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three pairs of lovers with space

A REVIEW OF DRUNK ON LOST WINE BY GABRIEL MATZNEFF

 

Ivre du vin perdu (Drunk on Lost Wine) by prize-winning French writer Gabriel Matzneff (born 1936), was a novel whose main protagonist, Nil Kolytcheff, was a fervent and unabashed lover of pubescent girls and boys with a close resemblance to the author himself (as revealed in his published journals). It was published by la Table ronde in Paris in 1981. Presented here is the contemporary review of it in the most prestigious French newspaper of the time. The original version can be found on https://www.pileface.com/sollers/spip.php?article365. The translation offered here is this website’s.

 

The Metaphysical Libertine

Gabriel Matzneff has written the seducer’s novel

First edition, 1981

Where is the libertine today? Does he still exist, this dubious hero whose restless life is based on the reversal of values, the permanent criticism, in the name of sexual truth, of the hypocrisy of the times? But yes, here he is, strangely enough, back among us, sharper and more corrosive than ever, transformed to match recent changes. The law having shifted its network of constraints and surveillance, the libertine, the one who wants to be one with freedom, follows the law in its tracks, constantly becoming like its shadow, someone else. Casanova and Don Juan are forced to adapt. Their most flexible, most determined, most complex follower is now called, in the Russian style, Nil Kolytcheff. A boisterous figure who deserves to go down in history as the brilliant and deadly game that is still possible above our worried and morose days. This, it seems to me, is the great achievement of Gabriel Matzneff’s latest book, Drunk on Lost Wine: to personally live up to the myth, to revive it, to renew it.

The hidden hypothesis of the devil

He is a being apart. By turns sublime, comic, feverish, cold, pathetic, narrow, sententious, greedy, disinterested, funny, lyrical, mystical. Lucid, but dedicated to a fixed, chaining action, which occupies all his time, all his energy. Nothing more disciplinary, in a sense, than libertarianism. “I have little money and much free time.” But his characteristics are now turned inside out. What to do when the law is atheistic? Reintroduce God, or at least his disorder. When sex is decreed blandly natural, an object of science and theory, a category of manageable fulfillment? Rely on the hidden assumption of the devil. When bodies claim to be liberated, liberable? Defending passion, possession, jealousy at the same time as spending, prodigality, dizzying repetition, excess. When the modern adult in developed societies (as they say) has become practically master of physical exchanges, whether they be heterosexual or homosexual? Reinventing transgression, scandal, by throwing oneself wholeheartedly into the adventure that cannot fail to revolt the Law: the hunting of minors. This last point is probably unacceptable. It is completely foreign to me. I do not judge, I observe. I see that it is happening. I try to understand this obstinate fantasy, painted by its illustrators as a paradise.

Sollers (left), the author of this review, with Matzneff in 1985

It is a strange search that consists in introducing sexuality precisely where it is not supposed to exist (the purity of childhood!). Throughout his novel, Matzneff describes what he himself calls the “philopedic sect”, whose obsessions, manias, baroque joys and privileged locations (formerly North Africa, now Ceylon and the Philippines, Manila) he studies without complacency. Rodin, spokesman for the exclusive lovers of young boys, develops through the book his miserable and grandiose prostitutional vision. Frenetic accounting in the meticulous line (minus the crime) of Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom. Gide’s allusive pederasty, the living happy roots of The Fruits of the Earth are here unfolded, deployed, industrially described. Everything is said in the crudest possible way and at the same time with a delighted innocence. Rodin is a documentary “type” of the first order, and it is true that there is something odious and sympathetically childish in all this.

The immense theatre of the perverse

But the novel goes much further than what could remain, all in all, an improved reportage on a particularity, a margin. Indeed, the main and “sentimental” libertine, Nil Kolytcheff, Gabriel Matzneff by himself, has a predilection for the “young debutante” (enters here the voice of Leporello in Mozart). Here she is. Fifteen or sixteen years old, seventeen at the most, a high school student, entering the circulation of the immense perverse theatre that is society. I believe that this is the first time in literature that such a sum of observations, sensations and new notes have been accumulated on a subject that is, for once, truly virgin. Matzneff is the first precise chronicler of this situation. It is astonishing, explosive, superb. Mothers of all stripes, feminist mothers, above all, tremble for your daughters!

There is a stunning portrayal here, Angiolina, the great leading lady of a glittering cast (the catalogue is bursting at the seams). The performance simultaneously becomes a feat of language, the debutante in question having a particular gift for epistolary writing, on which we find samples worthy of The Portuguese Nun, only fresher. They parade, they get carried away, they become women along the way (that is, soon enough, “hard drugs”, calculators of resentment). The curve by which Angiolina, for example, goes from the most unbridled erotic lyricism, confusing the informal and formal “you”, to aggressive coldness, is masterfully drawn. And chillingly true. It is the same mouth that moans or screams (an excellent insight into the female paranoid crisis) and that later calmly says to the seducer: “When you commit suicide, let me know, it will make a great scoop”.   

The Gallimard edition of 1983, with Francesca Gee (inspiration for the protagonist Angiolina) on its cover

Matzneff is astonished that a very young girl can move so quickly from one pole to the other. He seems stunned that hate should follow love. For me, it is his astonishment that amazes me. This is obviously fatal. We must accept Mozart to the end, that is to say, until the publication of the Commander. Embarking on a voyage to Cythera inevitably turns into a vampire ball. Except for the leap into transcendence for two, a very difficult aerial act, but one that obsesses our hero, who does not fail to haunt Orthodox churches, to light a few candles in passing, to miss his wife, who is called Véronique here (she has left him, disappeared, become a nurse or a lesbian, a leftist variant of the opera).   

I was talking about Mothers. They are there, indeed, and not Fathers, as the new guardians of the Law. It is quite clear that we are now in the midst of matriarchal regulation. Young girls, Matzneff's very young girls, often speak of their mothers to their Faust-lover, who is fearlessly determined to challenge their power. Matzneff is at liberty to vituperate against the “family cage” (this little concentration camp, more barbed than ever), against “the jealousy, the stupidity, the meanness of parents”. Indirectly, his adventures give us a glimpse of a great mechanical hell, not the one in “Families, I hate you”, a new hell, a lower circle (so things have gotten worse? The misery of couples is even greater?) Girls escape for a while, not for long...

The last secret society

He did philosophy with one, French with another, Latin with a third, love with all.” The art of the libertine is not to get lost in this super-busy schedule. To avoid the actresses passing each other on the stairs. The seducer’s attic is a sort of pagan temple (half Buddhist, half orthodox), but it is also, at every moment, the risk of vaudeville. When the situation is inextricable, to the monastery! That is to say, today in rehab in Switzerland (the libertine has to stay in shape, that is his main concern, pathetic again, and a bit ridiculous). Hide-and-seek, cross-country trips, raids in the Philippines (ah! Rizal Park in Manila!), back to the Deligny swimming pool, to the Luxembourg garden... and again the high school girls: Anne-Geneviève, Karin, Sarah... Threats from the families. “We are going to see the return of puritanism and its triumph. So we will need our masks more than ever, whether they are made of velvet or iron.” Or again: “We are the last secret society, we are the carbonari of love. Let us persist in this state, paradise is a private hunting-ground”. Betrayal of the girls (not all of them), one lost, ten found, the hero’s strange nostalgia for a stable happiness...

Sex and prayer

Catalan edition published by La Magrana, 1989

I know well what it is irritating in the ambient conformism in Matzneff: his serenity, his honesty, his refusal to cheat by exposing his contradictions. Mixing, as he does, sex with prayer, for example, immediately provokes the height of discomfort. It is a good test, I believe, for discerning truly free spirits, free on all sides.

The final question posed by the metaphysical libertine is indeed this: are there atheists who are free other than out of unconscious puritanism, out of fear of seeing the limits of their enjoyment grow? And on the other hand: are there religious consciences that are otherwise than by fear and repression of sexuality? The whole problem of the meaning and non-sense of life and death is there, and no one can escape it. This is the new diary of the seducer. A Dane, a Spaniard, an Italian, an Austrian (Mozart), a Franco-Russian... Come on, French people, make another effort.

 

Reviewed by Philippe Sollers in Le Monde, Paris, 25 September 1981, p. 22.