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Pierre Guyotat's Formation: Childhood, Awakening And Self-writing

Pierre Guyotat's Formation (2007) remains the missing link, according to Patrick Lyons, for the completion of the French author's multivolume (and largely already-translated) autobiographical installment.

Pierre Guyotat's Formation: Childhood, Awakening and Self-Writing

Formation is a story of turns. Turns inward, upon the self in the mapping of a young consciousness, and turns outward, upon the world, nature, community, and writing. In his second autobiographical project, Pierre Guyotat catalogues his early childhood development through his coming to writing at the age of fourteen. But it’s no simple memoir. Even in its most centered, reflective moments, Formation never ceases to unravel, at times frantic, at others serene, plotting node after node of not precisely a narrative, but a spontaneous unfolding of character. Formation is a young mind turning, turning into.

The second installment of Guyotat’s autobiographical trilogy, Formation marks a moment of relative calm and stability. Situated between its predecessor, Coma (2006), which recounts a period of ascetic writing and sleepless traveling culminating in Guyotat’s actual lapse into coma in 1986, and its successor, Arrière-fond (2010), a largely experimental account of the sexual and sensorial of Guyotat’s fifteenth year, Formation is arguably a high point of accessibility. It marks a pinnacle of clarity, a catching of breath in Guyotat’s otherwise primarily visceral poetics. Here, philosophies of childhood and writing inaugurated in Coma come to graceful fruition, to be later enacted yet seldom picked apart in Arrière-fond.

Strangely enough, Formation also marks an absent center in Guyotat’s translated works. With Coma’s 2010 English translation and Arrière-Fond’s forthcoming release (both published by Semiotext(e), translated by Noura Wedell), Formation remains a missing link.

Set in 1940’s Bourg-Argental, Loire, Formation opens amidst the slow crumbling of the German Occupation. This grants Guyotat’s earliest memories a dense political undertone. Which uncle was detained in which camp, which family friend died in resistance—death, family, and politics are inseparable for the young Guyotat, and remain as such throughout the book. The reader follows Guyotat through family, church, and boarding school, grappling with the enigmas of body, nature, and community.

More than most self-writers, Guyotat is intimately aware of the false colors of memory. Instead of assigning retrospective meaning or logic to his past, Guyotat resists the autobiographical impulse to psychoanalyze. Formation is a more immersive attempt to turning back into childhood, with all of its dazzling blurriness and misunderstanding. Guyotat’s mastery here lies in his uncanny ability to preserve this childlike dizziness. Memories are related not as complete, reconstructed scenes or edifying fables, but as vertiginous swirls of sensorial experience. Privileging the affective, the felt, and the confounding, Guyotat’s prose manages to remain spontaneous, turning only forward, stumbling, resisting the urge to novelize.

Like Coma before it, Formation seems at times scattered and disorganized, flitting from memory flashes to lengthy poetic, philosophical tangents, leaving the reader grasping at narrative straws. As an introduction, Guyotat’s offers a brief sketch of his project. For the groundless reader, it is extremely informative, and expresses a clear desire to turn back into the eyes of childhood:

"This story recounts the sensorial, affective, intellectual, and metaphysical formation of a child born at the beginning of the Second World War, in France, in a South-Eastern village, into an ancient, Catholic, fortuneless family. I wrote it like the majority of my texts, in the indicative present: more or less. The sentiments, interrogations, and thoughts are those of a child who endlessly questions his elders, then of an adolescent who, at the age of fourteen, decides to write. The ideas, convictions, and torments which manifest themselves are those of his relations, his time, and of his spaces."

Formation departs here from a more classical, reconstructive form of autobiography, engaging writing as a re-experiencing of a past self, tracing the electricity of dynamism and formation rather than simply illustrating sequential moments of pause and growth. Whereas the memoir traditionally speaks from a position apart, of completion and nostalgic calm, Formation attempts to render the past imminent, bringing it to bear on the present, disrupting the coherence of the writing self instead of constructing a logical, structured history to fortify its foundations. Formation embraces the plurality and spontaneity of self-hood at its most effervescent, in the child’s mind’s eye.

For young Guyotat, the world exists as true immanence—irrational at times, yet fluid and complete. As Guyotat ages into adolescence, the reader watches on as the world, disenchanted bit by bit, develops angles and jagged edges, beginning to show its seams. It seems to be this preceding, infantile state of equilibrium and togetherness that Guyotat seeks to reclaim in his writing:

"…children, we are of too small a size to imagine that which we do not see; we do not fill such a hidden space with constructions, with levels, we populate them with living scenes. The unfolding of space has yet to commence, and, in nature, the child set before a horizon imagines its metaphysical confines rather than the accidents of its terrain. A child imagines rather the background of things, the void in which they repose rather than the detail of their plentitude." (34)

For the child, Guyotat seems to say, the imperfections and ruptures of existence do not register. As such his writing embraces the child’s capacity to be immersed and confused in the world, wondrous and wide eyed, noctambulant and confidently curious. Read against Formation’s looming historical backdrop, the innocence of Guyotat the child strikes an even stronger chord. Even in the shadows of totalitarianism, he turns and turns and turns.

The role of writing itself in Formation is hugely central, functioning as an organizational technology for Guyotat’s chaotic childhood perception. The book itself might be understood as a doubled pursuit of voice: a coming to and turning back to the primal scene of writing. Writing allows Guyotat to prescribe sense and structure of his surroundings, yet it resists the disenchantment of adulthood. Inversely, it allows for the perpetual reorganization of experience and affects:

Writing, with the objects of the time: paper, violet ink, etc., beginning to choose words—"I have several in me already to fix the same fact of nature or action—, they’re already before me in the inner darkness of my mind when I close my eyes. I feel that I find there the means to live, and already, to dominate my life, 'the world', and to circumscribe that which must remain secret." (109-10)


"I need to write all of my oral interrogations, in these little scenes and historical resumes that I write before my eyes and with application, I quickly see veritable figures, and I view them intimately, face to face with my historical consciousness in formation; I am there, before these heroic, lamentable, or persecuted figures of our history – that I learn thus to venerate or to lament or to protect or to wish to convert to Good, and they speak to me." (47?)

Writing seems to provide Guyotat both the power to build structure in his childhood swirl, and that to re-immerse himself there within. It appears to create a link or collapse between past and present predicated on a common, timeless act. Paradoxically, writing at once fixes and embraces the unstable. It allows a sort of aller-retour between immersion and criticality. That is, writing provides structure, but a structure that turns. Grounds for understanding, but grounds that graciously shift.

Select Translations:

I begin to read and write and count. Our mother opens an illustrated children’s Bible over her knees: all the stories with food, since the apple of Eve to the Eucharist…All that I hear, all that I see, all that I read, I dream of it at night–the bars of my bed become columns, crossbars; their balls become domes: Noah’s dove and its olive branch—I struggle, or rather restrain myself, to understand how it is the sign of the waters edge—, little by little, the history of Joseph, sold by his brothers, overlays that of the murder of Abel by Caïn, Moses’s crib on the Nile, the plagues of Egypt; already with almost monumental spaces.


At the same time as feelings of injustice and inequality, envy, a desire towards the manual classes torments me to the point of losing consciousness; I wish for my body to remain “savage”, without recognizable ancestry, I do not want a “cultural” body, I wish to guard it natural and naturally metaphysical. Collective sport, gymnastics, I reject them already as cultural substitutes for natural corporeal development, a form of social training: I run rather to activities where I remain master of myself and where I find pleasure, where one uncovers the world and play. I know that my mother feels this, or that she shares it…


Since early childhood, I see that the criminal, captured and judged is the feeblest of all creatures, more so than a wounded animal, and that he must be protected, replaced, he who by sound or by gestures is excluded from Humanity, society, from his very center without hope of return.


One must scheme, compromise with the violent, scorn the perverse without ostentation, it’s a continuous balance of war and diplomacy; defend the weak, never sending them off to the executioner, never placing them in public discomfort. And above all respecting their sermons, guarding their secrets: in a little society, hard and fresh, the thousandth offered is the whole offered. Above all play the game.

Patrick Lyons is a recent graduate from Reed College with a BA in French. He currently resides in Brooklyn, NY, where he works as a freelance writer and translator, after spending a year in Lyon, France. 

My French Library is a space for translators, writers and French aficionados to tell us about books they loved in French, but which have not been translated (yet). To be continued, hopefully one day in translation: American publishers, the floor is yours!