Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Duncker is narrated by an unnamed protagonist who is a Cambridge postgrad student, writing his thesis on the French writer Paul Michel. He starts a relationship with a girl he meets in the library, only referred to as the Germanist. Uncovering the letters Michel wrote to the French theorist Michel Foucault, the narrator learns of Michel’s feverish admiration for Foucault and, urged by the Germanist, goes to France to see Paul Michel. He finds him in an insane asylum and is drawn into a love triangle of passion, madness and intimacy.
Duncker’s first novel reads like a dark and twisty thriller, but it is most of all a meditation on the intimate and private relationship between reader and writer. There is the narrator’s love and obsession with Paul Michel, and Michel’s love for Foucault (whom he addresses as reader in his letters), and when the narrator meets Michel, that love is moved from the level of the text to that of the reality of the novel.
While Duncker has obviously written this novel to be accessible for a general audience, being familiar with the works of Michel Foucault made it even more interesting. I don’t write this to discourage you from reading this book, but rather to encourage you to read some Foucault (particularly Madness and Civilization and The History of Sexuality). The novel also has that academic touch and describes the obsessive atmosphere of university libraries that many of you might recognize and appreciate, I know I did. The narrator wonderfully comments on this:
University libraries are like madhouses, full of people pursuing wraiths, hunches, obsessions
Which brings us to the theme of madness which is one focus of Hallucinating Foucault. My particular interest is the label of madness as a means of discrediting and removing non-normative behavior and inclinations, and this is partly addressed with the removal of the anarchist and homosexual Paul Michel. However, Duncker looks more closely at the link between love and madness and delusions and perceptions of reality. She also appears to have done a lot of research about the French psychiatric system, which is as fascinating as the one in England.
Paul Michel is only a character in this novel, he is not a real writer, unlike Michel Foucault. But Paul Michel exists outside this text as Paul-Michel, Foucault’s complete name. See what fun you can have with this novel? There are so many layers of meaning and a lot of different approaches to this novel, but despite this, it remains a novel that is fast-paced and accessible.
Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!