I would never have encountered Gabrielle Wittkop, or her symphonic poem of a novella, The Necrophiliac, were it not for the serendipity of meeting its translator, Don Bapst. Bapst, an American-Canadian filmmaker, screenwriter, novelist, and poet, translated The Necrophiliac into English in 2011 (ECW Press, Toronto). The translation, heralded as a “masterpiece” by Nicolas Lazard of The Guardian, has provided English-language readers an incomparable entrée into the sensual, poetic, and genre-blending genius of Wittkop’s astonishing prose. The story—to reassure those readers already squinting their eyes against assumed revolting or gratuitously shocking material—is shaped as diary entries by the protagonist, Lucien, an exile of Renaissance intelligence and refined aesthetic discernment, whose beguiling sexual fluidity and emotional loyalty happen to find their fulfillment in a series of affairs with recently-deceased women, girls, men, and boys.
The novella, which spans three years in the 20th century, evokes the rapture of a cultured man, virtually singular in his passion, and pressed from all sides by the necessary furtiveness of his life’s genuine aims, which are not dissimilar from most of ours: to experience love, affirmation, beauty, and redemption. Lucien is completely present in the manner of Zen to the vicissitudes of precautions he must take, each more textural and furtive, in the series of rented spaces from which he must continually move to prevent the discovery by curious landlords of his decomposing partners. The quality of multidimensionality in Lucien’s life is palpable, created by Wittkop’s genuinely original language, rendered in a veritable prose poetry, and representative of a kind of immediacy that compels readers into Lucien’s point of view before we know anything of his background. Wittkop astutely structures the first-person narrative so we’re not aware at first of Lucien’s gender or his profession—we can easily assume he or she is a doctor, coroner, forensic photographer, or even a painter—long before his true métier as an antiques dealer is revealed. We share his incapacitating pain each time he realizes his beloveds—fleeting in sexual/romantic viability as corpses are—must be either returned to their resting places, floated off lovingly into the Seine, or otherwise abandoned. This is a tale of a traumatized, alienated, and ultimately, too-sensitive-for-this-world person, a character type of documented relatability in modernist literature. It is to Wittkop’s immeasurable credit as a maker of worlds that she is able to transform the familiar arc of downtroddenness-through-emotional-triumph-to-acceptance-of- outsiderhood into a postmodern ode to the beauty of the dead and the humanness of those who love them.
As to the fact that most serious readers will have never heard of The Necrophiliac, I hardly think it is its subject matter which has rendered Wittkop virtually unknown in the pantheon of great writers. The French had the Marquis de Sade, after all, and readers in the 20th and 21st centuries have been treated to real-life narratives far more gothic, horrific, or disorienting than the intimacy of Lucien’s adoration of the stomach of a little dead girl, “the same bluish white seen in certain Chinese porcelain.” I think it is more that Wittkop’s triumph is one of creating a sense of what empathy for the least empathetic feels like, and that kind of generosity has been paradoxically suspect in literary history, despite its service to universal human themes.
But it is precisely the triumph of this work that we develop empathy—not the passing variety, but the truly tethered, lasting kind—with Lucien, in his herculean labors to secure and preserve each of his partners in the context of the inexorable deterioration against which he loves and is nourished. The depiction of his genuine sexual and romantic attraction to his chosen partners is nothing short of lush impressionism, all the more striking when we recall that at the time of The Necrophiliac’s publication—1972—neither European nor American culture was known for its gracious embrace of non-heteronormative affection in any flavor. The affirmation Wittkop held for that which utterly repels most people allowed her to discover a poetic gesture within prose that could reveal the most subterranean powers of human desire, and the creation of significance in human life. The hushed and remote beauty of Lucien’s travels to find a reflection of his own soul in the shimmering grey eyes of the dead is perhaps the most idiosyncratic representation of the search for self in modern literature. I would go so far as to say that this novella quite possibly represents a new postmodern form of prose, accomplished a good decade before the tautologies of language-doubting infected most contemporary fiction and poetry, and left us bereft of that kind of storytelling in which the faith in words to replicate and resonate human experience underpinned both grace of plot and revelation of character.
Wittkop, perhaps better than most psychologists, sociologists, and philosophers of her day, is prescient in the presentation of Lucien’s necrophilia as a definable sexual orientation in and of itself, when in almost everywhere else in literature (and in life), it remains merely pathology. Reading this novella will disintegrate the scrim that’s obscured the aesthetic perception of the human body in death, and that may ultimately change how we look at other forms of decay around us.