- HIV Stories: The Archaeology of AIDS Writing in France, 1985–1988
June 1985. In the most popular gay bar in Paris, I stood screaming at my French friends about the deaths of my friends from AIDS in the States. My hysteria was greeted with total ridicule, and within thirty seconds the whole bar was screaming with hilarity. As late as June 1985, the gay community in France almost uniformly considered AIDS a lie, a pure invention of American puritanism and homophobia. This was the official position of the leading gay publication, Gay Pied. Ironically, this doctrine was preached by many of the major gay leaders who would later write some of the masterpieces of AIDS literature in France.
It is in this context of total denial that we must set the three first examples of AIDS fiction unearthed by Jean-Pierre Boulé. In 1992 I published what I thought was a complete catalogue of the literature of AIDS in France (see AIDS: The Literary Response, ed. [End Page 508] Emmanuel S. Nelson), but I totally missed these texts. To my knowledge, they have never been studied until the present work. Though Boulé qualifies these first three AIDS writings as "morally and sexually repressive" (45), he seems willing to leave the question open as to whether they are based on some kind of real life experience. For me, they are nothing more than potboilers manufactured to profit from the looming crisis.
If so, then why is their discovery by Boulé so important? These are awful novels, carrying the message that "only heterosexual monogamous sexuality" is both safe and legitimate (85). Boulé explodes the myth that, from the beginning, France took a uniformly enlightened stance toward the new plague. The origins of AIDS writing in France were in fact every bit as homophobic as anything initially published in the United States. Devoid of compassion or literary value, they have absolutely nothing in common with the later masterpieces written by Copi, Guy Hocqueghem, and others.
In the first AIDS fiction published in France, Sida, Témoignage sur la vie et la mort de Martin, a certain Hélène Laygue, a divorced woman, recounts the secret gay life, illness, and death of her former husband. A hopelessly sick feminine fantasy on gay sexuality ("the forbidden sexual organ was rotting" ), the novel not only perpetuates "misconceptions surrounding HIV in France in the early 1980s" (32), but it presents HIV as "just punishment" (41). Pourquoi moi, supposedly the first account of a woman having contracted HIV in France, echoes the same lesson.
Bienvenue dans le monde du Sida! (Welcome to the World of AIDS), a heterosexual AIDS novel with an absurd and implausible plot, was supposedly translated into French to protect the identity of its American protagonist. I suspect it is nothing of the sort. One hears not an echo of the hypothetical English text and finds stereotypical French views on American culture. However, once again, in his acute analysis of this silly novel, Boulé demonstrates that even texts devoid of literary value can yield up significant cultural, psychological, and historical insights.
The three AIDS testimonials examined by Boulé in the second half of his study reveal texts of far more inherent interest. Boulé rescues from near oblivion early AIDS activist Michel Simonin's Danger de vie, a text that vividly recalls the marginalization and entirely shabby treatment of AIDS patients in France in the early 1980s. In a highly revealing contrast, he examines Jean-Paul Aron, the first French personnalité to speak openly to the media (Le Nouvel Observateur 30 October 1987) about his illness. As he points out, "Aron and Simonin are at opposite ends of the social scale: a French intellectual and a homeless person" (119). [End Page 509]
Boulé's chapter on Emmanuel Dreuilhe's Corps à corps: Journal du Sida (Mortal Embrace)is nothing short of brilliant. Boulé cites my own claim that the book perhaps eluded American readers because it is so "quintessentially French in style and sensibility" (123). I think I would go...