Men by Marie Darrieussecq

The quotation from Marguerite Duras – ‘We have to love men a lot. A lot, a lot. Love them a lot in order to love them. Otherwise it’s impossible; we couldn’t bear them.’ – echoes throughout Darrieusecq’s novel, Men, and not only because the man that Solange falls in love with requires exactly this kind of devotion, but also because there is a wider echo of Duras’s work, of her interest in the ebb and flow of love, of its journey that always takes the self into unknown territory. I haven’t read The Lover in years but I feel its heart beating in Men.

Solange, the protagonist of Men, is a French actress working in Hollywood. When she meets Kouhouesso, a Canadian actor originally from Cameroon who is consumed by his big project, the making of an African Heart of Darkness, it is as if she has always been waiting only for him. Rose, a friend from home, reminds her that ‘Waiting is an illness. A mental illness. Often a female one.’(location 413)

The novel would be interesting and compelling, an exploration of desire wrapped in the trappings of gender politics, if it looked at a relationship between a man and a woman of the same ethnicity and culture, but Men has a whole extra agenda to explore: race and the politics of skin.

Exploring prejudice, even within a relationship of two people entangled in the tendrils of desire, passion, love, feels like a brave and daring move. This is one white woman’s honest excavation of prejudice that points fingers, offers supplication and calls for dialogue, something that Solange never really gets because Kouhouesso likes to pronounce and to define. And here race becomes part of the male/female drama, all roles and moulds that history has brutally constructed to maintain the victor’s dominance, and as grand as this may sound the battle is very personal for Solange: she discovers a whole world she has not seen before, not only in Africa where Kouhouesso finally manages to film, but in France and America where she had not noticed that in her circles normal was also mostly white.

‘Was she white people? That beam pierced her chest. Did he see her as a white person? Was he – worse – here because she was white? She had been loved for her buttocks, for her talent, for her celebrity, but never for her colour. Or else all men, all the white people who had desired her up until now, had only done it on condition that she was white?’ (location 473)

Having the film as the framework for the novel is useful. The whole idea of playing a character, of editing constructed reality, of creating something that presents a certain view is central to the questions at the heart of Men. We can play with it all; change is possible. We don’t have to buy into a certain arrangement of events (Kouhouesso ends up playing the dead Kurtz in his own film, his skin made white with make-up). However, the editor can also be cruel and whole narratives and characters can be excised from the finished product, their contribution rendered meaningless.

Not only is the novel a joy to read at a thematic, ideological and construct level, the sentences themselves are a pleasure. This is a beautiful novel. I wanted to breathe it in. I found myself reflecting on Solange’s experiences as if I had gone through them with her and the play around the idea of skin, how it is read, how we write upon it, is ever present.

‘The light woke her, and the sensation of lying with him. She never slept for long. She breathed in the divine smell of his hair. The incense from his cathedral of hair. From his dreadlocks. She let them envelop her, wrap around her. They were a bit itchy, the ends prickled, they rolled like beads in the bed. That’s what left the marks in the morning, etched into her skin. During the day she watched these marks slowly fade, like secret wedding rings around her arms, her shoulders, her waist.’ (location 521)

Men is the story of a love affair from one woman’s point of view. When I feel discomfort at some of the ideas raised I know I’ve found an itch I should scratch, expose to the surface. The only sense of regret I have, is that Kouhouesso’s side of the story is never told. Of course, Solange may only ever be an aside in the story of his film, but it would be interesting to hear nonetheless. Regardless of my desire for more, Men is a novel asking to be talked about and Marie Darrieussecq a great and important writer. I loved Men. You can read it as an Ebook now, but the printed version comes out in August. 

Next week I’m reading Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra.