A MAN ENTERS his friend’s backyard. He sees her father’s underwear drying on a clothesline. Her father’s name is Maurice, but he’s so old everyone calls him “Grampa.” While Grampa is gardening nearby, this middle-aged man, our narrator, quickly takes off his pants, slips on the underwear, and gets dressed again.
After chatting with the family during siesta, after Grampa and his daughter, Mariette, have fallen asleep in their armchairs, our narrator, Gilles Heurtebise, fondles himself until he ejaculates into the underwear. Afterward, he only regrets not having taken his time. The family eventually wakes up. As they collect themselves, there’s a knock at the door.
It’s the third time Grampa’s underwear has gone missing; Mariette has called the police. Perhaps because she’s friends with Gilles, she doesn’t suspect him. Panicking, our narrator slips the soiled garment back on the clothesline when he thinks no one’s looking.
This is all a rather amusing start to a novel; perverse, sure, downright weird even, but it’s light-hearted, almost cartoonish. At least, that is, until the chief of police arrives.
Rather than mediate the conflict, the chief exacerbates it. Mariette’s teenage granddaughter, Cindy, who spends her summers with her grandparents, witnessed Gilles hang back up Grampa’s underwear. She tells on him, and Mariette is shocked, but she doesn’t want to press charges. Grampa even admits he is flattered (this stuns the narrator).
It’s too late, though. The police chief takes matters into his own hands, viciously punishing the narrator by means so obscene it should bugger description. At the agonizing climax of the torturous scene, the chief asks his victim a question that will give you the general idea of how it goes: “Do you feel it, Grampa’s shit sliding up your ass?”
Alain Guiraudie’s novel Now the Night Begins is too hysterical in its realism to leave much to the imagination. What happens during the novel’s opening scene, its movement from uncanny hilarity to nauseating brutality, remains difficult for me to “review.” From the outset, Gilles’s sexual fantasies about Cindy will repulse most of today’s readers. It is not yet evident that the narrator identifies as gay, that these pedophiliac desires are strange to him. Still, even for the most outraged of readers, as well as for the most bemused and fascinated, the humiliating punishment meted out by the chief of police will prove truly appalling.
It would be unfortunate if this traumatic opening — so extreme that its gruesome configuration may be original in the history of literature — has the effect of deterring the reader from reading further. Without this sadistic violation, Gilles might never have discovered the romantic intimacy he comes to share with the 98-year-old man known as “Grampa.” For many of those who keep reading, it’ll surely be thanks to Guiraudie’s mesmerizing prose (and Jeffrey Zuckerman’s finely tuned translation). But most readers will keep their eyes on the page for the same reason that our narrator persists with his life after this sickening experience — because of the mysterious promise glinting in “Grampa.”
A celebrated French filmmaker, Guiraudie published this, his first novel, Ici commence le nuit, back in 2014. At the time, it won the prestigious le prix Sade in France. Created in 2001 in honor of the Marquis de Sade, the French award has gone to writers, from Catherine Millet to Gay Talese, who go “beyond all forms of censure and who [defy] the moral or political order against all forms of intellectual terrorism.” That accolade gives you a vague sense of what you’re getting yourself into with this genre-bending story. Now the Night Begins is both easy to read, and deeply offensive; a slapstick comedy, and a haunting thriller. Despite its more disturbing scenes, it’s also a heartwarming, queer rendition of an inter-generational romance as taboo and breathless as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Like Guiraudie’s films, Now the Night Begins could be charitably described as a long meditation on the struggle of existing peacefully with others, the impossibility of finding love without emptiness, intimacy without isolation, and desire without contradiction. With only a small cast of characters, Guiraudie has managed to explore such elusive themes with arguably a more complex narrative structure and well-rounded character development than in his films. Each of Guiraudie’s last three films, in fact, revolve around one of the three sexual relationships and dramatic conflicts central to Now the Night Begins.
Guiraudie’s most famous film, Stranger by the Lake, winner of the 2013 Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, provides a backdrop and turning point for the novel, depicting a cruising spot on a wooded lakeshore where the protagonist witnesses a murder by drowning, only to find himself falling in love with the prime suspect. In Guiraudie’s previous film, The King of Evasion (2009), he had already depicted the downfall of a middle-aged gay man who falls in love and runs away with a teenage girl. At a pivotal point in the film, while questioning the main character of The King of Evasion, the police inspector shares a strange but revealing assumption with the protagonist, remarking: “Your liking older men makes me suspicious you like younger girls.” With this counterintuitive logic in mind, Guiraudie’s first film since his novel’s publication, Staying Vertical (2016), continues delving into sexual desire that crosses the acceptable boundaries of age and adulthood. After being abandoned by his young wife, the aimless protagonist ends up making love to a dying elderly man as rock music blares in the background. When questioned by the police, he jokingly refers to the act as an “assisted suicide.”
More than any of his films, Guiraudie’s first novel seems influenced by the emergence of French New Extremism, a recent genre of experimental film that focuses on dehumanizing violence, sexual savagery, and mental psychosis. At the very least, it’s clear this 50-year-old filmmaker has found in writing a liberation from certain limitations inherent in moving images. The narrator’s surreal internal monologue, for instance, makes tangible the evasive habits of thought that demarcate and legitimize his taboo impulses. In this vein, what remains most bizarre about Gilles’s affections for Grampa, is that he keeps thinking about his object of desire by the name of “Grampa.” This conceit underlies much of the text’s off-kilter appeal. If you extract “Grampa” not just as a soft-spoken, enigmatic character, but as a proper name, and a term of endearment, the narration would become mundane, vulgar. In its creepy way, the familial moniker makes a vaguely platonic affair seem uncomfortably incestuous.
Between the narrator’s reckless behavior with Cindy and Grampa, the antihero of Now the Night Begins comes to epitomize a man of sexual bad faith. In his alienation and selfishness, he is driven for sexual pleasure and intimacy to the blurred boundaries of consent (alternating between pedophilia and gerontophilia). He never molests Cindy, but he agrees to lie in her bed and let her play with his body. Even while Cindy tries to take agency for her overtures, Gilles doesn’t behave remotely like a responsible adult toward a teenager with boundary issues. By the end of the book, although the reader has never seen the story through her eyes, we recognize Cindy as the greatest casualty of this tragi-comedy of errors. She’s also the only one likely to outlive the mess these men created to tell the story for a more mature generation.
Guiraudie has claimed his greatest influence was not a filmmaker, but an author, Georges Bataille (1897–1962). Guiraudie has cited as further influences Dostoyevsky, Proust, Céline, even Bret Easton Ellis — but it was Bataille (and the Marquis de Sade) whom he found to be truly “revelatory.” Sade and Bataille achieved a great freedom, as Guiraudie put it during an interview, to “apprehend evil, to face all that can disgust us, what is dirty, our unconfessed fantasies.” In its mind-bending obsession with the edges of the taboo, Guiraudie’s book undoubtedly resembles Bataille’s darkly lucid novellas from midcentury, Story of the Eye (1928), Madame Edwarda (1937), Blue of Noon (1957), and My Mother (1966). The traumatic kernel of Now the Night Begins hinges upon a radical encounter with what Bataille revered as the “base”: a formless difference, embodied and symbolized by waste, dirt, and excrement, all that disrupts binary hierarchies and generates a liberating abjection, an excruciating jouissance, a lacerating, revelatory loss of self which one cannot choose to experience, but must nevertheless endure.
Bataille’s fiction even at its most transgressive, still tended to be rather heteronormative. Jean Genet surely came closest to queering Bataille for the 20th century. And while Guiraudie may be the most recent author to carry the torch, his prose is often reminiscent of such classic existentialist narratives as Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1938) and Albert Camus’s The Stranger (1942). Of any literary antecedents, though, for much of the story, as the narrator seeks to evade the law to visit Grampa clandestinely in the night, the novel is deeply, painfully Kafkaesque. Characters struggle to bridge their isolation; the law overshadows the most innocent of encounters. All Gilles and Grampa really want to do is sleep together in the same bed. But neither Mariette, nor the chief, will allow it. So Gilles and Grampa speak in the dying language of Occitan, finding in the troubadour’s language a shared tradition and a coded communication. But Mariette interprets Grampa’s use of Occitan as a sign he’s going senile, and the chief trivializes their intimacy, arguing that we should let dying languages go extinct.
While the bulk of the novel’s narrative resembles K.’s negotiations with an obscure authority in Kafka’s The Castle (1926), Guiraudie’s central conflict plays out in ways far more akin to Bataille or Genet. The police chief, already sovereign in his power above the law, transforms from the narrator’s persecutor to the man of his dreams: noble, tender, as beautiful as “Poseidon,” at once his lover and his torturer. It would be wrong, however, to read Now the Night Begins as derivative of Bataille, or Genet, or Kafka. In his decadent tale, Guiraudie creates something new and confounding, something unique not just in the transgressive vein of contemporary literature, but to his own illustrious oeuvre as well.
Throughout the novel, we are privy to the narrator’s every whim and worry, his fantasies and his frustrations. Gilles might think logically, but he’s narrow-minded. He is also decidedly indecisive, falling into abysses of self-doubt that leave little foundation for his desire to stand upon. A troubling contradiction recurs throughout his stream-of-consciousness narrative: he fails to accurately read others’ reactions, while struggling to get a grip on the truth of his own desire. If anything, Gilles’s neurotic ruminations serve to preserve this blind-spot as if it were his most treasured possession. He distracts himself from his bruised ego by relishing his fantasies and disavowing his indulgences. He experiences himself as a victim even when he harms others. He seems oblivious to the litany of unintended casualties left in his wake, all the worn-out lovers who were once close confidants. At the same time, he never wills violence, never acts with malicious intent. But he is stuck in a vicious cycle. He’s only able to seek out solutions that dig him deeper into holes. He can’t think long-term; he can’t bide his time. If anything, he’s too quick to assume the best way to resolve a problem is to take it as far as it can go.
Although he wishes he could fight to reverse history, to “find a political alternative,” our narrator is too lazy and too hopeless. Near the end, after having exhausted his options, Gilles listens to a news broadcast about an oil spill, and laments: “All this gets me down in the dumps, I’m thinking about the end of the world again, at least an end of the world that I dreamed up not so long ago. The one where the oligarchy openly jerks us around, they just kill us en masse until they’re the only ones left on their desert islands.” While he seems aware that the fabric of his society is tearing apart, he never meditates on the possibility that his own dysfunctions are symptomatic of a wider social malaise. He’s over 40, and he feels his best years are behind him, not least because he’s a member of the declining middle class (after his summer “staycation,” he’s being forced to leave his sales job for manufacturing work, receiving a 40-percent salary cut). Yet at this crucial moment, the narrator distracts himself from his dystopian vision, only to commit himself again to transgressing the limits of the law and the ravages of time. “I try to take advantage of this last day of vacation,” he says. “But the sun’s setting, there isn’t much time before night comes and then it’ll all be over.” While knowing his life may be at stake, he violates the law’s interdiction, and, with the oncoming night, he returns yet again to visit Grampa.
The drowning at the center of Now the Night Begins (as well as Stranger by the Lake) offers a valuable lesson for the narrator’s tragic flaw. While being interrogated by the police, Gilles learns that the drowned man was a good swimmer. But since the deceased feared deep water, the police inspector notes, it doesn’t make sense he would have swam out to the center of the lake. Gilles finds this fear confusing: “He was afraid of the deeps […] The fear that arose when you realized just how much water was below you. I had no idea that kind of fear existed and I still think it’s odd that someone could be a good swimmer and still have that kind of fear.” Why does the narrator find fear of the “deeps” to be so incomprehensible? For Bataille, a taboo invokes, and makes possible, its own transgression. As he wrote in his treatise, Erotism (1957): “Taboo and transgression reflect these two contradictory urges. The taboo would forbid the transgression but the fascination compels it.” In between the lines of Gilles’s monologue, we come to read his blind-spot: to swim in deep waters, while fearing what is below, requires the same conflicted desire that drives the narrator to transgress taboos, to be both an agent and victim of sexual exploitation and humiliation. From the outset of their relationship, Gilles and Grampa had already lost more than they can ever hope to recuperate, not the least being time. Nevertheless, at the end of the night, in the instant before their violent, tragic demise, at least they get what they want. Even during this improbable couple’s last gasps, something noble is consummated.
“I’m looking for a confidant, a confessor, a savior,” the narrator confesses near the novel’s end. “I feel like I could somehow justify all my states of mind, all my thoughts, my calculations, my fears from the very beginning. And I’m sure they’ll understand the difficulty imposed by my desires.” It’s hard to imagine most readers today will, or should, understand what this narrator has done or experienced. Even fans of Semiotext(e) titles, or fans of Bataille, may be more haunted than they would like by the most basic elements of the story, much less it’s inevitable resolution.
Perhaps Now the Night Begins is a book for men who lie to themselves about their guilt. Many readers from across the political spectrum would probably say that we don’t need more stories told by men who cannot take responsibility for their actions. Certainly some hack Breitbart “writer” or other right-wing ideologue would take the novel as further proof of our permissive society’s fallen state. It is consoling to imagine such a character arriving at the novel’s afterword, happily appended for the English edition, where readers can look forward to an inimitable conversation between Wayne Koestenbaum and Bruce Hainley exploring the text’s subtlest pleasures (there is much to be said just about Grampa’s “suscing”).
While I hope Guiraudie’s novel will draw interest from jaded literati and disgruntled laymen alike (plus everyone in between), I’d like to think that it will also give the lie to their moral outrage, perhaps even proffer nourishment for their empathy. We listen to a narrator like Gilles because we want to know what makes him tick, and because we want to understand why someone we find unreliable and immoral can still remind us so much of ourselves. Few readers, I think, will be able to overlook in the lineaments of the narrator’s monologue the reflection of their own bad faith. In this sense, Alain Guiraudie’s Now the Night Begins is just the sort of queer decadence that the Trump era had coming. May it prove appealing, then, to those who deserve to be disturbed by it.
Alex Wermer-Colan is a writer, editor and translator. His work has appeared in Twentieth Century Literature, The Conversant, and Lost & Found, with more forthcoming from Indiana University Press and New Directions.