[Semiotext(e); 2024]

Tr. from the French by Holly James

Stories about deviant French aristocrats are nothing new. Pamphlets from the French Revolution made a political point by depicting Marie-Antoinette as a sexually voracious lesbian, for example, telling of debaucherous relations with “all the tribades of Paris.” Rumors of her homosexuality had circulated before but took on new significance in a time of upheaval; Antoinette became a symbol of the ruling class’s flagrant disregard for common people’s values. As the Revolution got more radical, so did the sexual acts attributed to her. Around the same time, on the other side of the Bastille walls, the Marquis de Sade was sullying his noble name with extreme sexual fictions, relishing in transgressing societal norms. He would effectively sacrifice himself for wild desire, losing his money, getting jailed many times, going mad, and dying in an asylum.

Constance Debré’s novel, Playboy—the first of a series, but the second to be translated to English by Holly James—comes with gossipy appeal at a new time of extreme class disparity. Straddling the line between confessional memoir and fiction, it offers a thinly-veiled view into a real-life family sometimes referred to as the “French Kennedys.” The unnamed narrator, like the author, is the grandchild of a French Prime Minister. Her uncle is an archbishop. She claims duchesses on the side of her late mother, a model. Her aristocratic lineage, as she tells it, acts as a halo, giving her unshakable confidence but also an itch to test its limits. She offers secrets forthwith, revealing privileges of the upper class, its deep-seated snobbery, her parents’ drug and alcohol addictions, how they squandered it all. 

Mainly though, she tells secrets of her own, narrating the dissolution of her straight bourgeois life in her pursuit of queer desire. Readers unaware of the Debrés might get more from the narrator’s attitude and style than the novel’s real-life revelations. The narrator is like a queer French Hunter Biden, relishing in tarnishing her name, declaiming it while proving its power. “You don’t need anything when you’re rich,” she says. “It’s a question of shame, and we never feel shame. Poor people are right to hate us.”

At the start, she’s middle-aged, a mother to a young boy, married to a man, working as a criminal defense attorney. This is the life she’s fallen into after a turbulent childhood with her rich junkie parents and the tragic early death of her mother—a life she felt expected to live. She finds it all boring. She acknowledges her own phlegmatic affect and brusquely offers possible sources: “It might be because we’re all bored shitless, the whole upper class.” Describing her marriage, she says, “The essence of couple life is being bored shitless.” This refrain returns when she visits her father: “None of us knows whether we’re relaxing or bored shitless.”

The tug is gentle at first. She meets a woman at work—Agnès—whose son she successfully defends against light drug trafficking charges. She and Agnès take a liking to one another. Both are married to men. Agnès writes her a personal email out of nowhere. “That’s when I thought that she and I could have an actual love affair,” the narrator says. They spend time together but barely touch. It takes months for them to even use informal pronouns. The narrator is nervous, in a way she’s never been with men. She invites Agnès on a trip to Italy. Abroad, she finally finds her courage and they have sex. “I see all her beauty, the beauty of women, I see my own body, new. I tell myself There are lots of things that are possible.”

Once sex is involved, her relationship with Agnès burns bright and fast. There’s more sex, but not that much—only four times over the summer. She learns Agnès has other lovers. The narrator meets Agnès’s husband, her cousins, her aunts, and her nephew. She’s driven wild with passion and insecurity. “Every time I have to pluck up the courage again because the things that have already happened don’t entitle you to anything,” she says after another kiss. The boredom of her marriage and her previous relationships with men allowed for placid indifference. Her intense feelings for Agnès produce new highs and new lows. “To love a woman, is to despise her,” she proclaims in a fit of frustrated passion, like a born-again misogynist. Their sex gets tenser, more transactional. Agnès seems less willing than the narrator to explode her life. In choppy narration, a break-up is referred to, but much is elided. The affair ends as ambiguously as it started.

After Agnès, the narrator’s sexual landscape opens up. She begins dating the daughter of one of her father’s friends, a younger woman, Albertine, whom she calls Albert (avoiding or furthering the allusion to Proust). Albert’s displays of queerness are more overt, and she inspires the narrator to follow her example. At the same time, the narrator’s marriage disintegrates. The big fights happen off-stage. “We’ve barely seen each other since we separated,” one chapter begins, introducing the split. Like the narrator herself, the narration moves quickly, not liking to stop and reflect. “If you don’t want to feel guilty, all you have to do is keep going,” she says towards the end, which might be a mantra of style. Like everything else, her relationship with Albert doesn’t last. These two defining initial relationships give way to a more casual approach to sex with women. Her life has been transformed through the force of desire. This is a coming-out story of propulsion, escape velocity, dead weight, and trade-offs.

In interviews, Debré has compared her own later-in-lafe transformation to the spiritual conversion of Saint Augustine. Seemingly all at once, Debré left her husband, career, and home to pursue writing and loving women. Playboy and the novels that follow are the outcome of that thrilling awakening. Yet her fictional avatar reminded me more of Siddhartha, the Buddha, another child of the aristocracy who embarks upon a journey of renunciation. Shitless boredom is the narrator’s avidyā, the ignorance in the way of enlightenment. The Buddha learned to extinguish desire. For the narrator, desire appears as liberation, what the rigid world of shitless boredom kept from her. “I don’t care about pleasure,” she says, “what I’m interested in is desire, a desire I’d never known before, this never-ending desire.”

This preoccupation echoes the antisocial strain of queer theory, advanced by theorists like Leo Bersani and Lee Edelman, which embraces the nonconformist disruption of queer desire, doubling down on its shattering force. Boredom and pleasure are byproducts of social reproduction. Desire is wild and unruly. But, as anyone who’s had a crush will know, desire can also obfuscate. The narration is raw and personal on the one hand, claustrophobic on the other. Too much is happening in real-time to be processed. Though the narrator is loath to acknowledge it, there’s a lot to mourn along the way. “I thought it was strange how everyone was suddenly hating me these days,” she says. Most tragically, she means her son. 

The second book in Debré’s trilogy, Love Me Tender, revisits what gets left by the wayside in Playboy, reflecting on the social forces that can’t be thrown-off in desire’s liberation. It’s a deeper, more somber book. She speaks poignantly of the strained relationship with her son and the legal and social barriers between them. No amount of class privilege or family status, it seems, can contend with embedded misogyny and homophobia. Exploring what a liberated woman and mother might become, she finds the ideologies dictating how she should live thrown back at her by the world. Refusing to position herself as a victim of society, the narrator still laments her situation.

Even though I wished at times for more views in either direction, inward to the narrator’s psyche or outward towards the social world, the resolute honesty of Playboy is captivating. The narrator has put herself on the witness stand. Her voice is clipped, tough, unsentimental. James’s translation faithfully preserves Debré’s radically taut, minimal language. The narrator never asks for unearned sympathy. Criticisms are internalized before they arrive. Debré suppresses this tragedy with a cool butch style. Though she is a victim of coercive and restrictive social forces, her rejection of victimhood as an identity is refreshing at a time when self-victimization so often gets weaponized by people in power to entrench their own positions. At the same time, as a criminal defense attorney, she’s surely aware that testifying to everything is a good way to maintain control. She understands the atmosphere of rightful class resentment, winning readers to her side by disclaiming her privilege and pitting desire against it.

But, as later novels illustrate, so much is still beyond her control. She’s been taught to view herself as above the system for so long that she struggles to acknowledge how it turns on her. Her vigorous denials of vulnerability are more ironic than she may realize. For all her honesty, she stays on the defensive too much for readers to get a good look at what she’s defending herself against. Playboy concludes with her freer than she was at the beginning, but this new freedom reveals how much more is still lacking. Not even desire can save her. “The problem is that even with girls,” she says after everything, “it’s all become banal.” Before dumping Albert, she gets a lesson from her. “She says that freedom is not enough, we need another word. Like a believer at the eleventh hour, like those who have never prayed, she proposes faith.” By novelizing her life, Debré asks the world for a bit of faith on her own terms, while also searching for faith in herself.

Chris Robinson is a writer from North Carolina living in Brooklyn. He’s currently at work on a novel. Twitter: @secrethistorian. 

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