France’s Gabrielle Wittkop and the Artful Dead

Gabrielle Wittkop~France

Suzanne, my beautiful Lily the joy of my soul and of my flesh, had started to marbeleise with violet patches.  I multiplied the bags of ice.  I had wanted to keep Suzanne forever.  I kept her for almost two weeks, barely sleeping, feeding myself with what I found in the fridge, drinking too much at times.  The tick-tock of the pendulums, the creaking of the woodwork had adopted a particular quality, just like each time Death is present.  She is the great mathematician who gives the exact value to the data in a problem.

Gabrielle Wittkop has written a disgusting little masterpiece.  Reading this evoked several daring writers and poets: de Sade, Bataille, Baudelaire, Viscount Lascano Tegui and even Tom Petty.


But Wittkop proves the most daring with her homage to necrophilia, The Necrophiliac, written in a elegant, morose, wickedly humorous and taut style.  Granted, it’s not there are many other masterpieces dedicated to necrophiliacs, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be hailed as such when it is done well.

This, as one might surmise, not a book for the faint of heart.  The protagonist, Lucien, goes into the minutia of all the bodily manifestations of decay with the eye of a lovesick man who attempts to rationalize the flaws of his beloved.  Every fetid smell comes through like Wittkop wanted to write the most horrific scratch and sniff love story.  Of course, Wittkop employs a bit of the Lady Gaga factor – shock.  Yet, there is such intelligence and care in this novella it’s as if she dares you to read it despite the revolting aspect of Lucien.  For Lucien is a necrophiliac through and through, without concern for gender or age, but for the story in the flesh he tries to inhabit.  It is a the kind of confessional that forces one o examine the seedier psychological elements of ourselves and society at large.  After all, Lucien owns his own respectable business.  He is, as Wittkop cleverly points out in this passage, an antiques dealer:

I don’t hate my occupation:  its cadaverous ivories, its pallid crockery, all the goods of the dead, the furniture that they made, the tables that they painted, the glasses from which they drank when life was still sweet to them.  Truly, the occupation of an antiquarian is a situation almost idea for the necrophiliac.

Lucien is a complex character that Wittkop manages to make intriguing and full of all the insecurities and self-delusions as the rest of the us.  Even though Lucien is aware of his morbid predilection, he still has enough pride to take offense when people confuse the necrophiliac with the vampire.  He goes through a rotating cast of maids who quit because of the smell and the ever-present sense that something is amiss with Lucien:

Another, very young, already fat, whose name I’ve forgotten, declared in a local stored that I smelled like a vampire.  Always this old and aberrant confusion between two beings so fundamentally opposed as the vampire and the necrophiliac, between the dead that feed off the living and the living who love the dead. 

He does have a point there.  Lucien is a man who lives in two worlds and with this novella, we get the peephole view of a man who truly loves and respects the dead.  That’s what is so disturbing about The Necrophiliac, it’s the sickest love story you’ll ever read.  Even in the end, when he absconds with the drowned corpses of a brother and a sister while he is on vacation, there is a sentimentality from Lucien as he re-imagines what their life had been like (in his own twisted vision):

I wanted their bodies, which so often in life had to call to each other in secret, to be united finally in death.  For I know that these two loved each other as the sky loves the earth.  And the one wanted to save the other and the other took the one along.  Brought along by love, into the depths, into the salt and seaweed, into the foam and sands, into the icy currents that are stirred up by the stare of the moon and become as agitated as semen.

No, it’s not for everybody.  Taking something this taboo and making it lyrical and engaging is the evidence of a skilled writer.  Not to mention the excellent translation skills of Don Bapst.  It must have been an arduous process to hit just the right note so that the whole sick train doesn’t derail.  To understand the nuances that Wittkop threads through the narrative needs a translator who keenly understands quality writing. 

Gabrielle Wittkop may not be a household name, but nonetheless,
The Necrophiliac is a masterpiece.  It has not appeared in English before, even though it was originally published in 1972.  The taboo in art has been a longtime agent provocateur, which at times, has only been used to shock with superficial artifice.  Wittkop employs high art with taboo and that is a rare commodity in our judgmental society.

The Necrophiliac

By Gabrielle Wittkop
Translated by Don Bapst
Ecw Press
Paperback, 92 pp.
ISBN: 9781550229431

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