There seems to be a general consensus about Pierre Guyotat: barely anyone reads him. Those who do read him agree that his is an important body of work. His sensational 1967 novel, Tombeau pour cinq cent mille soldats (published as Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers in 2003 by Creation Books), his third book, came out when he was 27. Fashioned by his experiences in the Algerian War, where he was stationed with the French army from 1960-62, it presented the motifs that became recurrent in Guyotat’s work – namely sex, oppression and misery.
Guyotat’s second big book, Eden, Eden, Eden, was also inspired by wartime Algeria. Published in 1970, it was banned from being advertised and sold to minors, despite containing three prefaces by Michel Leiris, Roland Barthes and Philippe Sollers (with whom Guyotat was a member of the avant-garde literary collective Tel Quel, which was very close to the French Communist Party from 1968-71). An international petition in support of the book, signed by intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Max Ernst and Joseph Beuys, and a handwritten letter from French President Georges Pompidou also failed to move the censors, who maintained the restrictions on Eden.
Guyotat’s radicalism can be ascribed as much to the violence of the scenes he describes as to his formal exploration of the French language: he attempts to reconcile its epic and oral dimensions, while rejecting psychology. The intensity he demands from his writing is such that he has constrained himself to total sexual abstinence for close to thirty years. He is a writer of living tableaux, both vivid and crude, that usually take place in brothels populated by masters, (mostly) masculine slaves, ‘whores’, and clients gone astray. The whores, condemned to receiving the bodies of others from the moment of their births until death, are the incessant repositories of genitals, semen, excrements and flies. This perpetual motion is enacted through dialogues with both tragic and comic dimensions. Marked by the Marxist materialist ideology of the Seventies, Guyotat’s work depicts the permanence of situations of exploitation by dominant peoples to the point of obsession. We find this again in Prostitution (1975), Le Livre (1984), and Progénitures (2000), works which reinvent a poetic patois and demand an attentiveness to the sonority of language from the reader.
Later, Pierre Guyotat devoted himself to three more accessible autobiographical narratives, each set at a precise moment in his life. Coma (2006, translated by Noura Wedell and published by Semiotext(e) in 2010) recounts the psychological and physical collapse which almost did away with its author in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Formation (2007) is a partial account of his childhood growing up in an educated, Christian family that took part in the Resistance. In Arrière-Fond (2010, published by Semiotext(e) in November 2014 under the title In the Deep), Guyotat confesses his discovery of the indivisible nature of sexual pleasure and literary creation, made on the occasion of a trip to England at the age of 15.
Two major unpublished works by Guyotat are known to exist: Histoires de Samorâ Machel, written at the end of the 1970s, and Géhenne, which he continues to work on. He nonetheless gave himself ‘six months of respite’ to write Joyeux animaux de la misère (published in March 2014 by Gallimard), the story of a brothel and three of its whores, set ‘in an intercontinental and multi-climactic megalopolis made up of seven megacities of which at least one is at war.’ We met Pierre Guyotat at Gallimard, his Parisian publisher since 1967. The interview took place in Claude Gallimard’s old offices opposite the Pléiade pavilion, an old colonial exhibition space. Guyotat’s soft, almost childlike voice is sometimes at odds with the convictions of an accomplished writer, certain of the meaning he gives to his work.