Review: Hallucinating Foucault

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!

16 thoughts on “Review: Hallucinating Foucault

  1. Wow, definitely a lot of threads in this one. Sounds like a read that would definitely benefit from having some background reading information on Foucault for sure. I like the sounds of it, thanks for the review.

    1. There’s definitely a lot of threads in this one. Foucault knowledge is not required, I think googling him to get the gist would be enough. But Foucault makes for fascinating reading even if you have to read every sentence twice 😉

    1. Heh, me as well! 🙂 This one is definitely about madness and love, and the madness of love and also asylums and psychiatry. Think you’d enjoy it!

  2. “My particular interest is the label of madness as a means of discrediting and removing non-normative behavior and inclinations”

    I find this fascinating as well. Say no more 😛

  3. Wonderful review, Bina! This looks like a fascinating book! I love the academic touch of the novel and that line you have quoted about university libraries! I tried reading ‘The History of Sexuality’ a few years back, but couldn’t get beyond the first few pages – the sentences and the ideas were so dense and tough to understand for a layman like me. The book is still on my bookshelf – maybe I should attempt it again. Or maybe I should read a bit about Foucault on Wikipedia, before starting my attempt 🙂 I loved your observation – “My particular interest is the label of madness as a means of discrediting and removing non-normative behavior and inclinations” 🙂 It reminded me of a dialogue in a movie that I saw many years back called ‘The Prince of Tides’, where one of the characters says ‘I was responsible and normal and dull’ and another character replies to that and says ‘I don’t know what normal is, and you’re anything but dull’.

    On a different note, I can’t wait to read your review of ‘The Red House Mystery’ 🙂

    1. Well, Foucault’s texts are often dense but except for a blessed few, everyone struggles with his texts in the beginning 🙂 But perhaps there’s a VSI book about Foucault? 😉 But that’s not needed to read this book, but perhaps reading Duncker’s novel will make you want to try again with Foucault.

      Now I have to look up The Pince of Tides! 🙂 Madness in literature is just interesting every way you look at it, as a narrative device, as a psychological condition, as a social label.

      Heh, that review is coming up, hopefully next week. But here’s a spoiler: If I were a cat I would have purred when I read it 😀

      1. I am pretty sure there is a VSI on Foucault 🙂 The movie version of ‘Prince of Tides’ was nominated for several Oscars but lost to ‘The Silence of the Lambs’. It has Nick Nolte and Barbara Streisand. It was based on a novel of the same name by Pat Conroy. Hope you get to see the movie / read the book.

        I love that spoiler 🙂 I can’t wait to read your review!

        1. That sounds intriguing, I’ll have to look for the film or the book 🙂 True, there should be a VSI on Foucault, he is essential reading in the humanities.

  4. Oh wow, this sounds exactly like my type of book. Stop tempting me, Bina! My TBR is high enough! Your review already had me when you said it is set in a university. Love the academic setting.

  5. Think this is the only second review i’ve seen in the blogging world of this book. I read it a couple of years ago, after spotting the book in the 1001 books list. Wonderful review – I enjoyed the book despite not being very familiar with Foucault, so…

    1. That’s a change, usually I’m the last person to read and review anything 😀 Glad to hear you enjoyed the book as well and I didn’t know it was on the 1001 books list, but that makes sense 🙂

  6. This sounds like an incredible book – a sure fire spark to set the mind ablaze.

    Noting this one down and hoping that I can find it via Book Depository. Love your reviews, you know there’s nothing more stimulating than a well written piece in my world. You still have that magic touch. Can you send me some Word smith magic my way please 🙂

    1. I find you have plenty of word magic every time I read one of your reviews, I should be the one borrowing! 🙂 This book is definitely incredible, hope you’ll enjoy it!

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