Killing Yourself to Write

By Michael Teague

La Confession Negative (The Negative Confession)
By Richard Millet
Gallimard, 2009, France

Richard Millet’s recent work “La Confession Negative” is a harrowing tale based on the author’s participation in the Lebanese civil war in 1976. Residing in a grey area between memoir and novel, the book’s central theme is Millet’s becoming an author through the experience of war. Millet has previously written of this experience, albeit in a more roundabout fashion, in his first novel, “Sur un Balcon a Beyrouth.”

Currently an editor at Gallimard, Millet’s other title might as well be the reigning enfant terrible of French literature. He is routinely dismissive of his contemporaries, and as a devout Catholic is vocally critical of the West’s lack of capacity for religious belief. At the same time, it would be grossly inaccurate to characterize him as a conservative; indeed many of Millet’s books have dealt, to no small degree, with the subject of sexuality in a most open manner. His knowledge of French authors is encyclopedic, and gravitates naturally towards the mystical and dissident: Georges Bataille, Marcel Proust, Maurice Blanchot, Drieu la-Rochelle and so on. In terms of quality of language, Millet has unquestionably earned these comparisons.

“La Confession” is a non-linear journey between the three main stages of the author’s young life: his childhood in the rural south-central Limousin region of France, his move to the suburbs of Paris in his late teens, and his journey to Lebanon to fight with the Phalangist militia against what he contemptuously calls the “Palestino-progressivist” forces. Millet’s impetus throughout the adventure is his ardent desire to become a writer, a desire he seems to have recognized at a young age. When his estranged mother comes to pluck him out of his pastoral innocence, and discovers her son’s aspirations, she advises him that he must experience war to truly become a writer. Already under the spell of Gerard de Nerval’s “Voyage en Orient,” Millet’s encounters with a beautiful young Druze girl at university set him on his path to Lebanon. It is not long before he is recruited by a mysterious man connected with the Phalange, and makes his way to Beirut.

Millet’s first participation in hostilities takes place during the war of the hotels.  He does not fight, at least at first, out of any clearly defined political or religious conviction. This is not to say that he is without convictions, but rather that these convictions are mostly of a negative character. His disdain for what he sees as an ugly and hypocritical abuse of language on the part of the liberal European left, distilled for him into its most contemptible forms by the events of May 68, and unquestioning sympathy for the Palestinian cause, simultaneous with utter disregard for the plight of the Christians of the Middle East, serve as justification enough (and, irrespective of one’s feelings about the Palestinian cause, one must concede this last point to Millet).

It is only gradually, as the brutality unfolds, as his bonds with his fellow militiamen solidify, as he becomes impervious to the act of killing and the scenes of death, that he starts going to church and praying. All the while the preoccupation with becoming a writer never disappears, affording Millet a certain perverse sort of detachment from what is going on around him.

It is never quite clear, from the perspective of Millet-as-warrior, what it is exactly that he wants so badly to write about. But it does reveal the author’s mystical relationship with his French language, which he comes to see as a battlefield not entirely different from that of Beirut itself. His Phalangist friends call him “the grammarian” because of his bookishness and his insistence on speaking French while everyone around him is more inclined to learn English and listen to Bob Dylan albums.

Millet’s stint comes to an end after about a year with the dreadful – and beautifully rendered – orgy of violence that is the siege of Tal el-Zaatar. However unpalatable one may find this scene and the many others like it throughout the book, it is clear that Millet is no savage. Rather, that the experience of war necessitates that one become a savage to at least some degree. To be sure, no party to Lebanon’s civil war ever perpetrated such a large-scale act of butchery as the amphetamine-fueled Phalanges and their Israeli handlers at Sabra and Chatila. But Millet’s work reminds us that atrocities on a smaller scale were a daily reality for innocent folks, regardless of whose side they chose to be – or unwittingly found themselves – on. As a document about the utter insanity of this period of Lebanese history, “La Confession Negative” is an important book. It is also one of the most visceral and beautifully written in the tradition of becoming-a-writer narratives.

 This book review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 62

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