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Books: All the King's Horses

A Good Haul
 Guy Debord, Michèle Bernstein & Asgar Jorn, 1961

In 1957 a group of artists, poets, and filmmakers founded the Situationist International in Paris. Michèle Bernstein was one of the few women among them. She wrote the novel All the King’s Horses in 1960 – when she was married to the group’s leading theorist Guy Debord – as a way of filling the young organisation’s coffers. This sentimental romance about the affairs of Parisian intellectuals was a pastiche of Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse and became a bestseller. Christian Egger writes on the book, which was recently translated into German.

Fifty-five years after its first publication in France, Michèle Bernstein’s debut novel has been translated into German. That it has taken so long may be in part because the few literary texts written by Guy Debord’s first wife have not been given much attention by scholars of Situationism and were not reprinted in France for a long time. Legend has it that All the King’s Horses was meant simply as a joke, an imitation of Françoise Sagan’s bestseller Bonjour Tristesse (1954) and Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782). Bernstein’s intention was not particularly idealistic: all she wanted was to get some money into the empty coffers of the recently established Situationist International, of which she was a founding member. Her plan was a resounding success. The book was a hit and was much discussed in the press. 

What does all this mean for a reader of this almost 100-page-long book today? Can it actually be anything more than a blatant tour of plunder through shallow French romance novels, an all-too-easily decoded field test of theories and ideas that are formulated more seriously elsewhere, for example in Guy Debord and Gil J. Wolmans’s A User’s Guide to Détournement (1956)? And on top of that, its genre, the psychological novel, is one that we know Bernstein herself held for dead and in no regard worthy of resuscitation.

The idea that a writer in the inner circle of the SI would give a true-to-life account of lived experience is already highly improbable, but it is nonetheless extremely tempting when reading All the King’s Horses to keep seeing the main characters Geneviève, Gilles, and Bernard as the people they were modelled on: Michèle Bernstein, Guy Debord, and Asger Jorn. This meandering double bind, the positioning of one’s purportedly reliable insider knowledge about the people in the novel, makes the simple story more rewarding to engage with. There are sentences that are so close to one’s own projections of Debord’s personality in their clichéd precision that one starts to doubt their veracity for that very reason, especially if one thinks of how carefully the Situationists designed their own history and reception. Among them: “He’s a thinking chameleon … He thinks the things that are behind things.” “Gilles knows how to reinvent Paris.” “True, Gilles ended a lot of relationships for stupid reasons.” “Seeing Gilles and I meet, one can never tell if it’s a date or an accident.” A person characterised like this can paradoxically only escape the descriptions that have been made so concrete in fiction by declaring, for example: “We’re all characters in a novel, haven’t you noticed? You and I speak in dry little sentences. There’s even something unfinished about us. And that’s how novels are. They don’t give you everything. It’s the rules of the game. And our lives are as predictable as a novel, too.” Passages like these, which continually refer to the layers of construction behind the characters, keep the book so fresh for today’s readers, aside from the open ménage à trois and the plot that heads blithely towards its happy ending. The success of this novel, which was written without any particular literary ambition, led to a second, The Night (1961), in which the same story was told again but in reduced form. When the market and publishing house then wanted Bernstein to provide a further book, this lazy if successful writer, for want any literary work to offer them herself, directed them to a theoretical work her husband Guy Debord had just finished. Its title: The Society of the Spectacle (1967).  

One can only conclude that the influence of one of the few women in the SI was greater than previously assumed. After the end of her early relationship with Debord, Bernstein married another Situationist, Ralph Rumney. Now, after many years spent in advertising and as a literary critic for the French newspaper Libération, Bernstein is being rediscovered for her early work as a novelist – which, for all its limited scope, is nonetheless rewardingly complex. 

Translated by the editors.

 

Christian Egger is a writer and curator at KM – Künstlerhaus. Halle für Kunst & Medien in Graz.

All the King's Horses, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles 2008
Translated by John Kelsey

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