Review: Subtle Bodies by Peter DubéSubtle Bodies
Published by Lethe Press
Review by Colin Herd
The work of Montreal-based writer Peter Dubé has consistently tapped into the fruitful vines that intertwine the political and aesthetic project of French Surrealism with a contemporary, radical artistic practice. His earlier fictions, such as ‘Hovering World’, his 2002 novel, and ‘At the Bottom of the Sky’, a collection of interlinked short stories that came out in 2007, have at their core a commitment to and investigation of the transformative power of desire and subjectivity, an exploration of psychological states and their relation to truth and reality, which ultimately and sometimes in subtle ways tip over into marvel, fantasy and the realms beyond ordinary perception. In 2008, Dubé edited the anthology ‘Madder Love: Queer Men and the precincts of Surrealism’, which featured the work of a range of contemporary queer writers, including many younger writers. In a substantial and personal introductory essay, Dubé recounts his interest in and fascination with Surrealism, confronting head-on the problem of André Breton’s evident homophobia and flashing his torchlight towards reclaiming ‘what is beautiful, complex and untamed in surrealism for queers’.
‘Subtle Bodies’, Dubé’s second novel, due out from Lethe in August this year, is a further stone in the path towards this reclamation, a fiction based on the suicide of the French Surrealist René Crevel. Dubé transforms extensive research on Crevel’s life and career into a headily poetic meditation on surrealism, homosexuality and politics. Crevel is both one of the most interestingly complex figures associated with the Surrealist movement, and, from where I’m sitting, one of the most attractive. His novels are also perhaps the central point where experimental queer fiction and Surrealism meet. As the poet Edouard Roditi has written, Crevel was a ‘marginal or different kind of Surrealist’:
‘Whereas Aragon made his career as a novelist only after abandoning Surrealism, and also became overtly homosexual, much to the surprise of many of his communist friends, only after the death of his wife, the Russian-born novelist Elsa Triolet, Crevel continued for several years to be the only novelist, avowed homosexual, and Paris society playboy of the Whole Surrealist group.’
In tender, taut and lyrical prose, Dubé’s novel re-establishes homosexuality as an important tenet of Crevel’s writing, inseparably in-bed with his commitments to Communism and Surrealism. In one particularly strong passage, Crevel delivers a speech in front of the Worker’s League, with the Surrealists also present. Crevel’s passionate speech points towards a kind of utopia at the heart of which are desire and sensitivity. For all its poetry and visionary beauty, for all its ambition, Crevel’s speech bombs and is received with silence and a lack of understanding. By fictionalizing Crevel’s life, though, Dubé points towards an imaginative reality where the utopia described might just be in reach, where Crevel’s dream of a desire-based socialist society could exist:
Imagine, I said, a world built for your desires, for your enjoyment, for the actualization of your dreams and pleasures, and their proliferation. A time and place in which the sensual and intellectual functions of work were given as much value as the instrumental requirements. Imagine a land where public spaces are decorated and work places gilded. A city designed as much for leisure as for labor because there was no difference detectable between them.
The anxiety caused by Breton’s silent but strong disapproval of Crevel’s homosexuality is a central theme of Dubé’s novel, which imaginatively reconstructs the thoughts, memories and voices that flood Crevel’s mind as the gas from his oven floods his flat, on the 18th of June 1935. Three chapters make up the novel, entitled ‘Bodies of Speech’, ‘Bodies of Desire’ and ‘Bodies of Power’, but the thematic division that those designations suggest is much less clear-cut, much more overlapping within the text itself. Dubé’s first chapter begins at the end of his narrative, with Crevel pouring a glass of pastis and turning on the gas, triggering a memory of his first encounter with Breton. Desperate to impress the by all accounts very impressive Breton, Crevel ingratiates himself to him, and the group that is to become the Surrealists, by performing séances (insincere, in the first instance). To the delight of Breton and others, Crevel meditates and delivers spectacular, darkly bizarre, irresistible and sometimes violent spoken-word performances. Rather than communicating with any force beyond the grave however, Crevel’s narratives come from the recesses of his desire and his soul. Crevel is tortured by his fraudulence in these séances, but eventually consoles himself that by speaking automatically and spontaneously from his desire and his soul, he is in fact doing what he pretends to do. By confronting his darkest desires and investigating his sexual imagination, Dubé’s Crevel almost feels like a forebear of a contemporary writer like Dennis Cooper.
‘Subtle Bodies’ is therefore an important creative-critical text that should prompt a reassessment of Crevel’s writing. This is especially important for a writer like Crevel whose work has consistently been mis-understood and mis-represented, most notoriously by Ezra Pound. But that agenda doesn’t take away from its own qualities as a novel. Dubé captures the foreboding atmosphere of Paris in the 30s, and particularly impressive is the way Dubé renders the ‘voices’ that plague Crevel almost as characters in their own right, distinct from Crevel’s own voice, both frightening and plausible. ‘Subtle Bodies’ succeeds on all fronts.
Colin Herd is a poet based in Edinburgh whose work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in 3:AM, Dogmatika, Gutter, Shampoo, Velvet Mafia and Mirage #4/Period(ical).