I seem to have had rather a run of good luck with my reads over the last week or so as it seems that everything I have picked up has been brilliant and ‘Hallucinating Foucault’ by Patricia Duncker is no exception. I have to admit that had it not been for the fact that over the Christmas and New Year period I was recommended this book by three separate people as ‘a great novel about books, writing and reading’ I am not sure I would have looked it up or even picked it up. Thank goodness for recommendations hey?
‘Hallucinating Foucault’ is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who is researching the work and lives of the mysterious author Paul Michel. A project that starts whilst he is studying in Cambridge soon becomes an obsession and a quest that takes him to Paris and the south of France. Really that’s the best way that you can sum up the plot, however ‘Hallucinating Foucault’ is so much more than that, yet of course trying to place all its themes and idea’s in a review is quite a challenge, as it soon becomes a page turning (I know, I know it’s a cliché to say that, sorry) piece of literature.
As our narrator meets his lover, ‘the Germanist’, as he calls her (who is a rather interesting and deceptive character who keeps you on your toes) in Cambridge and afterwards his initial admiration for Paul Michel takes an obsessive turn when he hears the mysterious tale of Michel’s incarceration into a mental home. The Germanist and her gay father, Michel the fictional author in the novel also happens to be homosexual, then push him to go and uncover just what happened and why a man who meant so much to many has ended up in such a situation. What could it have been that drew this man to madness? Could it be to do with the great, and real, Michel Foucault (the French philosopher who I now want to learn much more about) himself?
What follows, without giving too much away, is a thrilling tale (though not in the way you might think ‘thrillers’ stereotypically are) and journey of self discovery. Duncker uses this tale not only to discuss sexuality, which becomes a key part of the novel, but also to look at the relationship between the people who write the book and those who read them. In fact it’s a wonderful discussion of how reading and writing work yet rather than being a long boring ‘lit-crit’ non fiction tome we have a slim novel that really packs a punch and if you love books and reading you will become totally lost in it.
“The writing then becomes the wager of a gambling man, the words flung down in one colour, win or lose, for the reader to take up. We are all gamblers. We write for our lives. If, in my life or in my writing, there was anyone who could be described as my Muse, ironically enough, it would be you. But I suspect you would rather be acknowledged as my master than my Muse. You are my reader, my beloved reader. I know of no other person who has more absolute a power to constrain me, or to set me free.”
‘Hallucinating Foucault’ is a deceptively slim looking book. I don’t mean that when you start reading it its so heavy and full of things that it bogs you down from the start, in fact quite the reverse. From the opening pages Duncker pulls you into a tale that at first seems like it could be one sort of book and then becomes several books rolled into one whilst remaining incredibly readable. She also shows how many tools a writer has, the book is written in first ‘unnamed’ narrative for the main but also features dream sequences, letters from Michel to Foucault and newspaper clippings and reports. It’s like she is celebrating language and its uses.
I was quite shocked to discover this was her debut novel from 1996 as it reads like a book written by an author well into their writing life. This is an incredible fictional book about books and the relationship between reader and writer. It’s also a book I can’t recommend highly enough. 10/10
I want to thank everyone who recommended me this book, you know who you are – and I know you read this, and can only hope that all several of you take on the recommendation from me to give this seemingly undiscovered book a whirl. I am now naturally desperate to read more by Patricia Duncker and was thrilled to discover she has another four novels and two collections of short stories for me to get through. Have any of you read them? Any thoughts?