Gabrielle Wittkop

Free-thinking writer of scabrous wit

Friday 27 December 2002 01:00
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Gabrielle Ménardeau, writer: born Nantes, France 1920; married Justus Wittkop (deceased); died Frankfurt, Germany 22 December 2002.

On her 81st birthday, the eccentric and sulphurous novelist and essayist Gabrielle Wittkop wrote a farewell letter to Bernard Wallet, publisher of the small but very choice Editions Verticales in Paris, telling him she had lung cancer and intended one day to put an end to her life. "I intend to die as I lived, as a free man." She went on: "I am a free man, and there are very few of them today. Free men are not career men."

Her birthplace, Nantes, has been the abode of a strange assortment of artists and writers, among them the venerable genius Julien Gracq. Gabrielle Ménardeau's father possessed a large and liberal library where his daughter was allowed free range. She taught herself to read by the age of four. At six, she was reading the French classics: "As soon as I learnt to read, I got the feeling, unforgettable, of absolute power." Naturally, she started to write, and her liberal father paid her five francs for her first manuscript, when she was eight. By the age of 20, she had read everything, with a special predilection for the 18th century. By then, France was at war, and she did not publish anything for many years.

During the Occupation, she met in Paris a German deserter, Justus Wittkop, whom she hid from the Nazis. He was a homosexual, some 40 years older than Gabrielle, but they married, and with the peace in 1946 moved to Germany, where she wrote her first book, in German, E.T.A. Hoffmann in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten ("E.T.A. Hoffmann: self-revelations and picture documentations"), in 1966. She wrote articles for magazine and newspapers including the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in whose pages I first became entranced by her stimulating sarcasms and curiously learned deflations of international literary self-satisfactions. She also employed her scientific and medical knowledge, and her familiarity with the benefits and bugbears of all kings of drugs, when working for Hoffmann-La Roche laboratories.

From her bisexual adolescence onwards, Gabrielle revelled in sexual excess, and developed a healthy dislike of humankind. She learned the rapture of loneliness, and was totally opposed to any kind of "social consciousness" .

She was one of those blessed originals who never had to go to school: "My father declared that school was a place where children were forced into unnatural conformity by the imbeciles whose natural habitat is the classroom." He did not encourage his daughter to be "sociable" and she confessed: "I detest nothing so much as little children; even when I was a child I couldn't stand their company."

These free-thinking attitudes to life were also extended by her to the wry contemplation of death, disease and decrepitude. So it was the subject of her first novel, Le Nécrophile ("The Necrophiliac"), published in 1972 by the equally anti-moralistic, anti-political, pro-sexual-liberty pioneer of modern erotic editions, Régine Desforges. In later life, Wittkop remarked of her: "Ah, yes, that Régine! I don't like her, and she doesn't like me. But she's afraid of nothing!" An insight that could certainly be applied to Wittkop herself.

In German, she published in 1985 Unsere Kleidung ("Our Clothes"), a refreshingly fetishist history of European fashions which was never translated. She wrote with an often scabrous wit about her multifarious roamings around the world, and in 1986 published Les Rajahs blancs ("The White Rajas"), in which her favourite beast, the tigress, makes an appearance among the international hoi polloi of Sarawak. Another travel book, Les Départs exemplaires, appeared in 1995.

One of her best novels, La Mort de C., had been published in 1975, the story of the death of an English homosexual tourist, Christopher, in the brothels of Bombay, a city that fascinated Wittkop. Another great city that she came to know well through paintings and literature and many visits was Venice, and her book about the 18th century's macabre follies around its lagoons is Sérénissime assassinat, a glorious evocation of rapturously immoral sexual deviations and inventive poisonings, published in 2001.

Hemlock (1988) describes with strangely moving detachment the voluntary death of her lifetime companion, the homosexual deserter she married to protect him from the Occupation troops in Paris. They were both sexually ambivalent, and Gabrielle writes: "It was a marriage of friendship and affection. My motto is: don't get on other people's tripe!" At the end of his life, Justus Wittkop developed Parkinson's disease, and she treated sympathetically his decision to end his own life in a dignified manner:

He talked to me about it, and I told him: "Yes, you should do it!" I had to leave home next day on business, and I knew what I would find when I returned home in the evening. He didn't want a life in a wheelchair. His dear friend Ulrich was with him, and told me: "His hand did not shake when he drank the poison . . . I hope I can do the same one day."

It was a sentiment Gabrielle Wittkop preserved in her own unobtrusive manner of leaving this life, with her true feelings for the resolution of her lifelong necrophiliac passions.

James Kirkup

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