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In the presence of an excellent book

May 4, 2012 42 comments

En l’absence des hommes by Philippe Besson. 2001. English title: In the Absence Of Men.

C’est une semaine de l’été 1916. J’ai seize ans, les cheveux noirs, les yeux clairs. Je m’appelle Vincent de l’Etoile. C’est une semaine d’un soleil énorme. La semaine de tous les bouleversements. Celle de ma rencontre avec Marcel P et avec Arthur V., de ma confrontation avec un esprit et un corps, d’un rendez-vous inattendu avec la vie facile et avec la mort possible. Je crois au hasard, si bien que je ne souhaite voir dans cette simultanéité qu’une coïncidence. It is a week in the summer 1916. I’m sixteen, I have dark hair, pale green eyes. My name is Vincent de l’Etoile. It’s a week with a harassing sun. The week of THE disruption. The week I met Marcel P. and Arthur V. and faced a mind and a body, the week of an unexpected rendez-vous with easy life and possible death. I believe in chance and I only want to see a coincidence in this simultaneity.

I’m writing this billet about half an hour after turning the last page of the novel. I needed time to come back from the journey. This novel is the kind of book that leads you far away and far inside at the same time. You’re with the characters in a distant place and in a distant past and you’re visiting some distant places in yourself. Two simultaneous journeys that cannot leave you indifferent.

Summer 1916. Vincent de l’Etoile, is 16, has dark hair and pale green eyes. It’s the war, it hovers over the Parisian life, young men are absent. Vincent meets Marcel, who is 45, a famous writer, a socialite. Who else can it be? Proust. A kind friendship kindles between the adolescent and the older man. At the exact same time, Arthur has a seven’s day leave. He’s the housekeeper’s son, he’s gay and terribly in love with Vincent. Now the time has come for him to confess his love and Vincent welcomes it, drowns into it. He abandons himself to new feelings, new sensations. His afternoons with Marcel and his nights with Arthur are his new way of life.

The first part of the novel relates seven days of Arthur’s furlough, the second is epistolary between Vincent and Marcel, Vincent and Arthur.

I was moved to tears, touched by the raw emotion coming out of the pages. Like in Un homme accidentel manages to communicate love, passion and pain without overdoing it. It’s a specific love story and yet universal. Literature is there, with Marcel and Arthur, two brilliant first names of French literature.

Using Marcel Proust in a novel was risky; it’s a success. His Marcel is convincing, I noticed in the letters specific words from In Search Of Lost Time, like homosexuality called “inversion”. There are beautiful passages about writing and I wondered if Philippe Besson also wrote about himself here. Probably yes, doesn’t he write Raconte-t-on jamais autre chose que sa propre histoire? (Do we ever tell anything else than our own story ?) When Marcel writes about homosexuality, it echoes with the beginning of Sodome et Gomorrhe. Of course, it does.

And Arthur. Probably named after Rimbaud whose poetry and boldness filter through the pages when a comparison of Vincent and Arthur’s relationship to a bateau ivre (a drunk boat). It could be fake but it’s not. Arthur is youth, burning like the sun, physical sensations and overwhelming love. Like Rimbaud was, a meteorite in the literary sky. The letters from the front line are poignant and highly realist.

The two men represent a different approach to Time. Marcel endeavors to resuscitate the past and Arthur lives in the present, doesn’t want to recall his past and can’t think about a future. Seven days is the time God needed to create the world, according to the Bible. Seven days is what these two men needed to create a new world for Vincent, to separate him from his childhood and change him into a man.

I won’t give any details here but what I read brought back memories that I thought were buried deeper than that. Isn’t that amazing to be brought back to your own past when reading a book with Proust as a character, to see old feelings and sensations resurrect through a writer’s words? I loved the descriptions of silences and the quality, the texture of silences and the communication there.

Vincent’s voice stayed with me each time I closed the book. I needed time to readjust to my life, be aware again of my surroundings. I was in my own bubble, his voice echoing in my head, refusing to let me go back to mundane tasks, get out of the tramway, cross the station, reach the mall and be part of the crowd. He kept me with him. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does, it’s pure bliss.

I haven’t read Rouge Brésil by Jean-Christophe Rufin, who won the Prix Goncourt in 2001 and I can’t compare it to En l’absence des hommes. All I can say is that if Gilles Leroy won it for Alabama Song, then Philippe Besson deserved it as well. I don’t want to think that a remnant of Puritanism prevented the jury from granting a prestigious prize to a homosexual love story.

I am absolutely delighted that it is translated into English and I’d love to read other responses to it.

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