:: Article

Book of Disquiet

By Georgia de Chamberet.


A Life of Disquiet: Self-portrait of an Artist, a Son, a Madman (L’intranquille: Autoportrait d’un fils, d’un père, d’un fou), Gérard Garouste with Judith Perrignon, Iconoclaste 2009.

I am the son of a bastard who loved me. My father was a furniture dealer who collected and sold the property of deported Jews… I had to dismantle that great lie which passed for an education, word by word. Aged twenty eight, I experienced a first episode of delirium. Others followed. I was regularly interned in psychiatric hospitals… For years, I have been but the sum total of myriad questions. Today, I am sixty three years old. I am neither wise, nor cured. I am a painter. And I think I can pass on what I have come to understand.

A Life of Disquiet: Self-portrait of an Artist, a Son, a Madman is a powerful account of a dysfunctional father-son relationship marked by aggression and conflict, and its consequences. It has received wall-to-wall press coverage in France, and has been a word-of-mouth success with over 40,000 copies sold to date.

Gérard Garouste is obliged to return to the family home when his tradesman father dies. In doing so he revisits his traumatic childhood at the hands of a petty, anti-semitic, rageaholic domestic tyrant. He observes the humbuggery of the neighbours at his father’s cremation, “murmuring what a lovely man he was.” He unearths family secrets – his great grandmother posed as the sister of her son – and realises that the abuse he endured was in part because of his father’s own insecurities: “As is often the case, my father’s anti-Semitism was tinged with admiration, and his resentment was rooted in fear. When he pointed at the enemy, I’d say to myself: It’s a pity I’m not Jewish.”

The father is labelled a psychopath by a doctor. The son is diagnosed as being bi-polar or manic-depressive. Gérard abandons his family on holiday in the Lot. His wife comes into the living room holding their baby son in her arms, but he sees the devil. He insults his father in front of the police and a psychiatrist, “the reproaches of a child spewed out of my mouth.” The chillingly lucid descriptions of his mental breakdowns and the crazy hierarchy within the four walls of a psychiatric hospital are reminiscent of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. His close friends tend to be misfits like him: Casso, the logger; Antoine the epileptic; Christian, a lost little boy living on the streets who turns bad. Gérard studies Hebrew texts and illustrates the Haggadah. His loyal, loving Jewish wife, and his art, are his lifeline. He disagrees with the bourgeois concept of the mad genius since, “delirium is a black hole.” It is in its aftermath that you create. He thinks that had Van Gogh benefited from our modern medication, he’d have produced twice as many paintings.


From 1978 to 1983, Le Palace was where music, high fashion, Le Tout Paris and underground culture collided in one great all-night party. Gérard’s first big break comes when he is commissioned by the club’s now legendary owner, Fabrice Emaer, to decorate it with murals. The conventional Parisian art world turns up its nose at such ‘art’, but then Gérard is exhibited by Leo Castelli at his gallery in New York (renowned for discovering Kandinsky, Pollock, de Kooning, Warhol…). Now begins a strange tightrope dance between global success and periodic mental collapse. Gérard founds the charity La Source (like a French cousin of Camila Batmanghelidjh’s Kids Company) for underprivileged kids to heal by way of art and workshops held by great artists. Gérard Garouste is a remarkable man, not just a remarkable artist. His story of survival and hope deserves to reach an English-reading audience. In the tradition of Father and Son by Edmund Gosse and Ivan Turgenev‘s novel Fathers and Sons, A Life of Disquiet is the stuff of which great literature is made.


As an editor at Quartet Books, Georgia de Chamberet published various French authors, one of whom won The Independent Award for Foreign Fiction in 1992. She went on to found the literary agency BookBlast Ltd, with a focus on cross-cultural writing. She edited XCiTés: the Flamingo Book of New French Writing (Harpercollins, 1999) showcasing writers unpublished in English including Michel Houellebecq, Frédéric Beigbeder, Virginie Despentes, Abdourahman Waberi. She is a committee member of English PEN’s Writers in Translation program and is literary executor of the Estate of Lesley Blanch.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 20th, 2011.