Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Dreamers by Gilbert Adair

The late Gilbert Adair is perhaps unique amongst British writers of his generation in being so much of a European writer. He lived in Paris for many years, and "The Dreamers", a rewrite of his first novel "The Holy Innocents", is set around the events of May 1968 in that city. The story was made into a film by Bernardo Bertolucci, and the rewritten novel, as he says in his afterward, takes on both a new name and something of that film's nature.

The story itself is a simple one. Three young cinephiles meet up every day after their school and college to watch every film they can. Matthew is an American studying abroad, whilst Theo and Isabelle are the twin children of a famous minimalist poet. For a long time they are those accidental friends who have become acquaintances because of a shared interest, but when Henry Langlois, curator and founder of Cinémathèque Française is removed from his post by the culture ministry, the cinema goes dark for days, causing uncertainty and protests. Matthew, a quiet American, who goes to confession every week,  and whose life till this point has been lost in the dreamy otherworld of the hardened cinephile, tentatively calls Theo and suggests they meet for a drink given that they are not going to be going to a film. It's the start of a new phase to their friendship.

Matthew gets invited back to their large flat, and meets the formidable poet and his devoted wife. The poet suggest Matthew stays the night, and in fact, he never leaves, as the next day the poet and his wife are going to their cottage in Normandy leaving their children on their own. Matthew is already in love with both the twins, but they filter their emotions through the films they see. Looking for the bathroom on his first night there he catches sight of Theo and Isabelle sharing a bed, entwined. Shocked and at the same time excited by their intimate incestuous secret, Matthew spends the day times holding this to himself. They begin playing a game of "Home Movies" where they get each other to guess the film reference in something they have done or said.

At a certain point, the small monetary forfeits aren't enough for Isabelle, who tells Theo to undress and masturbate. This he does, then puts his clothes back on. For two days there is nothing more happens then Theo has his revenge, and he makes Isabelle and Matthew forfeit by having sex with each other. Matthew is suddenly thrown into a confusion but of course, this has been the plan all along. With the parents away, and forging letters to each school explaining they are off sick, they begin an other worldly life in the flat - making love, running around naked, reading, talking about films. Their only sojourns out are to get food, and here they steal it from the supermarket, champagne and lobster and other expensive items until they are under such suspicion that they can't do it anymore.

In the isolation of the apartment their bacchanalia becomes more extreme - they are hallucinatory through starvation and even become ill from a poorly-judged eating of cat food. Yet they are happy in their world, except the closeness of the sister and brother is becoming ruptured by Matthew as the third part. This is the bit that I vividly remember from the film - this strange, unwholesome threesome, that moves from "innocence" to something much darker.  As Theo eventually physically takes Matthew, the circle of their desires and lusts and fears is closed. The world outside is of no interest to them until a brick comes through the window and Theo taking the lead, they go out onto the streets of Paris and realise a revolution has been taking place around them without them realising it. They bump into an old friend of Theo's and in the final part of the book become embroiled in the battle for the Latin Quarter, the protest turning nasty, and eventually deadly.

It's a sharp, short novel, with a clean, luminous prose style, that perfectly fits both this world of sexual innocence and depravity that they are exploring, but also seems right for this sense of a new world coming into being - a world, of course, that never quite happened. By seeing the Paris riots not close up, but accidentally, after we've been closeted with the private world of Matthew, Theo and Isabelle, the effect for the reader is like it is for them, coming out onto the Paris streets and the accompanying violence, after the blissful sojourn - the teenager paradise they've been living.

A vivid, graphic novel, its one I've wanted to read for a while. Its style reminds me a little of Duras's "The Lover". Though the book is a tragedy, its not written in that way, for the majority of the book is with the three young people, and though the incest at the heart of it is complex, its seen as a matter of fact, rather than anything more sordid. The brief scene with the twins' parents shows us some self-absorbed adults blissfully unaware of what's happening in their children's life. Left to their own devices - like the siblings in "The Cement Garden" - they look after each other.

What I liked about the book was that it doesn't have a moral tone at all - like Fowles in "The Ebony Tower" for instance - we are meant to take these characters as they are. Perhaps a sexually daring book even for 1988, I think reading the 2003 rewrite its more morally daring - so many of our contemporary novels have a moral framework to them, whereas this seems amoral. Adair, who was gay, but whose first novel was only published in his forties, maybe wanted to write something that was allegorical about desire - or in a world where nothing is really shocking anymore, this incestuous menage a trois still manages to be, yet the book is written with a great deal of subtlety that means the reader accepts the unworldly scenario without concern - being drawn into the private world of the three teenagers.

In one scene Isabelle is reading a novel by Queneau, and of course Adair is most well known for his translation of "A Void", the George Perec OuLiPo masterpiece which doesn't include the letter e. In an afterward Adair speaks of changing "The Holy Innocents" substantially for this version, though one assumes that the fact that it had already appealed to film makers, means that the essence of the book remains the same. Certainly, the intellectual nature of the characters - their love of movies explored in detail throughout the book - is an added pleasure. When we finally slip onto the streets of a Paris in revolt its like a newsreel coming to the life, with Isabelle, Theo and Matthew suddenly thrust from their privacy blinking into an even more dangerous world. 

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