Semiotext(e)'s new and recent translated books

  • by Mark William Norby
  • Tuesday November 8, 2022
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Semiotext(e)'s new and recent translated books

You can build a compact, power-packed little library of books translated for the first time into English and released by Semiotext(e) this fall or in recent years. Each work seems to touch the vast cosmos of French arts and letters through the minds of radicals that shook thought and literature to its foundations.

First, "Hervelino" by Mathieu Lindon. Translated by the gifted French to English languages translator Jeffrey Zuckerman, who has dedicated himself to translating Hervé Guibert and Jean Genet, the latter written about in an earlier issue of the Bay Area Reporter in January 2020.

"Hervelino: the word slipped into my throat." Thus begins a book that leads us into a relationship marked by love and ultimately illness and death. "Hervelino" remains a loving tribute, a deep meditation on the meaning and dimensions of friendship at a time when gay men faced the specter of death by HIV/AIDS.

"Hervolino" reveals Guibert in the early 1990s towards the end of his life. Guibert is remembered as having changed French public attitudes towards HIV/AIDS, and who himself died of AIDS in 1991.

We meet Lindon with Guibert in Rome where, between 1987 and 1989, both won artistic scholarships at Villa Medicis, experiences which are recollected in the pages of this incisive novel.

Lindon's memoir acutely observes the accounts of not only Guibert but also poet and novelist Eugène Saviatsky; and more distinctly, philosopher Michel Foucault who, aside from having established himself as one of the 20th century's most important historians of ideas, was an immensely important political activist. Having examined the relationship between power and knowledge and how they are used as a form of social control, Foucault altered our otherwise limited view of existence within civilizations.

Foucault, labeled a structuralist and postmodernist, rejected the labels. His work then is understood as an act of defiance of whatever it is named, like his own thought, art, and freedom. Foucault persisted toward something like revelation, and beyond that.

"Hervelino" introduces us in new ways to the City of Rome where we meet the food: "The dishes were family-style, plates like at home, and there were so many regulars that before long I was waving at the other diners."

In meeting these writers, we meet the intimacy of the gay male mind when focused on the finest of details interconnected in the powerful bond of queerness more directly sewn together in the manner of borderlessness; with freedom exalted in the unspoken text and that, in fact, separates gay men from others of our species, we meet how gayness is a lesson in surviving especially when otherized.

More lightly, gayness has always been a manner of making fun of ourselves in order to scatter the onlookers so that we are free to do what we do best: attempt to better understand ourselves and how we live in communities. That's what Guibert, Lindon, Saviatsky, as well as Foucault have done: lived outside pre-established archetypes, outside having been misunderstood in sexual and intellectual forums. Out of which readers alike are set to the task of defining themselves and, as often, unbind from the heteronormative world.

Lindon's craft marries itself to another of his books: "Learning What Love Means" (Semiotext(e) 2017), translated by Bruce Benderson. A book that divinely functions in the company of "Hervelino," so intimately that a contiguous reading of these two important novels is like sex: their subject matter raises Foucault and Guibert from the dead and captures some of the essence of Guibert's own books, "To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life" and "Written in Invisible Ink" (both published by Semiotext(e) 2020; reviewed here in July 2020.

Today, Lindon is a writer and journalist for France's left-wing daily "Libération" and the son of publisher Jérôme Lindon of Les Éditions de Minuit. Lindon's father died from cancer in 2001 at the age of seventy-five, an occasion well-nigh one of national mourning in France. In broader terms, the world contribution of French arts and letters resides as subtext to "Hervelino" and "Learning What Love Means," and also "Letters to Eugène" (Semiotext(e) 2022) translated by Christine Pichini.

As Saviatsky declares to Guibert, "I love you through your writing." "Letters to Eugène" is the collection of correspondence between Guibert and Saviatsky that blisters in honesty and startles with moments where Saviatsky seems to be talking Guibert off a ledge. The only correspondence Guibert authorized for publication after his death, it is not to be missed.

To this collection I would add "Love Me Tender," by Constance Debré, released this past September. Lauded by genre-busting American writer born in San Francisco Maggie Nelson as, "...destined to become a classic of its kind," Debré's writing has been compared to both Guibert and Camus. All the above books are intense, leaving the reader blown away by what comes after.

Intensity, undeniably coupled with passion, equips the reader with the motivation to dive into looking more genuinely at freedom in relation to truth, telling the truth, and to whom you tell it.

In France you can expect the truth; truth-telling is a national pastime. Guibert told the truth so boldly that it scares you. Debré tells the truth hauntingly where she is never clouded by having been born into an illustrious French family where her father was a prime minister. Rather, she is radical, leaving a secure career as a lawyer and her straight marriage to pursue the life of an impoverished writer, writing full time and engaging in lesbian affairs with multiple partners.

Out of which, she has to legally defend herself in order to preserve a semblance of custodial rights with her young son. Her ex-husband retains full custody while Debré's rights are diminished to bi-weekly, supervised visits. Victim of her husband's accusations of Debré's pedophilia, a false accusation, the story, fraught by tensions but never pretensions, exhibits the author's rare talents that sing in an arena of exhilaration.

Works that primarily lift you by placing focus on "Learning What Love Means," Lindon's closeness to Guibert, Saviatsky, and Foucault leave us to lavish in the sight of a revolving door of lust and LSD. Unbound intimacy, Semiotext(e) has achieved publication of a body of works that urgently await the reader to join in its intellectual orgy. They will change the way you see the world. As Guibert states, "...a big kiss to my Mathieu from your hanged Hervolino."

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