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Ark Audio Book Club Review: The Necrophiliac by Gabrielle Wittkop

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If you read I Love Dick in public places and have ever since missed the strange looks from passersby, despair no more; here is another book for you to read on the metro!

The Necrophiliac is a very short book from 1972 and many reviews emphasize how disgusting it is and how difficult it was to keep reading. That was not really a problem for me, instead, I’m just sorry that there isn’t a sequel or prequel to this incredibly seductive and highly manipulative piece of prose.

Lucien is an antique dealer and a necrophiliac. The book is an excerpt from his diary spanning a couple of years in the 19-somethings. At night he prowls the Parisian cemeteries, digs up corpses and brings them to his apartment on the 5th floor, where he keeps them for days while he has his way with them until the process of decay forces him to dump them in the river. This process is vividly explained. His diary is affectionate, humorous, altmodisch, romantic, self-possessed but gradually he loses his self-control as the diary entries progress.

Lucien starts to slip. The maids quit one after another in protest of the black flies appearing in his apartment. One evening after disposing of his latest lover in Sèvres, he almost gets caught and when he leaves for Napoli (The City of the Dead), it is, of course, because the ground beneath him is burning. Here he embarks on his final escapades in a gigantic decadent party before the novel ends on a ‘lighter’ note in a scene reminiscent of the ending of Bataille’s Story of the Eye (another great book about sex, death and transgression, and, until now, my point of reference when it comes to transgressive literature — but when compared to The Necrophiliac, I wouldn’t think twice about letting my 12-year old cousin read it).

An almost unavoidable point is the separation of mind and body: To Lucien, his necrophilia is an act of something higher and purer. An ideal. A hunger for the flawless, which is what Lucien thinks of corpses. A lust for bodies without minds.

We don’t know much about our protagonist; only that he resides in Paris, knows Latin, deals antiques, had his sexual awakening as an 8-year old upon seeing his dead mother and that he is probably well read as he quotes Tristan Corbiere (“to come like a hanged man”), Herodot (“Herodot teaches us that women of quality “after their death are not delivered directly to the embalmers … They aren’t given up until after three or four days. This is done in order to avoid the embalmers taking advantage of these women.” … “Three or four days” is so naive…!”)  and Edgar Allen Poe (“Shall I then say that I longed with an earnest and consuming desire for the moment of Morella’s decease? I did.”)  in his diary.

The frequent use of literary quotes and the diary’s structured storyline almost turns Lucien into a literary caricature. This short book is so densely saturated with signs, symbols, and references that, despite its length, it can be taken in so many directions. That makes it an ideal book to play with, and from which to develop different interpretations.

An almost unavoidable point is the separation of mind and body: To Lucien, his necrophilia is an act of something higher and purer. An ideal. A hunger for the flawless, which is what Lucien thinks of corpses. A lust for bodies without minds. The mind being typically ascribed as masculine and the body being a feminine matter, Lucien wants to transcend the masculine (the mind) and longs for bodies without consciousness, kind of ends up inverting his own ideals in the process of his quest for the flawless, the mindless, the feminine. While Lucien shows no preferences towards men or women and will have a go with whatever he digs up, regardless of age or looks, everything becomes heavily gendered. Lucien is a mind without a body, quietly invoking Descartes in his desire for the separation, but in his pursuit of the body and in self-aggrandizing contempt for the mind of the living, Lucien does not see (or does he!) what the reader quickly notices: that he gradually starts to lose control as he more and more submits himself to his bodily desires. In this way, he undergoes a transformation from being pure mind & text to being a body just like the ones he craves. Lucien goes from being male to becoming a woman.

A much more interesting allegorical reading though is to see Lucien’s corpses as the text. Lucien deals only with the text after the spirit has left it, thus only engaging in what is actually there, on the paper, not a hermeneutical interpretation or understanding.

This is also a book that lends itself extremely well to symptomatical interpretations: Is Lucien’s use-&-dispose-relationship with the dead a picture on modern dating life, where his distaste for the living mind becomes a camouflaged inertia towards putting an effort into being involved with someone alive, with all the hassle that involves? Then it is a somewhat smoother ride to love the dead.

Gabrielle Wittkop

A much more interesting allegorical reading though is to see Lucien’s corpses as the text. Lucien deals only with the text after the spirit has left it, thus only engaging in what is actually there, on the paper, not a hermeneutical interpretation or understanding. A hermeneutical interpretation of The Necrophiliac would force out some psychological depth from the pages, but that wouldn’t do the book any favors as it is not trying to explain the psychological mechanisms behind the actions of a necrophiliac. If we recall the event that kick-starts little Lucien’s life as a necrophiliac: his grandmother taking him to see his mother’s corpse, Lucien immediately connects death with sexuality and secretly starts masturbating. As he recalls it, this is when it all happened. Boom. The coupling between death and sexuality is so over-explained that even the back row got it, but this, combined with the classical diary entries that are highly unrealistic and very self-aware, points towards literature itself and not towards a truth behind necrophilia. Rather this book tells the reader ‘I am literature — what’s your move?’

I appreciate Lucien and his underplayed self-aggrandizement. Its brilliant author, Gabrielle Wittkop (1920-2002, self-proclaimed child-hater, misogynist & bi-sexual), has a cameo in the book: Lucien recalls from his childhood the girl next door, Gabrielle, how pretty she was and how he longed for her death so they could be together. And despite the author being dead both literally and conceptually,  I’d love to know more about the mind that wrote this book. Wittkop led an interesting life. She grew up in Nantes, France, and was homeschooled as a child. During the war, she met the homosexual German desserter 40 years her senior, Justus Wittkop, whom she hid and later married in what she called ‘an intellectual alliance’. They both committed suicide 24 years apart, once diagnosed with terminal illnesses. He, from parkinson’s in 1988, and her from lung-cancer in 2002. Gabrielle Wittkop has called death ‘the most important moment in life,’ and a collection of her novellas has been translated to both English and Danish with the title Exemplary Departures/Eksemplariske bortgange. A definite recommendation for further reading.

The Necrophiliac will be featured as the monthly book on the Ark Audio Bookclub in the July 2018-episode.

 

 

 

Giovanna, wildly gifted pedestrian, yet is able to remain humble. Would love to engineer a lovechild/super-breed author between Ben Lerner and Chris Kraus, but will also settle for a coffee table book with pictures of them and/or a documentary where they walk the Camino together.

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