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  • My Father and I: The Marais and the Queerness of Community
  • Nick Rees-Roberts
My Father and I: The Marais and the Queerness of Community. By David Caron. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009. x + 267 pp. Hb $29.95.

David Caron’s book is engaging and erudite, intellectually ambitious and historically varied. The author’s elegant style and self-deprecatory wit keep us entertained through some pretty heavy-going subjects, including shame, disaster, failure, and alienation, figured as formative of the ‘radical undoing of identity’ known as queerness (p. 119). Caron frames his cultural geography of the gay and Jewish parts of the Marais in Paris with an autobiographical prologue and epilogue recounting his relationship with his father as a disaster, a case of miscommunication between a queer son and his Jewish father, between a Hungarian immigrant and his expatriate son, humorously self-identified as ‘an old-fashioned, Marlene-Dietrich-identified, end-of-the-line, degenerate [End Page 376] pansy’ (p. 9). The early reference to that familiar camp icon is far from incidental, as Caron later uses an embarrassing episode involving Dietrich in drag to expose his thoughts on current debates around gay shame. Caron observes that gay men are made to feel ashamed of any lingering shame or self-hatred in the current climate of assimilation and sanitized gayness. He takes examples from Proust and from the radical writings of Guy Hocquenghem to describe queer time as out of step with gay assimilation through marriage, to glimpse at ‘alternatives to modernity’s dominant conception of linear time and to the social system it seeks to ground’ (p. 124). Preceding the central thesis of the book on the queerness of community, Caron provides an engaging account of the cultural history of the Marais, the crossroads between the Jewish and gay communities. His nuanced account of the development of a gay village (and the highly problematic use of the borrowed term ‘ghetto’ to describe gay commercial activity there) points to the AIDS crisis as the defining moment in the development of the gay community in the French context through the formation of Act Up-Paris in 1989. In an extended reading of the controversial auto-fiction of Guillaume Dustan, bête noire of the gay intelligentsia until his death in 2005, Caron judiciously avoids rehearsing the tired debate on the life-styling of unsafe sex, waged as an ideological war between Act Up and Dustan in the late 1990s. Instead, he fleshes out the supposedly ‘fabulous world’ of Dustan’s fiction, a Parisian micro-culture willing to embrace unsafe practices, illustrative of the centrality of pornography and performance in gay culture. This contested image of a sexual ‘ghetto’ enables Caron to revisit arguments around queerness as a threat to French national identity and republicanism circulating from the late 1990s onwards. Caron’s book also takes on the problematic AIDS/Holocaust analogy to posit disaster and the group friendships formed through it as the affective backbone to queer communities. Ultimately, Caron’s candid approach, friendly voice, and witty asides enable him to avoid an excessively downbeat conclusion. My Father and I is both a personal memoir and a cultural history, taking in pride and shame, Heidegger and the Jews, Proust and tearooms, Dustan and gay pornography. What more could we want?

Nick Rees-Roberts
University of Bristol


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pp. 376-377
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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