The French novelist Cyril Collard was well known for his unapologetic depictions of bisexuality in art and literature. One of my favourite examples – and perhaps his most challenging – is his 1989 novel, Les Nuits Fauves.
I will here refer to English translation of the novel – released as “Savage Nights” in the United Kingdom – as a way of addressing the main arcs and characters of the story. If possible, I would recommend picking up the original French version for any closer textual analyses. It should also be noted that Les Nuits Fauves comes in a long line of successful French novels published on the subject of the AIDS crisis throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s (once popularised by efforts to push and publish “marginal” writers in France and then later canonised as novel-writing under the umbrella genre “sida-roman”).
Featuring as it does HIV/AIDS as a storytelling device, Collard’s novel follows many of the conventions typical to French AIDS novels around the turn of the decade. The literary theorist Jean-Pierre Boulé characterises these kinds of texts as following from the testimonial and confessional style of earlier memoir writing at the start of the epidemic. Whether implicitly or explicitly, the first-person narrators of these novels will tend to use moralising myths about the AIDS crisis – namely myths around choice and agency – as a way of creating and building dramatic tension, of “[mirroring] the social attitudes of the time”.
On its surface, the moral dilemma for our protagonist narrator in Les Nuits Fauves is markedly simple: Decide between the pleasures of a life lived in the experience of many sexual encounters and partners, or pursue the affections of his newfound love interest Laura, who represents the possibility of an alternative and monogamous life away from the threat of HIV.
Collard depicts this choice in many of the ways you would expect, and in many ways typical of the moralist AIDS novel genre. The encounters of the promiscuous life are described as “descents into the underworld”, which appear as “nothing but shadow-plays”. The narrator relishes the immediate gratifications of “the arses, tits, cocks, and bellies […] squeezed” in the dark of his nights, but realises at a crucial point that his escapades amount to nothing; for one, he blames his lifestyle for infecting him HIV in the first place, which he laments as like a “death sentence”, and for the other, he describes his relations to others as emptied of meaning, that he “belonged to no one”, and in so being, encountered others as “shadows among shadows” in a “mass of darkness”.
Laura, on the other hand, represents the promise of another kind of life. When the narrator first encounters her, she is “glowing from within as from a dark flame […] a savage colour linked to another world that hadn’t been revealed”. He imagines “sunny days with Laura in a house with a garden”, and on his first sexual encounter with her, he comments: “I was floating, knowing that I had shot her full of sperm that was infected with a deadly virus, but feeling that it was all right, that nothing would happen, because we were starting what could truly be called a ‘love story’”.
On the back of this premise, much of the drama of the novel revolves around the inevitable clash between the two worlds. The narrator attempts to build his “love story” with Laura, but soon finds the “ranker smell” of his “savage nights” keeps pulling him back. He wonders whether he was “born so completely divided” or whether he had “been cut into pieces, little by little”. Laura too represents an authoritative voice for the promise of the good life. Despite being in her late teens, she keeps a constant watch over the thirty-year-old narrator and chastises him when he sleeps with male lovers, including her love rivals Sammy and Jamel. The narrator comments, “she seems all the stronger because I’ve never felt so weak”.
And so it would appear we have the makings of a novel best suited to reflect the prevailing attitudes of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Despite growing recognition of HIV/AIDS in France at the time, the push towards “canonising” AIDS as literature brought its own host of problems. For one, these texts progressively replaced the earlier testimonial writing of authors at the start of the epidemic. For another, they began to reflect arguably some of their worst traits – that is to say, they tended to focus more an individual account of suffering than a social or political one; they emphasised the role of the “tragic” hero” with tragic character flaws more than the tragedy of the world in which they lived.
It should be noted on this detail that many of the points I am about to raise continue to apply to generalised representations of queer life today. Both the AIDS crisis and bisexual men and women in the West are the still at the centre of disputes about choice and personal responsibility. It should come as no wonder that I began taking notes and thinking about this subject shortly after the British actor Christopher Biggins appeared on the UK reality show Celebrity Big Brother in August and made headlines with a rant that merged mainstream biphobia with some of the worst victim-blaming discourses about HIV. For those fortunate enough to have missed the story, Biggins claimed that bisexual men were responsible for spreading HIV/AIDS in West, namely because they had imported the virus “from Africa” and brought it to their “wives and lovers” back home. Only recently in October, the British broadcasting watchdog Ofcom decided it would not launch an investigation into the celebrity’s comments because “they were likely to be within the audience’s expectations of the programme”.
By the same token, Les Nuits Fauves tells the story of a bisexual man who is blamed for spreading HIV to his love interest, Laura. As I noted, this dramatic twist comes on the premise of a conflict between the two worlds of promiscuous sex and courtly heterosexuality. It perhaps most readily emblemises what happens when an adolescent fantasy is confronted with the presence of a “toxic” individual, and for the most part, it appears to confirm for the average reader what bisexuality can do to an otherwise idyllic love story. This is where the most blatant assumptions end however. One of the points I want to emphasise is that Collard is careful not to take the morality tale of queer life to its obvious conclusion, and instead makes several unexpected diversions. The result of these diversions, as we will see, can make reading Les Nuits Fauves a confounding experience. The novel can at times feel contradictory, and it frequently disrupts ordinary thinking about the way characters are meant to behave or how events should unfold in the telling of the AIDS story.
The first diversion is that the victim Laura herself lies when she reveals she is HIV-positive. As we come to understand later in the novel, Laura has been using the narrator’s HIV as a way to control and manipulate his relationship with her in order to build a “love story” of her own. Soon enough, we come to see that Laura is a manipulator in many other respects as well. She not only guilt trips the narrator to continue their relationship, but she also issues death threats against his family and threatens to burn down his flat with his lover Sammy inside. The second major diversion is that the narrator rarely, if ever, internalises any of the associated guilt of Laura’s campaign against him. Instead, he is, for the most part of the novel (and to our awareness), an unsympathetic character who appears to keep making wrong-headed decisions. When he is criticised by Laura or any of his friends, for example, he constantly dismisses them and asks of them not to “get up [his] nose”. He describes his relation to the world as “passive” and the consequences of his actions as events that “follow one another”. The third diversion, following from this, is that the narrator and Laura, having all but destroyed one another, eventually make peace by the novel’s end. After meeting for the last time in the final chapters, they become reacquainted as casual friends, and even bookend the story with a quick round of phone sex, with the narrator concluding how he now feels untroubled by all his past transgressions.
Les Nuits Fauves not only takes several unexpected diversions in terms of its characters, but it also treats the progression of its plot in a surprising way as well. Collard’s narrative structure is off-kilter and anticlimactic. The main story kicks off when the narrator meets an acquaintance named Kheira who tells him he is “here because of a woman, or rather a girl”, and that the girl “will have power over you, a power without limits”. This prophecy, seemingly significant, compels him to begin considering the place of a “love story” in his life. He believes, almost immediately, that the prediction is about “a long relationship with Laura”.  By the end of the text, however, we come to see this fateful encounter for what it is. While the prophecy is true, it amounts to little more than a banal description of the actual events of the story. A brief revelation that an acquaintance of the narrator in fact knew Kheira makes a footnote of her place in the novel. No further reference is made to the broader prophecy and the entire sub-plot is forgotten.
Collard, then, is not keen on making a novel about clean resolutions. Repeatedly and tendentiously, Les Nuits Fauves refuses the closure of any kind of decision about where or when the arcs of his characters will lead. Instead, it treats determinate story structure as secondary to the unfolding of emotions and affects between characters. Even in the case that the narrator follows what appears to be a choice that has been made for him – that is, the choice of the prophecy – no real change appears to occur. It is as though to decide one way or another about one’s life has no significant bearings on its ultimate outcomes.
Renata Salecl, in the Tyranny of Choice, argues that “the idea of choice” in post-industrial capitalism “has led to the idea that one can choose to be a victim or a survivor and that individuals can choose how they regard their suffering and can decide what to do about it”. This, I want to argue, extends to some of the popular conceptions of the AIDS crisis as well. Eric Michaels, in his 1990 memoir Unbecoming, notes how “the oddest thing” of living with AIDS is that “one is required to live through all its stages, at each point confronted with insane, probably pathological choices”. This can include when to become public, who to tell, who to turn to for help, as well as how to take responsibility for one’s own wellbeing. As Salecl further notes, in some of the more extreme discourses of choice, “diseases such as […] AIDS have been perceived as divine punishments”. What we must add to this is the idea that we can reserve “divine punishments” for those who continue to make bad choices – that the consequences of living with HIV are without end.
To be sure, the links between post-industrial consumerist “choice” and the choices characterised by HIV are not as incidental as they may seem. As Les Nuits Fauves demonstrates, the ideology of choice-making is pivotal in forming the basic drama between the characters that make up its story. Laura, when confronting the narrator over voicemail, harangues him for his inability to stop sleeping with men. She says that “[p]eople aren’t meant to live that way, or if they do, things have a way of… happening to them”. In another instance, Laura’s mother berates her for wasting her time with “a poofter who spends his days being fucked by Arabs”, asking why she cannot instead “just go with a normal boy who likes girls”.
Here we ought to note that the pressures to choose are not consistently “homophobic” or one-sided either. In fact, in one instance Laura begs of the narrator to make his affairs with men discrete enough so that she doesn’t have to witness them. She says: “You were kissing him like you’ve never kissed me. Couldn’t you be be more careful, make sure I didn’t see that?” In another instance, we see how the narrator’s own parents tolerate his sexuality, insisting “[w]e always let you be free”, but also demand of him to explain what he sees “in that girl”, Laura. It is not so much that the narrator has made the “wrong choice” in his attraction to males or his promiscuity, then, but more so that the figure of bisexuality itself represents something intolerable for the sexual grammars of a world where decisions have to be made. It absconds the logic of consumer oriented choice-making and functions as a signifier of HIV gone rogue – an unbridled as opposed to an organised agent of social decay.
The queer theorist Lee Edelman has argued that bisexuality, in its symbolic figuration as a “third term”, only reinforces, rather than disrupts the “hetero/homo binarism” of mainstream heterosexist culture. He makes this statement in the context of gay and lesbian identity politics, arguing that the category bisexual “can appear to position itself between reified polar opposites”, and as such, “has the potential to read those orientations as essences”. However, considering the metonymic figuration of sexual paranoia in the context of AIDS, there is another way bisexual identity can be understood that is beyond this standard play of oppositions. As Collard demonstrates, the key problem of HIV-positive bisexuals for most who encounter them is that they frustrate rather than complement the accepted apartheid of queer and non-queer sexual practice. Precisely because the bisexual is not reified, because it is read as false or untrue, its appearance in-between the various registers of “clean” and “unclean” bodies has the effect of disjuncture. By this token, the insistence of a bisexual form of promiscuity approaches more closely another of Edelman’s favourite concepts as recalled in his 2004 monograph No Future. In his own words:
In sinthomosexuality, the structuring fantasy undergirding and sustaining the subject’s desire, and with it the subject’s reality, confronts its beyond in the pulsions of the drive whose insistent circulation undoes it […]. All sexuality, I’ve argued, is sinthomosexuality, but the burden of figuring that condition, the task of instantiating the force of the drive (always necessarily a partial drive, one incapable of totalization) that tears apart both the subject’s desire and the subject of desire, falls only to certain subjects […]. Such sinthomosexuals fall because they fail to fall in love, where love names the totalizing fantasy, always a fantasy of totalization, by which the subject defends against the disintegrative pulsions of the drive.
The lines of resemblance here couldn’t be clearer. On the one hand, the narrator’s promiscuity stands in as a figure for the destructive mechanism of the “drive”. He is at once “fallen” for becoming infected with HIV and a “failure” in all respects to his love life. On the other hand, Laura as an overt love interest in the novel represents a facet of the narrator’s “desire”, of something that appears opposed to his drive as a “totalizing fantasy”, and ultimately the constitution of his entire “reality” (as worthy of being alive). Here we should note that the sinthomosexual is not so much incapable of love, but as Edelman so puts it, is positioned against the “spiritualising ideology” of love. In this sense, the social guarantee of the love object stands as a “defence against dissolution” – that is, that it offers the promise of wholeness (or wholesomeness) against the kind of “failure” that best characterises Collard’s narrator.
If we begin to understand this functioning of desire, we can start to delve deeper into the confusing anti-climaxes and disruptions at work in Collard’s story. Coupled with this is an understanding of Collard as not only a fiction writer, but also as a writer of the fiction novel. The literary theorist René Girard once wrote of the novel as an overcoming of “metaphysical desire”. What he meant by this was that a protagonist always reaches the “tragic conclusion” of the novel’s end by somehow reaching a point where they can become capable of “writing the novel” in the first place. This means renouncing whatever it was that prevented them from becoming their own storyteller, of effectively being able to perceive the events as described in their testimony “from above”. Hence, the novel reaches its closure, argued Girard, with the “joy of the hero who has renounced his desire”. It is at this moment when “the hero of the novel gradually merges with the novelist in the course of creation”, at a point where desire no longer separates the mediator from their listener.
While Girard’s treatise on the novel overreaches its mark in some places, it nevertheless touches on a grain of truth present in both Edelman’s theory of the drive and in Collard’s own work. The key moment of the narrator’s arc in Les Nuits Fauves is of course the overcoming of his abusive relationship with Laura. Laura, for the best part of the novel, represents perhaps not an original, complex or multi-faceted character (nor even a positive feminist icon), but rather a figuration of that self-same “metaphysical desire”. She bestows upon the novel a kind of looming overbearance. Her antagonistic voicemails, along these lines, are less a substantive threat on the narrator’s life or wellbeing and more a figurative play on that idea of a “spiritualising” fantasy. Speaking as they do the implicit language of heterosexism, they use threats and slurs as ways to reinforce the authority of the good life. As Laura begs the narrator to change, for instance, she also calls him a “queer” who will “always be a queer”. She also, in one bizarre instance, phones and announces herself as “the game of life”, saying: “Your fate lies in your hands, my friend… The choice is yours: either you win life, or you win sudden death, it’s up to you”. What links these concepts together is the idea of a forced decision – ultimately, two paths, with one of them holding the key to narrator’s future.
Hence, while largely “passive” in his own actions, the narrator appears along the course of the novel always fascinated by Laura’s abusive streak. Rather than shutting himself off from her, he makes constant reference to his “obsession” to return home and play her voice mail messages. Laura’s voice as a disembodied voice becomes what he describes as a “fixed point, a buoy I can cling to, to keep my head above the water, to swim in a sea of terror”. The image that captivates him is the same image of the desire of his “love story”. The relationship as described in the novel is an abusive one, but it is a particular kind of abuse; it is the grooming of queer life enraptured and addicted to the promise of a better life, of the prospect of a proper place in society.
All of this is to say that the choice on offer in Les Nuits Fauves is not about renouncing queer life per se (although this is a part of it), but rather the expectation for bisexuality to become rehabilitated as passing “one way or the other”, to rid itself of all unwholesome uncertainty. Collard is perhaps prudent to make this point; the narrator sleeps not with men as his vocation, but with men and women throughout the course of the novel. He is “indecisive, as porous as a sponge”. The point of Laura’s contention towards the narrator’s affairs with men is that they make her own already contingent place in his life altogether negligible – that is to say, that her wholesome image is integral to the formation of an undivided “love story” (a love story that can only be recognised if it is monogamous).
These details perhaps explain why Collard’s narrator is characterised as unfeeling and unsympathetic in his own life’s affairs. If he is not an active decision-maker in his story, it is because he makes himself a “passive” cipher. The other characters, by extension, begin to resemble avatars; he surrounds himself with figures who make decisions on his behalf (and fight and bicker among themselves for his approval). In this sense, the reason he appears cool or disinterested in Laura’s safety and wellbeing throughout the course of the novel is because Laura herself represents the disavowed well of his own anxieties – a form of constant shame that threatens his friends and family, that makes sex an act of disgrace, and that comes and goes in various outbursts of passion. It is telling that Laura only begins to voice her disapproval just as soon as the narrator discovers his condition is worsening. It is also Laura who the narrator first chooses to shoot “full of sperm” at the promise of a redemptive “love story”, breaking his own vow of “no more penetration”. His bizarre fascination with his tormentor only points to a double bind in the logic of desire. Laura is both relentless and overbearing, but she is also distant and unobtainable. She is “in the centre” of the narrator’s world, but he also describes “her love” as like “a virus, the hopelessly tangled threads connecting me to life”.
By the novel’s end, several events happen to ensure that Collard’s narrator fulfils Girard’s criteria to become able to write his own story. The first such event is that Laura is taken to a clinic for her mental health. After having “gone mad”, as her parents put it, and nearly throwing herself in front of a moving car, her family along with the narrator admit her to a “locked ward” inside a clinic of “drug addicts, attempted suicides, schizophrenics, depressives”. It is at this point she begs the narrator not to leave, and the narrator instead dismisses her, asking the doctors of the clinic to perform a blood test. The second is that the narrator meets and shares a brief relationship with a seventeen-year-old Islamic rapper named Jamel. This fling forms the basis of a closed and tangential arc that happens roughly parallel to Laura’s admission to the clinic. Jamel, as we find out, is a part of the group known as the B. Boys and is known as a “solitary hunter” of skinheads, carrying with him a baseball bat “for protection”. One night, he tells the narrator that he is to go to a “warehouse party with dancers, rappers, and graffiti artists”, and he takes with him “his rucksack and his baseball bat […] in case the skins show up”. At the night of the party, the narrator finds the road to the warehouse blocked by police cars. He returns home and discovers his flat wrecked and Jamel “lying on the bathroom floor, huddled on the tiles, his clothes torn, pants at his ankles, his arse bloody”. As it turns out, the party was in fact raided by skinheads, and Jamel fought off their leader single-handedly, “leaving him on the pavement with a broken back and his legs paralysed”. He is then, like Laura, taken to a confined location – a “detention centre” – before being deported via a plane to Algiers. The third and final event, following this excursion, is Laura’s discharge from the clinic. Upon this, the narrator first confronts her with the truth of her HIV status, but then later makes peace with her, bringing the relationship to a final close.
The final pages of Les Nuits Fauves form a parodic reversal of sorts. The narrator and Laura meet up and Laura confesses that she has “met a boy, a twenty-two-year-old hair dresser, and is spending her evenings and nights with him”. She says that, unlike the narrator, she “can’t be with two people at once”, and that she “wants to build something” with her life. Later, in a phone call, Laura reveals she is no longer seeing her new lover. Both Laura and the narrator then “say obscene things to each other” and eventually “have a wank and come together”. Having moved on, the narrator says “I will probably die of AIDS”, but notes that he no longer feels burdened by his prospects in life. As if to set the reader’s mind at ease, he says: “This isn’t my own life any more; I am in life”.
Reading these events as written, we can see how Les Nuits Fauves plays with the broader points of Girard’s thesis on novelistic desire. The narrator, having renounced the bindings of his desire, realises the contingency of Laura’s place in his life. His rendezvous with the skinhead-hunting Jamel reveals to him the impossibility of replacing that desire, offering only the prospect of paranoia and violence. The two moments in tandem represent what may be the novel’s ultimate departure from the building up of a “love story”. Not once, but twice, the narrator’s major love interests become either incarcerated or confined. To put it another way, those avatars once representative of his desire are at once isolated from him, capable of living beyond his immediate control. As quickly as they came into his story, both Laura and Jamel eventually “leave” the narrator to his own devices, stripping him of all protective fantasies. Reading these events as metaphors for the narrator’s fidelity to his “drive”, we can see now how Edelman’s sinthomosexual functions in a social context. Drive in this instance, represents not an example of straightforward sexual compulsion or “promiscuity” on the part of the narrator, but rather a kind of generalised impulse towards nothingness itself (or nothing-in-particular). It opens up the prospect of existing “in life”, as opposed to pursuing a particular kind of life, returning once more to the anonymity of “shadow plays”.
Carrying this further, the introduction of the narrator’s final sex act with Laura should not be mistaken as the concession of a new type of “love story”, nor is it an explicit compromise between the two registers of drive and desire at a crucial mid-point. Instead, we ought to refer to the changed character of Laura herself. Laura – as the straight antagonist who cannot live without making a choice between the narrator or the new hair dresser – eventually concedes to the point of not making a choice one way or the other. Instead, she has phone sex with the narrator as a way of breaking the constructive fantasy of her own “love story”, becoming yet another figure in the novel’s many depictions of “savage nights”.
What, then, is bisexuality in Les Nuits Fauves if not another negative stereotype? The first point we should concede is that Collard refuses to implicate bisexuality as a “type” either one way or the other. It is not so much that sleeping with both men and women represents the type of idealised fullness one might expect from a romance novel (this is not your coming-of-age narrative about sexual awakening, nor is it a treatise on bisexuality as a celebration of “becoming one’s true self”, whatever that might be). Instead, the bisexual of Les Nuits Fauves is the capstone of a kind of attitude that refuses entanglement in social positivism altogether. The bisexual activist Jo Eadie notes that “if the main obstacle to the acceptance of bisexuality, in all its meanings, is the construction of ‘lesbian and gay’ around an opposition to opposite-sex desire, then the key issue for a theorisation of bisexual politics is the dissolution of these boundaries”. Collard’s answer to the widespread erasure of bisexual identity in mainstream society, hence, is not to reify bisexuality as a lifestyle “just as authentic as” the lifestyles of homo- or heterosexuality, but rather to allow bisexuality to reveal the gaps, overlaps and dissonances of taxonomical sexual “styles” in their everyday functioning. That is to say, the objective of Collard’s bisexuality is to confront the limitations of thinking in a categorical way about sex. Instead of being fixed or rigid, the bisexual of Les Nuits Fauves is an indiscriminate actant that works to empty the “love story” of all positive and substantial content, leaving only the trace of a narrative that might be considered relational.
If choice is a social obligation, then Collard’s message is simply to forget choice altogether. In many ways, the ideology of choice forms a lynchpin in the both the sexual and economic politics of today. We celebrate the idea that we are free to choose who we love and how we live our lives in general. Nevertheless, choice can also be coercive. The AIDS crisis revealed how the ideology of “choice” can become a waiver for avoiding large scale political or social intervention. In the case of France alone, the idea of an un-politicised gay “lifestyle” proved fatal to the many who lost their lives at the height of the epidemic. Les Nuits Fauves stands at a junction in the historical legacy of this social upheaval. It is the rambunctious and defiant novel of the kind of moments that refuse proper integration. It tells us of another kind of life, of a solitary spirit that never chooses, but rather persists in so many fragments at once.
 Jean-Pierre Boulé, HIV Stories: The Archaeology of AIDS Writing in France, 1985-1988. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2002), 5.
 Ibid., 89.
 Cyril Collard, Savage Nights. Translated by William Rodarmor. (London: Quartet Books Ltd., 1993), 28.
 Ibid., 28-9
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., 53.
 Ibid., 71.
 Ibid., 59.
 Ibid., 77
 Jean-Pierre Boulé, I6.
 For more evidence, see the Metro’s article “Would You Date a Bisexual Man?”, also published in August. See: http://attitude.co.uk/metro-newspaper-publishes-article-debating-whether-people-should-date-bisexuals/
 Cyril Collard, 150.
 Ibid., 79.
 Ibid., 222.
 Ibid., 47.
 Ibid., 53.
 Renata Salecl, The Tyranny of Choice. (London: Profile Books Ltd., 2011), 30.
 Eric Michaels, Unbecoming. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), 3.
 Renata Salecl, 56.
 Cyril Collard, 125.
 Ibid., 132.
 Ibid., 96.
 Ibid., 128.
 She also later tells him: “The more indifferent you are, the nastier I become” See: Cyril Collard, 130.
 Lee Edelman, Homographesis. (London: Routledge, 1994), 107.
 Ibid., 250n8.
 Lee Edelman, No Future. (London: Duke University Press, 2004), 73.
 Ibid., 74.
 René Girard, Deceit, Desire & the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. Translated by Yvonne Freccero. (London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1965), 269.
 Ibid., 297.
 Ibid., 299.
 Cyril Collard, 126.
 Ibid., 98.
 Ibid., 165.
 Ibid., 128.
 Ibid., 203.
 Ibid., 173.
 Ibid., 201.
 Ibid., 205.
 Ibid., 206.
 Ibid., 207.
 Ibid., 216.
 Ibid., 218.
 Ibid., 222.
 Jo Eadie, “Bisexual Epistemologies.” In Bisexuality: A Critical Reader, edited by Merl Storr. (London: Routledge, 1999), 130.
 Jean-Pierre Boulé, 12.