Bookforum talks to Mathieu Lindon

The human capacity for love is vast and open, yet the word love is often limited: it’s the feeling between people with shared DNA, or the volatile emotion of romance. Mathieu Lindon has experienced life-altering forms of love that defy these categories. In his recently-translated book, Learning What Love Means, Lindon explores the many sides of love by writing about three very different men: His father, Jérôme Lindon, who was the publisher of the iconic French publishing house, Les Éditions de Minuit; Mathieu’s close friend and mentor, Michel Foucault; and the writer Hervé Guibert. An intimate window into 1970s and '80s Paris and a touching look at Foucault’s gentle friendships with a group of young male outcasts, Learning What Love Means asks us to consider the implications of platonic love and of friendships that impact entire lives. Most strikingly, the book describes a reconciliation between Lindon and his father, which Foucault helped make possible. I recently spoke to Lindon about the book, the influence of these literary giants on his life, and whether he has finally learned what love means.

Your book deals with the deaths of several people close to you, including your father. Did you feel that need for time to pass before you were ready to write about them?

I needed time and space, but I didn’t know I needed them. When Foucault died in 1984, it was a great shock. He was the first person I loved who’d died; it was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, and no one knew how bad it would get. I started out just wanting to write about the time I spent with Hervé Guibert and Foucault, but it was boring and difficult. I wasted years and years.

Why did you find it boring to write about Foucault?

I didn’t know how to write about it the right way. At first, I didn’t want to write about Foucault, I wanted to write about a man I loved and not say who it was. I realized how complicated it would be to explain this without naming him, but if I said “Michel Foucault,” people would understand why I was so impressed by him. So, it was easier for the reader if I named him.

Did you feel that you wanted to protect his character against critics? Did you want to present a side of him that the public didn’t see?

I think Foucault was strong enough that he didn’t need my protection. Like my father. When I was a child and I would hear someone say something against my father, or one of his writers, like Marguerite Duras, I would get upset. But as I got older, I knew they didn’t need me to defend them. It was a relief to realize this.

There are some very tender moments with Foucault in the book, which are in stark contrast to the image of him as stern and serious. He laughs with you, gives you dating advice…

His laugh defined him, and he laughed often. I have a laughing relationship with all my friends—they laugh more with me than with anybody else. Yes, he was at ease with me, and I was at ease with him. I think he loved me and I think that I loved him. I don’t know how to say this in English, because in French like and love are the same word.

I think it’s interesting that you say “I loved Foucault,” “I loved Hervé.” The book examines many different kinds of love. We often focus on a traditional notion of romantic love and a monogamous partnership between two people, but your book goes beyond that.

I write about many ways of loving: What is it to love as a father, and a friend, as a lover, as a sexual partner. Foucault taught me not to think about when it was necessary; I just had to love. The relationship was more important than the thinking you do about it.

There was a lot of tension between you and your father when you were young. Do you think this had to do with your choice of sexual partners or…

I was very exasperated by my father and I guess he was very exasperated by me. But he was always very respectful and I felt he loved me all the time—that wasn’t the problem. He was just a very powerful person. And sometimes it is difficult to have a close relationship with someone who is very powerful. I don’t know how he felt about me writing about my sexual relationships because he never really said. The main issue with our relationship was that he was the father and I was the son. And this is a universal problem. I was lucky that my father was friends with Alain Robbe-Grillet and Samuel Beckett and Foucault. When I wanted to be a writer, it was difficult to speak with him because he knew all these writers so well. But Foucault was an important cultural figure who my father respected and couldn’t say anything bad about. Foucault helped me understand that the tension was just because he was my father. I would always be the child, and he would always be my father.

Do you think he would’ve critiqued your work differently because you were his son?

Ah, yes. In a way, I wanted the opposition. I didn’t want to be published by him, so I did all I could to write the things he could never publish. I knew his family would find my writing scandalous.

I published my first book under a pseudonym at my father’s publishing house. But it soon became too difficult to publish with him. I wanted to publish under my real name. No one in his family ever spoke to me about the scandals once I started publishing under my real name. They may have complained to my father, but not to me.

Has it gotten any easier to write about queer sexuality, homosexuality, alternative relationships, and so on, than when you first started writing?

The first book I wrote was completely scandalous, about rape, and prostitution and boys. I think if people read it now, I would be in jail. But then, I was laughing and laughing. I was really happy to write that book and Michel Foucault loved the book and laughed at it. It was against the idea of homosexuality as a drama or a tragedy. It was the opposite of the homosexual novel at the time, which was all about psychological problems. This book was lighter. It had terrible stories about young men forced into prostitution, but they said they preferred to having sex to doing housework. And there were a lot of drugs . . .

Speaking of drugs: There are a lot of recollections in Learning What Love Means where you speak very frankly about your experiences with LSD and heroin. How hard is it to write about an experience that you weren’t sober for? Did you have any concern about making these experiences public?

I was a very proper young man. I never did anything bad until I discovered LSD. LSD was a great adventure in my life and I loved it. I knew it was dangerous, but I was very careful. I always took it with friends in safe conditions, like in Michel Foucault’s apartment. It was great to discover this new life and new way of seeing. And I loved to write about it. There was a moment in my life when LSD was great. But I was young.

The book that I wrote after Learning What Love Means was Une Vie Pornographique [A Pornographic Life] and it’s all about my relationship to heroin, which was not so pleasant. In the beginning, I was the master; and after, I was the victim. For eleven or twelve years. I became very addicted after Michel Foucault’s death. I wouldn’t have dared to be a junkie while he was living—I would have been ashamed to tell him.

One other close relationship in the book is with Hervé Guibert, who died in 1991. You were both writers, the same age, both friends with Foucault. Before he died, Guibert published a book called, in English, To the Friend Who Did not Save My Life.

Yes, I love that book! Some enemies of Guibert wanted to make a scandal about that book, like he was telling things about Foucault that nobody knew, but it was not true! He said Foucault was a homosexual who loved s/m sex. But everybody knew that—nobody thought Foucault was living with his wife and sons and grandsons! Actually, the way he wrote about Foucault, was the real Foucault, like the way people who knew him personally knew him.

Did you feel competitive with each other?

When we were twenty-four or twenty-five, I think we had that problem, because he was published by my father, and I thought it was a great honor to be published by him. I talked to Foucault about how I was afraid to be jealous, and he answered with his great smile: “But it’s normal to be jealous of friends, because you respect your friends. If you don’t respect someone’s work you can’t be jealous of their success.”

Ruby Brunton is a New Mexico-born, New Zealand-raised writer, editor, poet, and performer who lives between Brooklyn and Mexico City. Find her on twitter @rubybrunton.