Philippe Sollers: Femmes (Gallimard, Paris, 1983) I’ve only read a couple of Sollers’ books so what I say in the following by way of factual information should be regarded more appropriately as factual hypothesis. When I was studying in Paris Sollers, along with his intellectual babe wife Julia Kristeva, was the talk of the town for their literary journal Tel Quel which promoted itself as the cherry on the sundae of the semiotic movement, a sort of cowboy version of Barthes’ Communications. Somewhat tardily on the heels of Mai ’68 Sollers and Kristeva announced themselves as born again Maoists, leading to natural suspicions of bandwagon jumping. I remember an artist friend of mine remarking in disbelief, “Up till now they were more or less extreme right.”
Well, it appears that as of 1983 Sollers made another right turn, acknowledging his participation during the heady days of post-structuralist left wing politics but insisting his activity had been limited to a couple of speeches – at least if his novelistic stand-in “Will” is to be taken as reporting accurately the author’s own apologia.
Will, by the way, the first person narrator cum fictional auteur, is an American journalist of rather vague upbringing who actually seems disturbingly uncomfortable in English, which may explain his dual passport. Will is working on a novel in collaboration with a character just identified as “S,” presumably another layer of Sollers doppelganging. Will’s novel is quite clearly the novel you are reading (This is quite clever particularly at the end where both texts conclude somewhat simultaneously). S is a collaborator, but it is not quite clear what he is supposed to contribute (Translation? Editing? Interpolation?). Mostly S is a direct mouthpiece for Sollers himself, allowing a first person expression of the author’s intellectual history and paranoia about French cultural circles (No knock here. Any author who says he is not paranoid is lying). S and Will also have different personalities. S is more cynical and given to aphorism; Will tends to err on the side of lyricism and Burroughsian incoherence.
The standing in doesn’t stop with Sollers himself. In fact much of Femmes is a roman à clef of sorts with minor roles for Barthes, Lacan and Althusser. The pages on Althusser’s murder of his wife and Lacan’s sexual humiliations, if indeed they are genuine reportage, are fascinating literary gossip. Aragon appears as himself in a tardy reincarnation as a gay sugar daddy. Unless I missed something Foucault and Derrida (one of Sollers’ early champions) do not appear, which is strange. Nor do Marcelin Pleynet or anyone else from the Tel Quel crowd, which goes to show you always pay more attention to the generation ahead of you than to your own. I have no idea who the slimy careerist Boris is supposed to be. Presumably not Boris Vian who died in 1959 and whose personality as described in Beauvoir’s autobiography doesn’t jibe with the character in the novel. Kristeva flits through the goings on as Will’s totally clueless or else long suffering (Unless she’s getting a bit on the side as well) wife “Deb” (Remember she’s American too), a concetto that, with regard to the Bulgarian born and totally Gallic Kristeva reminded me of those customer service operators who, sporting Indian or Filipino accents, answer the phone with a cheery, “Hi, this is Ashley!”
Why is Deb long suffering? Well, like any first person novelistic hero worth his salt, Will can’t keep it in his pants. It also appears he’s the personal babe magnet for every female journalist/left wing agitator on three continents. Will’s relationships with all his women friends constitute the bulk of the novel with sex scenes that are pretty much Penthouse Letters quality (That’s a compliment). There is a serpent in the garden, however. Will and Sollers pay witness to the maturation of the women’s movement and the first stirrings of a (now dominant?) splinter group that would confuse political and social rights with hatred of men. Sollers, perhaps not entirely without justification, implies that this is due to personal issues for the most part as embodied in the “Spanish anarchist” Flora who in an uncontrollable fit of jealousy, tries to blow him away but misses and takes out an English rival apparently pregnant with Will’s child (Unwitting and belated payback for that Armada thingy no doubt). Will asks S whether the attentat might not seem a bit contrived. Well, I don’t know.
By way of aside, free sexual activity has not disappeared since the eighties, despite the impression that the goober right and lesbo left controlled media would like to leave with us. By my reckoning it has actually increased. A hopeful development is that the daughters and granddaughters of all those lusty wenches from Sollers’ (and my) day have figured out how to monetize their sexual enthusiasm. Now what we need to do in order to bring some order to the marketplace is legalize their business activities and give them the dignity they deserve.
Lest I give the wrong impression, Sollers is a first rate writer and an elegant and witty prose stylist. One of my favorite jokes in the novel is the character named La Présidente who has just enough time to squeeze in a little kinky sex before fixing her coiffure and jetting off to some conference overstuffed with big wigs. We learn about two-thirds of the way through that her last name is Schreber.
Despite the fun and the genuine sensitivity for the Baroque (Sollers’ blanket term for the art and culture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), Will - and presumably Sollers – turns out to be a little papist, cramming the odious Chateaubriand down our throats at every turn and getting all misty eyed over the pedophiliac King David. One of the most despicable scenes is Will’s invitation to pay court to the Polish pope Wojtyla for some article he wrote about a Dark Ages theologian. Sollers makes a possibly intriguing suggestion to the effect that if the papists would only loosen their sexual moralizing to the extent of permitting the sort of hijinks Will indulged in, then perhaps popery would be the best of all possible religions. All I can say is, Good luck with that proposal, bro. For one thing, sexual freedom isn’t the end of the story. The papists would also have to support free access to contraception and abortion. If Will didn’t notice, there are two partners in a sexual congress one of whom faces consequences the other doesn’t. In any event, we have come to learn in the years since the appearance of Femmes why the popes are so anti-women. The fair sex are serious competition for the favors of those handsome altar boys.