Wednesday 15 February 1995
I met Niel and de Duve in the Eighties in Brussels, where Niel was working in a bookshop. When Niel's first novel, Vous qui passez dans l'ombre (1989), was published to great acclaim in France, I wrote an enthusiastic review, and later translated it for Quartet Books as Painted Shadows (1991). The original title had been taken from a famous chanson "Vous qui passez sans me voir", with words by Charles Trenet. It was a peculiarly suitable choice of title, for Niel was a fan of the older style of chanson-singing immortalised by Rina Ketty, Georges Guetary and above all Berthe Sylva, who appears in the book. But Trenet refused to allow Gallimard to use his title on a book filled with one of the kinkiest collections of outsiders and misfits - hookers, rent boys, transvestites, pimps, pushers, voyeurs - all set in the exuberantly eccentric red-light district of the old town in Nice.
Niel was himself a person out of the ordinary, with his classic handsomeness and the warm impulsiveness of the Provencal. His very handwriting was flamboyant - a calligraphy of his own devising, often hard to read, based on the typographies of the neon signs he adored and that play their part in all his books.
His second novel, Ludion d'alcohol (1990, "The Bottle Imp") is the portrait of a mysterious and beautiful woman who is alcoholic, mystical, devout and a murderer. The hero, a young student, becomes obsessed by her and her story, and tries to solve her mystery, helped by numerous picturesque characters in a variety of unusual settings. It is the novel of a young man intoxicated by existence and by the ideal of a love that would embrace both God and man, exquisite emotions and the basest, most sordid of sexual compulsions. The scenes take place mainly at night, in a naval seaport that seems to be Villefranche, and Niel skilfully constructs an atmosphere of hallucinated dread. This novel was awarded the Prix de la Vocation and the Prix Litteraire des Grandes Ecoles et des Universites.
Niel's third novel had the ominous title from the Eucharist Ceci est mon sang ("This is My Blood"), published in 1992, the year of de Duve's death from Aids. It is less successful than the first two books, and seems to have been composed under great stress, for it evokes the illness from which he was already suffering. The cover shows a still from Pasolini's The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, with Christ receiving the kiss of Judas Iscariot. Many of the characters and scenes in the novel are related to Niel's own marginal existence in the "gay" circles of Toulouse, Paris and Provence, and, though undoubtedly based on personal experience, they fail to convince. An affair with two Breton fishermen brothers at the beginning of the book is particularly unsatisfactory. The main character, obviously Niel himself, is never referred to by name: he is simply "He" and this decision seems to absent the author from his own book.
Niel completed two more works before he died, working with great courage and self- discipline to the end. One is a new novel, Connais-moi, to appear this summer, the other an autobiography of childhood and adolescence that may do much to explain the subsequent course of the author's life. Entitled La Maison Niel, it will be published by Gallimard in their autobiographical series "Haute Enfance".
Jean-Baptiste Niel, novelist: born Valreas (Vaucluse) 12 April 1962; died Paris 12 February 1995.
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