly praised, and led to his first big success, Les Loukoums (1973), which was later translated into English. It is still a best-seller in the paperback edition, with its charming drawing of the author by David Hockney (1975), showing a great perceptive sympathy for a character both wary and defiant, tender and - as befits a true Gascon - choleric.
Les Loukoums may truly be described as a prophetic novel, for it describes the mortal illness of an older man, Rasky, in New York. When he telegraphs his former, much younger lover, Luc, a Frenchman who is unmistakably a semi- autobiographical portrait of Navarre himself, to fly to his bedside from Paris, Luc finds his old friend in a hospital room like a mortuary, too weak to move, his body covered with scars supposed to be symptoms of syphilis, but which we recognise today as the type of skin cancer called Kaposi's Sarcoma. They joke that no one dies of 'Dame Syphy'. But the disease Rasky is dying from is certainly Aids, though it was not until the early 1980s that it was discovered and so named in New York.
Les Loukoums, like most of Navarre's other novels, is partly autobiographical. They nearly all contain explicit references to his homosexuality, or to characters who struggle to comes to terms with the gay way of life by creating what might be described as 'homosociality' in their relationships with others. The charming Une Vie de chat (1986) contains several scenes in which the very observant cat, Tiffauges, watches his master, Abel, coming home in the middle of the night and having sex with young pickups from the parks. This amusing but disturbing book is surely partly inspired by Natsume Soseki's I am a Cat, the French translation of which had appeared in 1976. This knowing pet can also be regarded as a portrait of the author, who in Biographie 1 tells us he prefers to compose straight on his typewriter, as that gives him a sense of distancing from himself impossible when he writes by hand: 'Cats can write,' he says, 'because they are quiet, observe, listen and give the best of themselves.' His master, like Navarre, seems always to be writing the same novel, with the same characters, including himself, under different names.
Though outwardly successful and famous, Navarre was full of conflicts with himself, his family, his friends, his lovers, and especially with his various publishers. There are a number of references to humiliating dinners with publishers and editors in which his latest novel is rejected as 'not what we expected': one editor goes so far as to say that if the boy lover in one had been changed to a girl, it might have been acceptable. There are also passages of great bitterness about real or imagined slights from the intellectual, literary and gay communities of Paris.
In an issue of Globe magazine devoted to homosexuality in 1989 Navarre published an outspoken defence of his gay life, describing how it had moved from militantism to disillusion and finally indifference. This last word is one he picks up when he declares that homosexuals should not fight for their 'right to difference' but to their 'right to indifference' on the part of the general public. He quotes Barthes and Lacan, saying that he has finally discovered how to be at peace with himself and his sexuality - what Barthes called 'la quietude insexuelle' - while Lacan's aphorism 'Il n'y a pas de rapport sexuel' is a favourite of Navarre's and serves as an epigraph to Biographie 1 which he again insists is not autobiography but fiction.
Navarre won the Prix Goncourt in 1980 for Le Jardin d'Acclimatation which is not really one of his best works. Then he was made a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres - a distinction he would refer to with amused indifference. He also enjoyed some success as a playwright, and his collected plays are published in three volumes (1973, 1976, 1979). He published two books for children. Several of his works have been published in English by Quartet Books: The Little Rogue in Our Flesh (Ce Petit galopin de nos corps); Our Share of Time (Le Temps voulu); and A Cat's Life (Une Vie de chat)
In the end Navarre could no longer bear literary life in France, and left Paris to live in Montreal, where he had gone to recover from a stroke in 1983, and from which he made a brave recovery. It is this city which forms the background to his novel Ce Sont amis que vent emporte (1991) which brings us full circle from Les Loukoums. It is the story of two men in their forties, who have long been lovers, and who are both dying of Aids. One is the ballet dancer David, the other a sculptor named Roch. They are both in the terminal stages of the disease, though David is more advanced in his sickness than Roch, who still manages to take care of him. Like Les Loukoums, it is the story of the sex and love lives of two devoted friends, seeking to establish among the trash and terror of contemporary gay existence a responsible way of living, a 'homosociality' that keeps being swept away by fits of gay irresponsibility.
After three years in exile in Montreal, Navarre returned to Paris in 1992, to a small apartment in the Marais, where he lived alone, without even a favourite cat. The Academie Francaise awarded him a sort of consolation prize 'in support of further literary creation and as a reward for his work as a whole', and he made the embittered comment, in the words of Vicky, a character in his play Les Dernieres clientes (1977), set in a sauna: 'All despair is not yet lost'. He was seen occasionally at rendezvous like Le Duplex, Domboulette and Le Coffee Shop before the crush started, at the gay bookshop Les Mots a la Bouche and at the celebrated bar Piano Zinc where he would sip a double decaffeinated coffee before retiring to his solitary couch.
'I rarely go anywhere else. I no longer travel,' he said in an interview in the magazine Gai Pied Hebdo. 'I should like to take my leave of life in a clean and decent manner.' Police reported that Navarre took his own life at his apartment in Paris on Monday.
Navarre's last two novels were La Vie dans l'ame (1992) and Poudre d'or (1993). His was a noble career that came full circle in more senses than one. The first book to be defined as a novel about Aids was La Chute de Babylon (1986), by Valery Luria (pseudonym of the pianist Valery Afanassyev). But Navarre can justly be said to have written the first one long before that with Les Loukoums, and deserves to be remembered for that fact alone.
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