Monday 3 August 2009

The Will O' The Wisp-the Enigma of Pierre Drieu La Rochelle

Will O' The Wisp is a strange, enigmatic novelette, the first I have ever read by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, a French writer and well-known adherent of the Fascist right in that country, who committed suicide in 1945. Indeed, I think it may very well be the only novel of his translated into English to date. I was led to believe that it was a story about addiction and self-destruction, something akin to say, Malcolm Lowry's wonderful Under the Volcano. It is, in a sense, but it's at one and the same time much more and much less than that. The book is best read, I think, as kind of a quest or a journey by a man who has led an almost completely empty and unfulfilling life, a quest for some kind affirmation; affirmation in life and love. It's when he fails in his quest that he kills himself.

Originally published in 1931 under the title of Le Feu Follet, it tells the story of the last two days in the life of a character identified solely as Alain, a heroin addict. Now in his thirtieth year, Alain has essentially lived by firstly sponging off his parents and latterly by the money he has managed to obtain from his relationships with wealthy women. His is a life almost totally devoid of real meaning and purpose. He describes one of his friends, whom he visits after a final encounter with a wealthy mistress, as an 'insipid enigma', but it is really Alain himself who fit this description best.

Some of the passages on drug addiction are fairly insightful;

They begin by taking drugs because they have nothing to do and continue because they cannot do anything.

Drug addicts are the mystics of the materialist age, no longer having the strength to animate things and sublimate them into symbols, undertake the inverted task of reducing them, wearing them down and eating them away until they reach the core of nothingness., an overworked demon was rushing yet another client through and negligently repeating the same old trick: 'If you take a little today, you will take less tomorrow.

So, from the clinic where he is living in an attempt at an illusory cure, Alain emerges himself in the night of Paris, determined on a fresh fix of heroin. I expected some detailed descriptions drug-induced descent but Drieu La Rochelle does not give that. Yes, Alain takes a couple of fixes but they are quite incidental to the main action, which sees him passing through several encounters with friends in various parts of the city. The alcohol he drinks in the process seems to affect him far more than the opiate.

But, no matter; for the heroin and the alcohol are just methods and means for Alain to avoid a confrontation with a sterile and empty existence. He ends a bit like Jack Worthing's friend, Bunberry: he found he could not live, so he died. He shoots himself. Suicide was a clear temptation, as it was for the author himself for the best part of his adult life.

This is a good story, if not a great one, a kind of modern morality tale with no moral. Some might even read it as a frustrated spiritual quest, the sort of thing one finds in the plays of Samuel Becket. It was certainly a revelation for me, and a slight thrill to read such a tainted author! I would like to think that Pierre Drieu La Rochelle is at last beginning to emerge from the darkness to which his name was consigned for so long. I do not think he was bad man, the politics notwithstanding, just an unhappy one. Like Alain he was also something of an enigma, though far from being an insipid one.


  1. Thanks for this. Glad to see you're discovering Drieu La Rochelle. I think you'll find his books a rewarding read.

  2. Thanks, Laguna. I certainly enjoyed this one and I intend to read more.