Archive for May, 2012

Dante’s Inferno: Veni, vidi, vici

May 28, 2012 28 comments

Dante’s Inferno by Dante Alighieri. circa 1317.

On a crazy impulse of optimism, I started to read Dante’s Inferno. OK, a trip to Florence prompted it as well. To be honest, before reading it, Dante’s Inferno meant little to me, a poem with horrible descriptions of hell and some vague notions about Dante’s true love Beatrix. Nothing more. You can say I started it with an open mind, not enough cultural references and a little apprehension about how much I’d get from the book. Let’s face it, I’m not able to discuss Dante’s work and I bet thousands of scholars did it thousand times better than anything I could write. I’m just able to relate my response to it.

I read the French translation by Rivarol which dates back to the 1780s. I didn’t choose the translation, I just went for the free kindle version and it happened to be by Rivarol, with many typos. But it’s free, I can’t complain. Then I checked an online book store, Rivarol’s seems to be a famous translation. I suspect it’s not always faithful to the text but when it comes to a book written in Toscan in the 14thC, I don’t mind that it’s a bit unfaithful as long as it helps me read the book. And Rivarol is good to make Dante’s masterpiece accessible to a naïve audience: the language is light and easy, the footnotes are relevant and helped a lot. It’s in prose, I don’t think I could have read a version in verses anyway. Now, the book.

Dante is visiting the inferno with the Roman poet Virgil as a guide. The Inferno is composed of 33 canti and each one describes a torture inflicted on souls who committed the sin aimed at that specific circle. The sins are various from gluttony to sodomy, via hypocrisy, ruse, bribery, corruption, deception, betrayal and all kinds of religious and political misbehaviours or crimes. In each canto, Dante gets to talk to one or several souls stuck there to atone their sin.

In my ignorance, I didn’t expect this strange mix of Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece and Christianity. For example, three characters are by Satan’s side: Judas, Brutus and Cassius. One Christian reference and two from Ancient Rome. Virgil guides Dante through his journey and it places the young poet under the protection of this monument of poetry. The inferno resembles the Hades. We encounter Charon, Cerberus and some tortures reminded me of the ones from the Greek mythology. It’s the be-attached-with-your-liver-eaten-by-a-bird kind of torture. But it’s mingled with Christian themes and references. For example, one circle imprisons fortune-tellers. Virgil says:

On est sans pitié pour des maux sans mesure. Ne sont-ils pas assez criminels, ceux qui osèrent être les émules d’un Dieu?

Here pity most doth show herself alive,

When she is dead. What guilt exceed his,

Who with Heaven’s judgement in his passion strives?

It’s a strange condemnation in Virgil’s mouth since the Roman people believed in auspices, oracles and couldn’t make important decisions without consulting priests, magicians and fortune-tellers.

What I didn’t expect as well is the political aspect of the book. In each circle Dante meets and talks with people he recognises. He wrote The Divine Comedy in exile. He’s incredibly upfront: he gives names of various famous people and make them end up in hell in the appropriate circle according to their past life (war crimes, abuses, political fights) In Canto 19, he meets Pope Boniface in the third valley, where he condemns the wealth and greed of the Church.

Oh! si l’antique respect pour vos ombres pontificales n’enchaînait ma langue, elle vous poursuivrait bien plus âpre ment encore, pasteurs mercenaires! car votre avarice foule le monde ; elle est amère aux bons et douce aux méchants. C’est de vous qu’il était prédit à l’évangéliste, quand il voyait celle qui était assise sur les eaux se prostituer avec les rois ; celle qui naquit avec sept têtes, et dix rayons qui s’éclipsèrent avec les vertus de son époux. C’est vous aussi qui vous êtes fait des dieux d’or et d’argent; et si l’idolâtre encense une idole, vous eu adorez mille. Ah! Constantin, que de maux ont germé, non de ta conversion, mais de la dot immense que tu payas au père de ta nouvelle épouse

If reverence of the keys restrain’d me not,

Which thou in happier time didst hold, I yet

Severer speech might use. Your avarice

O’ercasts the world with mourning, under foot

Treading the good, and raising bad men up.

Of shepherds, like to you, th’ Evangelist

Was ware, when her, who sits upon the waves,

With kings in filthy whoredom he beheld,

She who with seven heads tower’d at her birth,

And from ten horns her proof of glory drew,

Long as her spouse in virtue took delight.

Of gold and silver ye have made your god,

Diff’ring wherein from the idolater,

But he that worships one, a hundred ye?

Ah, Constantine! to how much ill gave birth,

Not thy conversion, but that plenteous dower,

Which the first wealthy Father gain’d from thee!”

I didn’t know you could speak so freely in the 14thC without risking your life. I can’t imagine it in the France of that time but perhaps I have misconceptions about freedom of speech in the Middle Ages. After all, I’m not a specialist.

There are constant references to Florence and the politics of his time. Thank you, Count Rivarol, for all the explanations included in the footnotes. They helped.

I have little to say about the style, especially for English-speaking readers. You wouldn’t read the same version as me and the quality of the translation is crucial. Dante does create powerful images and poetic metaphors.

Vers le retour de l’année, jeune encore, où déjà le soleil plonge son front pâlissant dans l’urne pluvieuse : quand le jour s’accroît des pertes de la nuit, et que les voiles transparents de la gelée imitent au matin la robe éclatante de la neige, le pâtre qui n’a plus de fourrages se lève et regarde autour de lui ; mais voyant partout blanchir la plaine, il se bat les flancs, et troublé par son malheur, il rentre sous ses toits, court, s’écrie et se désespère. Il sort enfin, et renaît à l’espérance lorsqu’il voit qu’un temps si court a changé l’aspect des champs: déjà la houlette en main, il chasse devant lui son troupeau, qui bondit sur la verdure.

IN the year’s early nonage, when the sun

Tempers his tresses in Aquarius’ urn,

And now towards equal day the nights recede,

When as the rime upon the earth puts on

Her dazzling sister’s image, but not long

Her milder sway endures, then riseth up

The village hind, whom fails his wintry store,

And looking out beholds the plain around

All whiten’d, whence impatiently he smites

His thighs, and to his hut returning in,

There paces to and fro, wailing his lot,

As a discomfited and helpless man;

Then comes he forth again, and feels new hope

Spring in his bosom, finding e’en thus soon

The world hath chang’d its count’nance, grasps his crook,

And forth to pasture drives his little flock:

So me my guide dishearten’d when I saw

His troubled forehead, and so speedily

That ill was cur’d; for at the fallen bridge

Arriving, towards me with a look as sweet,

He turn’d him back, as that I first beheld

At the steep mountain’s foot.

But it’s hard for me to say what comes from Dante and what comes from Rivarol’s interpretation. However, I did get the gory details I expected:

Un homme se présenta d’abord, ouvert de la gorge à la ceinture: ses intestins fumants pendaient sur ses genoux, et son cœur palpitait à découvert.

As one I mark’d, torn from the chin throughout

Down to the hinder passage: ‘twixt the legs

Dangling his entrails hung, the midriff lay

Open to view, and wretched ventricle,

That turns th’ englutted aliment to dross.

Nice vision, isn’t it?

So after struggling to read it, what’s my opinion? I’m glad I read it but I guess I won’t remember more than what is in this billet. I don’t have enough education in literature and history to fully grasp the beauty and the innovation of this text.

PS: I used the free English translation by Cary. I hope I found the right passages corresponding to the French version. Honestly, I hardly understand that kind of English, I did my best.

No Life Without Wife

May 24, 2012 10 comments

The Good Indian Wife by Anne Cherian 2008. French title: Une bonne épouse indienne.

The Good Indian Wife is our book club choice for May. The writer, Anne Cherian, is Indian, studied in America and now lives in Los Angeles. It’s important to know.

It relates the story of Suneel and Leila. Suneel is anesthetist in a hospital in San Francisco. He comes from a little Indian town. He studied in America, started his career there and doesn’t intend to move back to India. He’s a green card holder now. Suneel, or Neel as he is named is the USA has a major flaw in the eyes of his mother: he’s 35 and he’s still single. Neel doesn’t want a wife and especially not an Indian one. But his mother is persistent enough for him to dread his trips back home because he knows she will present him young women she considers good bride material. So when she calls and says that he needs to come back because his grandfather is on his death bed, Neel can’t help being suspicious. But he’s fond of his grandpa and knows he would never forgive himself if he missed the chance to see him again before he dies.

Neel flies back to India.

Leila is 30 and lives in the same village as Neel’s family. She teaches English literature at the local university. She has a major flaw in the eyes of her mother: she’s 30 and still unmarried. Several men came to see her but none of them chose her. She doesn’t have a dowry. She’s getting old and her sell-by date as a bride-to-be is approaching. Spinster teacher seems to be her future.

Neel’s family does plan to marry him to a local girl. When he learns the trick, Neel refuses to meet any girl. But his family pushes the right buttons of love and guilt and he accepts to meet one, to save the family’s face in their neighborhood. He chooses to meet Leila: she’s old and poor, which means everyone in town will understand he refused to marry her. He’ll be free and his family won’t be embarrassed.

Things don’t go exactly according to Neel’s plan and one thing leading to another, here is Neel flying back to San Francisco with his brand new Indian wife. However, he has no intention to change his way of life or to break up with his blond girl-friend Caroline. She meets his wish to have an American wife to Americanize him and help him blend in. So here is our poor Leila alone in San Francisco, married to a man who doesn’t want her.

The plot is fairly simple and would be totally flat without the identity issues and the description of Indian customs and Indian diaspora. Have you seen Bride & Prejudice? It’s the Bollywood version of Pride & Prejudice filmed by the British director Gurinder Chadha. This book has the same flavor and the title of this billet comes from the funniest song of the film. The film shows the same marriage customs, this kind of wife market for Indian men who emigrated in a Western country. The novel digs deeper on the identity issue though. How do you live in a country you weren’t born in? You lack all the tiny little details of a local childhood, like knowing popular songs, commercials or news items. To give a personal example, it’s like reading Aiding and Abetting without knowing Lord Lucan really existed and really did what the book mentions. You need subtitles. (Sun)neel is torn between two countries, two cultures. He wants an American wife, eats American food, dresses like an American and sort of turns his back on Indian things. What do you need to do to adapt to your new country and become a real American citizen?

Both he and Leila are oppressed by traditions and can’t resist them in India, among their family and friends. The weight of customs and the education they received which pushes them to obey their parents are too strong in India. Living in America is their declaration of independence. Leila is happy to leave India, to get married at last and to be free to do as she pleases, to go out on her own, to meet new people. In a way, she can be herself without her family watching and judging her. What kind of a life is it for a spinster in India? She dreads it enough to be willing to leave her home to follow a man she met only once.

Of course I wonder to what extend what Anne Cherian describes is true. I’m always suspicious about that kind of theme as it serves the plot to exaggerate the impact of customs and the influence of families. I wonder if what she says about this big marriage market is true, if it is as sordid as what she says about Leila’s feelings. Don’t misunderstand me, Anne Cherian doesn’t judge, she relates something which sounds rather common. As she is Indian and followed Neel’s footsteps, I imagine she knows her subject well enough.

I enjoyed reading The Good Indian Wife but it’s not a great book on the literary point of view. It’s a nice Beach & Public Transport novel. It’s entertaining with a decent style, a nice story to read in a noisy environment or to relax after a difficult book. This seems nasty but it’s not. In my opinion, we also need that kind of novels from time to time.

Silk by Alessandro Baricco

May 21, 2012 18 comments

Silk by Alessandro Baricco. French title: Soie 1996

I’d heard of Silk before and as I was in an Italian literature mood, I figured I’d try it. According to the blurb at the back of my edition, it’s a cult novel by one of the most gifted Italian writers of his generation. Hmm. Not my kind of literary religion then.

The novel is set between France (the Vivarais, in Ardèche) and Japan around 1860. Let me tell you the thin plot. Hervé Joncour lives in a village whose main industry is silk. When European silkworms die from an unknown disease, Hervé Joncour is sent to Japan to bring back larvae for the business to survive. The villagers pay for his trip and he needs to come back with living larvae.

Silk is hard to describe. Hervé Joncour goes back and forth between France and Japan. Discovering Japan is a life-changing experience, probably but nothing is said. You just assume. It’s a novel with a strange character you don’t get attached to. He’s always called Hervé Joncour, never Hervé. It gives the impression of a man who never loses his tie and walks with a broom in his back. There are some descriptions of Japanese customs but you watch them without a clue, just like the main character.

The style is ristretto like an Italian coffee. I guess it’s supposed to be powerful. It didn’t work for me although I’m usually a good audience for this. I love short sentences with an unusual use of the language. The writer needs to be very good for me to enjoy paragraph-long sentences. Short books composed with short sentences can hit you like a fist. But it’s the prerogative of excellent writers as it is hard to say a lot in a few pages. Here, the effects seem fabricated. For example, each time Hervé Joncour travels, Baricco writes the same paragraph to describe his itinerary, like in fairy tales. Great idea on paper but it sounded fake like a trick learnt in a writing class. See:

Il passa la frontière près de Metz, traversa le Wurtemberg et la Bavière, pénétra en Autriche, atteignit par le train Vienne puis Budapest et poursuivit jusqu’à Kiev. Il parcourut à cheval vingt mille kilomètres de steppe russe, franchit les monts Oural, entra en Sibérie, voyagea pendant quarante jours avant d’atteindre le lac Baïkal, que les gens de l’endroit appelait : mer. Il descendit le cours du fleuve Amour, longeant la frontière chinoise jusqu’à l’Océan, resta onze jours dans le port de Sabirk en attendant qu’un navire de contrebandiers hollandais l’amène à Capo Teraya, sur la côte ouest du Japon He crossed the border near Metz, walked through Württemberg and Bayern, entered in Austria, reached Vienna and Budapest by train, rode twenty thousand kilometers through the Russian steppe, crossed the Ural mountains, entered in Siberia, and traveled forty days before reaching the Baikal lake that local people called: sea. He flew down the Amour river along the Chinese border till the Ocean, stayed eleven days in the Sabirk harbor until a ship of Dutch smugglers brought him to Capo Terya, on the West coast of Japan. 

I didn’t buy the Japanizing paraphernalia either. I found it a bit clichéd, the landlord, the geisha, the secret traditions. I also thought the double silent love story really hard to believe. Two women silently pining for dull Hervé Joncour? Come on!

I suppose it’s a go/no-go kind of book, like a Paulo Coelho. Either you fall for it or you don’t. Well, I didn’t but I understand that some do. I felt no emotion when it is clear that its aim was beauty and emotion. I expected better than that from such a praised writer. Has anyone read it?

A lost soul by Giovanni Arpino

May 15, 2012 19 comments

Un’ anima persa by Giovanni Arpino. 1966. French title: Une âme perdue. Not translated into English.

Il me semble que je ne pourrai aborder aucun autre secret, que rien d’autre ne m’arrivera, sinon la répétition plus ou moins identique de cette histoire, la seule que le monde des adultes a su m’offrir en guise d’apprentissage. It seems I will never be able to take another secret, that nothing will ever happen to me other than the repetition more of less identical of this story, the only one the world of adults gave me as a coming-of-age experience.

Tino is 17. It’s Turin, the first week of July in the 1960s. Tino is an orphan who usually lives in a boarding school. Now he’s staying at his aunt Galla’s house for a week because his taking his maturita. (Baccalauréat in French, A-Level in English). Tino is a good student, he’s not really worried about the exam. He’s a sensitive teenager though and aunt Galla’s house makes him nervous. This novella is the journal of this decisive week, the week he finishes high school, enters adulthood with forceps and without anaesthesia.

Indeed, Aunt Galla and her husband Uncle Serafino are an odd pair. She’s the typical 1960s housewife:

Tante Galla voue une véritable adoration à son mari. Elle ne l’appelle jamais par son prénom, mais par son titre d’ingénieur, elle le suit, le surveille, le regarde de bas en haut tel un gros chien fidèle, toujours prêt à lui faire fête, qui jappe et agite les breloques que son maître lui a attachées au cou. Aunt Galla worships her husband. She never calls him by his Christian name, only by his title, engineer. She follows him, hovers over him, watches him from down to top like a big faithful dog, always ready to greet him eagerly, a dog who yelps and shakes the charms her master hung on her neck.

I can easily imagine her waiting for him to come back from work, holding his slippers and the evening paper. She has no mind of her own, she sees life through the adoring eyes of the obedient wife. But Tino doesn’t share his aunt’s blinded admiration for Uncle Serafino:

Oncle Serafino ne m’a jamais semblé être un homme.Comment m’expliquer? On dirait un être humain encore inachevé, un acteur arraché à son masque, à ses fards, à ses déguisements. Ou alors un homme qui brûle secrètement de sortir de lui-même et qui n’exhibe sa personne, les fragments minuscules de son cocon mortel dans lequel on l’a enfermé, qu’au prix d’une douleur et d’une humiliation constante. To me, Uncle Serafino never seemed to be a man.How can I explain? He looks like an incomplete human being, an actor broken off from his mask, his make-up, his costumes. Or a human being who secretly burns to come out of himself and who only shows his self, the minuscule fragments of his mortal cocoon in which he has been locked at the price of a constant pain and steady humiliation.

Not keen on meeting Uncle Serafino, are you? From the start, the reader is caught in the strange atmosphere of the household. Tino knows that Serafino’s twin brother has been locked in a room in the top floor of the house for the last twenty-five years. He’s the professor and only Uncle Serafino takes care of him. He takes into account all his needs: he bathes him, buys him clothes, brings him food, distraction and even hires a prostitute every week. When Uncle Serafino is at work, Aunt Galla spies on her brother-in-law through the peep-hole. Tino is invited to have a look too and he almost feels sick. The scene is poignant and a bit chilling. I thought “That’s the sequel of The Metamorphosis, although the professor isn’t a beetle. But it’s what Gregor Samsa would be after twenty-five years locked in a room, hidden away from the outside world”.

The house plays a role in the story too. It’s well-described and I saw the painting by Henri Magritte, L’empire des lumières. A strange feeling comes from this house full of corridors, unused spared rooms filled with broken objects and detritus. One description also reminded me of the room Malte Laurids Brigge used to go to in his family house. It’s disturbing. The garden is unkempt, the veranda is rusted, plants have grown wild and hide the door from the garden to the street. It’s like a beast that swallows things and human beings and doesn’t gives them back. Aunt Galla seldom goes out and never receives anyone. Tino is tempted to lock himself in his room at night, especially now that he knows that the professor’s room is right above his. Poor sleepless Tino.

L’heure de dormir avait tourné comme un aliment aigre. Pour éviter le lit, pour réprimer toute régurgitation de peurs et de pensées, j’ai repris mes livres et ouvert une page ça et là.

Bed time had turned sour like damaged food. To avoid my bed, to repress any regurgitation of fears and thoughts, I grabbed my text books and opened a page here and there.

I thought Arpino’s style excellent. Like here, he has a way to make you feel Tino’s emotion and angst.

De nouveau, le silence.Je ferme les yeux. Mes paupières ne me protègent pas de la lumière, le sommeil chemine dans mon corps mais se dissipe une fois parvenu à la hauteur de mes tempes. Cependant, je suis si fatigué que la peur n’a plus de prise sur moi: on dirait qu’elle m’a abandonné; et puis, ce n’est plus cette peur qui m’assaillait le cœur et les nerfs, c’est une peur dilatée qui stagne dans l’air de la chambre, dans toutes les fissures de cette maison. And again, the silence.I close my eyes. My eyelids don’t protect me from the light, sleep walks along my body but dispels once it reaches my temples. However, I’m so tired that fear has no hold on me: it seems it abandoned me. And also, it’s no more this fear that assailed my heart and my nerves, it’s a dilated fear that stagnates in the air of the room, in all the cracks of this house.

It reminded me of The Stranger by Camus, the unsettling mixture of detachment and terrible circumstances. I haven’t read a lot of Italian literature but it seems to me that heat is always an important side character. Here it is too. It distorts Tino’s perception, it slows his mind, it disturbs his sleep and makes him tired and thus more vulnerable to events.

I won’t tell you the secret of this house but it’s lurking. It’s the story of a teenager who came to the big city full of expectation, willing to see the world and who faces disappointment and ugliness. There is no fairy tale, no gold, only lead. He is thrown to the other side of the mirror, to the world of adults, without clues and there is no coming back.

It’s only the fourth of Arpino‘s novels to be translated into French. It’s not available in English, sorry, but another of his books, Scent of a Woman was translated by Anne Milano Appel.

The Tartar Steppe: from book to play

May 10, 2012 15 comments

The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati French title: Le désert des Tartares.

Once again work gave me the opportunity to go to the theatre in Paris. Before discussing the play, let me tell you about the emotion of small Parisian theatres. This time, I attended a play in a theatre Boulevard des Batignolles, Le Petit Hebertot. In these small theatres, the usherettes get only tipped and have no wages – Note for American readers: this is very unusual in France – and you can feel it’s not a show with a big budget but mostly enthusiastic actors and staff who play and run the theatre because it’s their passion and not to make money. It’s an atmosphere Beryl Bainbridge relates well in An Awfully Big Adventure. We were barely fifty spectators in the room, I was seated in the second row, the actors were about five to ten steps from me. Sometimes I was under the impression that the main actor looked straight into my eyes when he was on stage. It’s a strange feeling, the actors are there, so near you could almost touch them and yet far away from themselves, in their characters.

That night, I’d decided to attend the play version of The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati. It’s a novel I read a long time ago and the memory I had of it came more from reading Guy’s review than from my own reading. It was made into a play by Xavier Jaillard, who had also made La Vie devant soi into a successful play in 2008. The Tartar Steppe relates the life of the officer Giovanni Drogo. At the beginning of the novel, he is just out of the military academy and sent to Fort Bastiani, a remote place at an undefined border near the Tartar steppe. The place is desolated, isolated. Nothing happens there, it’s near a “dead border”, a border where there is no real danger. It’s in the mountains, there is no city in the vicinity, no distraction at all. Drogo wants to get away from there immediately but his officer convinces him he’d better stay four months before asking for a transfer.

Days pass, a routine settles, life is within a frame of military duties and there is always the hope of an attack from the Tartars and the chance to be useful. Years pass by and the more he stays, the more Drogo is incapable of living in the “normal” world.

It’s a strong text. It reminded me of reportages on prisoners who stay in jail for years and are eventually released. It may be hard for them to leave the prison adjust to their new life. You’d think they’d be happy to be free but they don’t always know what to do with their freedom if nobody waits for them.

The Tartar Steppe also shows the power of hope. How hope can make you stand up and live and at the same time prevents you from acknowledging the truth, cut your losses and run. Drogo always hopes the D-Day will be tomorrow, that he will have an opportunity to fight the Tartars nobody has ever seen. From day to day, sustained by hope, time flows and his life goes by. He doesn’t make the decision to leave because it could happen tomorrow. He’s like a gambler in front of a gambling machine, unable to leave in fear that the next coin will be the one that will make the difference and they will win the lottery. In this, I recognize Romain Gary and his ambivalence towards hope, poison and source of life at the same time.

The Tartar Steppe criticizes the absurdity of military life. Lives sacrificed to keep a stupid border where nobody goes. Blind obedience to discipline, deathly routine that kills any willpower left. Last year I visited the Fort de l’Essaillon in the French Alps. We did a kid tour with questions and heard lots of explanations about military life at the time. Fort Bastiani reminded me of this place. The Fort de l’Essaillon was never used; it kept the border between France and Italy in the 19thC and nothing happened there.

Furthermore, Buzzati points out the absurdity of life, the way you start on a road by chance, keep walking, try to turn away sometimes only to realize that the gate closed behind you and that there is no turning back. You can only keep on walking the same path. It’s a desperate book in a way and it surprised me that I had the same reaction as the first time I read it as a teenager. I wanted to shake Drogo, to urge him to react, to tell him “Do something!” Passivity is something I can understand with my brain but not with my guts. And yet, I do know it’s not easy to make a radical change in one’s life.

The novel was well adapted into a play, I think. The décor was simple but I could imagine easily the Fort and its life of duties. The novel is worth reading.

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.

%d bloggers like this: