I think I always wanted the writing of the Marquis de Sade to be more fucked up than it is. For all the hype that’d been built up around him, by the time I first snuck in the library in like seventh grade to peek into Justine or whatever all full of adrenaline and some kind of unknown fear, I think I expected to read the book and have it burn me on the face, or at least to feel nauseated to the point it would be hard to even look straight at the words.
But it didn’t feel like that. There was all this other talking in the book, philosophy and Victorian back and forth. There were dirty scenes too, though they didn’t affect me as much as the anticipation of reading them did. As an adult now there are still certain things I like about Sade, and I’d take his masturbation scribbling over most other straight white male literary fantasy. It never was really his language or even the affect of his descriptions as much as simply his historical existence that I believe has made him stick around as “taboo.”
Years later, when I finally came across the writing of Pierre Guyotat, that whole gap of where the somewhat fizzled damage from Sade’s legacy had left open became suddenly and immediately awakened. Guyotat came with a similarly messed up biographical framework: He was drafted into the Algerian war around age 20 and served there until he was eventually arrested for inciting desertion among the troops and as a result was detained in a hole in the ground for three months. Using that experience and his hallucinations on the battlefields he wrote several books in his early 20s, including 1970’s Eden Eden Eden, which was banned for 11 years in France as pornographic.
Subsequently a petition on behalf of the merit of his work was written, including signatures by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean-Paul Sartre, Joseph Beuys, Jean Genet, Maurice Blanchot, Max Ernst, Italo Calvino, Simone de Beauvoir, and Nathalie Sarraute, which essentially had no legal effect. Beyond all that, he is notoriously known for having written himself into a coma, writing from such a state of hyper-volatility and obsession that he refused to eat and was hospitalized (and later explored this experience in great detail in his most recent work, Coma, released in English in 2010).
All this context still doesn’t really set you up for the onslaught of full-on linguistic beatdown this man has managed to cram into his words. Where other extreme-aimed texts focus on their subject matter to do the heavy lifting on how they slam into the reader, Guyotat’s language is the primary weapon in his barrage. He uses sound, stink, texture, motion, color, and relentless juxtaposition to break through the simple sheen of something maybe gross or terrifying to immediately graft it onto more: the image not static or pleased to be itself, but constantly unscrolling. His sentences are often full of colons and semi-colons and commas, forcing the eye to continue to move and feed the brain. I mean, here, one paragraph at random, from his Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers, which is dedicated to his uncle who was killed in a concentration camp, published in French in 1968, and finally translated by Helen Lane to English in 2003…