Gilles Sebhan’s “Retour à Duvert” (Paris: Dilettante, 2015) is a very good essay on the love for boys and Tony Duvert, who Edmund White once called the best gay author of his time. Between 1967 and 1989, Duvert (1945-2008) wrote twelve books (nine novels and three essays), mostly published by Éditions du Minuit, the publishing house of the (experimental) Nouveau novel.
His first books were published in small editions and were not on the regular market. People had to register before buying them, as the books were controversial because of their gay and paedophile content. His first novel “Récidive” (1967) is about a gay/boylove coming out and features the psychiatrist Marcel Eck, who was then also known and translated in the Netherlands. Duvert’s parents sent him to this psychiatrist to cure him of his sexual preferences. And this début shows that these interests were quite something: a lot of not so gentle sex with boys and men.
He was a Minuit writer par excellence - it was a novel riddled with difficult words, neologisms and archaisms the dictionary doesn’t even know. His début was followed by novels on the same theme, “Portrait d’un homme couteau” (1969), “Interdit de séjour” (1969), and “Le voyageur” (1970). For “Paysage de fantaisie” (1973; translated as “Strange Landscape,” Random House 1976), a novel about a boy brothel, he received the Prix Médicis, partly because of Roland Barthes. The relationship between both authors ended in a fight, but the award was the starting point of a brief period of success.
With the proceeds of the prize, he lived among the boys in Marrakesh for over a year, leading to the publication of “Journal d’un innocent” (1976; translated as “Journal Of An Innocent,” Semiotext(e) 2010). His last novels were “Quand mourut Jonathan” (1978; translated as “When Jonathan Died,” Gay Mens Press 1991) and “L’île atlantique” (1979; translated as “Atlantic Island,” Semiotext(e) 2017). He also worked on essays, short stories, interviews, and articles, for example for his publisher’s magazine “Minuit,” for which he worked as an editor.
Duvert’s essays can be seen as explanations of his novels, turning against “heteronormativity” as it is called nowadays. His first, “Le bon sexe illustré” (1974; translated as “Good Sex Illustrated,” Semiotext(e) 2007), criticised the (sexual) education of children with passionate ideas about family, marriage, and fatherhood. He especially criticised mothers, who with pettiness do not allow their children to have sexual pleasures. Not only does this victimise young people, but it victimises us all, as it leads to anxiety, puritanism, prisons, the police system, and a psychiatric regime that will eventually make everyone suffer.
“L’Enfant au masculin” (1980) is about the “heterocrats,” the heterosexuals who use their power against young gay men who are not allowed to know love or sex. Boylove discrimination is gay discrimination, and vice-versa. It is a sharp indictment of the then growing criticism of paedophiles. His last essay, “Abécédaire malveillant” (1989), is an encyclopaedia of short pieces on his theme, the sexophobe ideology he has fought against his entire life.
He stopped writing almost entirely after the Coral affair in 1982. Le Coral was an experimental group home for difficult and somewhat disabled boys. It was the time of anti-psychiatry in the 1960s and 1970s. Various celebrities, such as culture minister Jack Lang, Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy, philosophers René Scherer and Michel Foucault, and writer Gabriel Matzneff, were accused of fornication with the boys on site. Eventually it became clear that a mythomane boy had the ear of a Mr Saltzmann, a prosecutor who wanted to turn this “paedophile thing” into something big. That did not work out, but it was the start of a moral panic about paedophilia in France, and heralded the end of the literary career of Duvert, who incidentally was not involved in the scandal.
From 1982 onwards, his life, literary production and reputation steadily declined. His last collection of essays appeared in 1989. He had moved to Tours and constantly pretended to be working on a new book. But in fact he was drinking more and more, eventually leading to a decline in production. In 1995 it led to the tragic situation that he as a lover of boys and a constant campaigner against the “protection” of their children from strangers by mothers, went back to live with his mother in the village of Thoré-la-Rochette near Tours. They led completely separated lives; she was in front of the television all day, and he was upstairs trying to write.
They communicated with notes on the kitchen table. Their time together was short, as she died shortly after he moved in. The rest of his life Duvert lived in the house lonely and alone, increasingly devoid of human contact. Only a brother and a Parisian friend - who maintained an intimate correspondence with him that is not accessible - still were in communication with Duvert. He eventually died of heart failure in July 2008. His body was found in late August, more than sixty days later and in an advanced state of decomposition after a hot summer.
But what makes Sebhan’s book so compelling? Firstly, the story of a rapid rise to fame followed by a steady decline into poverty and oblivion, with a miserable end as the final conclusion. Secondly, the liveliness of the narration. Sebhan is a good and emphatic writer using apt quotes and beautiful descriptions. One of the interviewees is René Schérer, a friend of mine, and while reading the book you can hear him speak and immediately recognize the house he lives in.
I read the book without a hitch, and it kept haunting me - the greatness of the beginning and the misery of the end. The unglamorous life of a lover of boys at the end of the twentieth century. Duvert was not exactly a pleasant man, as can be deducted from this book, but did he deserve such a tragic fate with such a remarkable body of work? It made me think about friendship and old age, about the snares in which the lover of boys and their friends have become entangled, about glory and ruthlessness.
Duvert’s work was partially translated in English, German, and French. It is Gilles Sebhan’s second book on Duvert. He also wrote a book on Jean Genet and the novel “Salamandre” (Paris: Dilettante, 2014) on a death in a Parisian gay sex club.
Gert Hekma teaches Gay and Lesbian studies at the University of Amsterdam