In 1965 Pierre Goyotat's Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers was published. It is extraordinarily transgressive, disturbing and violent. However, it was received well enough to garner a following among the French intellectual community so that when his next novel was faced with restrictive sales regulations public figures such as Sartre, Genet, Blanchot, de Beauvoir, among many others, came to Goyotat's defence. After my own reading of Tomb I cannot but feel that the praise reflects an idiosyncratic trend in mid-twentieth century French thought rather than a more lasting contribution to thought and literature.
Guyotat chronicles a war in a fictitious country between soldiers and rebels. I use the word "chronicles" hesitantly as there is no actual description of the events of the war or the personalities involved. Nowhere is there any indication as to what the conflict is about, battle lines are never drawn, and it is impossible for the reader to choose sides. The conventions of the novel are stretched. Descriptions of the settings are all but absent, dialogue is intentionally unrealistic, and characters come and go with no central subject to orient the reader. The true focus of the book is in the detailed descriptions of acts of violence and sexuality that constitute the novel.
There is a strand of mid-twentieth century French philosophy that had an obsession with the relationship between sex and death. Nowhere have I seen this depicted with greater enthusiasm than in Guyotat's Tomb. Every page is soaked with blood, semen and saliva. A word count of these three terms, along with sperm and several variations of genitalia slang, would reveal the core fixation of the novel in a quantifiable manner. The novel is a string of loosely tied sexual and violent events, frequently emerging in the same act. The depiction of sex is loveless and animalistic while the violence is always palpably infused with eroticism. Rape is frequent, and the victims range from the women encountered to children to fellow soldiers/rebels. Necrophilia and bestiality are also thrown in in case the above wasn't quite enough.
I fully believe there is a place for transgressive fiction, even if limited to providing a complacent reader with a shock. However, Tomb doesn't seem to have any sort of plan to support its ambitions. My edition is a densely packed, almost 400 page volume where the descriptions of the first 50 pages are almost a mirror of those of the last 50. I have to give Guyotat credit that he manages to be original enough in his descriptions so that I could feel sickened as much toward the end of the book as I did at the beginning, but that is small praise.
Guyotat could be compared to another famous French transgressive, the Marquis de Sade, but only on a superficial level. Once you delve deeper you begin to see distinct differences. De Sade writes to outline a philosophy, regardless of how disagreeable one may feel about it. His works either have episodes of degradation interspersed with elaborations of his philosophy or have a character who embodies the philosophy, believing that what he does is legitimate. But nowhere does he simply have these events happen without a contextual grounding. Guyotat has no grounding. Tomb does little more than drop the reader in the fire and watch them writhe.