Home > 2000, 21st Century, Besson Philippe, French Literature, Novel > In the presence of an excellent book

In the presence of an excellent book

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.

  1. May 4, 2012 at 3:19 am

    I was thinking ‘where do I know the auhtor’s name from?’ but I’m thinking of Luc Besson.


    • May 5, 2012 at 5:25 pm

      Or maybe my review of Un homme accidentel by the same Philippe Besson?


      • May 5, 2012 at 8:46 pm

        Oh yes, I went looking for others books by this author, and I only found titles in french, so I decided I must be thinking of the director.


        • May 5, 2012 at 8:47 pm

          I see we are both reading Maugham. I hope you like Cakes & Ale. One of my favs.


          • May 5, 2012 at 8:54 pm

            Yes, I saw that too…on your blog. I thought “great minds think alike” 🙂


            • May 5, 2012 at 9:55 pm

              You probbaly know what some people consider it a thinly veiled novel about Hardy


              • May 5, 2012 at 9:59 pm

                No, I didn’t. I’m at the beginning and I did see Hardy in Driffield. Victorian writer who lived a long life? He came to my mind…


              • May 5, 2012 at 10:25 pm

                Emma: it’s thought to be Hardy or Walpole (Maugham denied it naturally). My $ is on Hardy.


              • May 5, 2012 at 10:30 pm

                And I was just thinking that having an overseas British friend who graduated in literature can be really handy.
                🙂 thanks
                I’ve never heard of Walpole, so only Hardy came to my mind.
                I sounds great so far…and funny, of course.


  2. May 4, 2012 at 10:03 am

    This sounds like it was a wonderful experience. Yes, I think it is wonderful to be put in touch with something we believed was buried. At the same time, this makes me think I would have a very different reaction to this book. i will have to try it and find out. I saw the sequel at the book shop the other day but then I saw it was a sequel, so I didn’t buy it. This one wasn’t available.


    • May 5, 2012 at 5:28 pm

      It reached me personally, so I can’t guarantee that someone else will have the same response. However, I can tell it’s well written.


      • May 5, 2012 at 5:46 pm

        I know, this type of reaction is very personal. I looked at his books and from the descriptions I would like to read “Son frère”. Not your topic I suppose but I like reading for books about illness and death. I find them thought-provoking.


        • May 5, 2012 at 9:39 pm

          Maybe you’d like D’autres vies que la mienne by Emmanuel Carrère. It had good critics.


  3. May 5, 2012 at 10:30 pm

    sorry: I should be clearer: Driffield is thought to be Hardy and Kear is thought be to Walpole. Maugham denied it and said that the fictional characters were “composites.” I think it’s very hard NOT to see Hardy on these pages. Don’t know enough about Walpole to say either way.


    • May 5, 2012 at 10:33 pm

      Walpole is out of fashion these days. I read some of his novels years ago.


      • May 5, 2012 at 10:36 pm

        Well, good assessment of Walpole’s talent and immortality by Maugham then, if Kear is Walpole…


        • May 7, 2012 at 9:14 pm

          Amazon has some Walpole titles free if you’re ever interested.


          • May 7, 2012 at 9:21 pm

            I’ve read 60% of it. How could he deny that Driffield is Hardy?
            But let’s save the discussion for after my review.


  4. May 6, 2012 at 2:01 am
  5. June 15, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    It sounds excellent. It does sound though as if it will be much richer if one has first finished Proust, perhaps read some other Besson.


    • June 15, 2012 at 8:56 pm

      I think you’d like this one and that you’ve read enough of Proust to enjoy it.


      • June 18, 2012 at 3:10 pm

        I’ll take a look then, thanks.


        • June 18, 2012 at 8:47 pm

          It’s a short book, I’d like to read your review.


  6. June 15, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    I hit post comment by accident. I was going to add that this was a lovely review. I have made a note of the book.


    • June 15, 2012 at 8:57 pm

      Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it and I’ll be happy to see other readers discover Philippe Besson.


  7. Frances O'connor
    September 22, 2012 at 8:30 pm

    Sorry to brother you butdDoes Saint-Loup use vous or tu when writing and talking to Proust?


    • September 22, 2012 at 8:40 pm

      You’re not bothering me and it’s a good question if you read Proust in English. They’re on a first name basis, they have the same age, they’re close friends, Saint-Loup says “tu”. He’s also from a higher social classes, he can do as he pleases, I think.


  8. October 7, 2014 at 5:50 pm

    Well, this sounds amazing, beautiful, meditative and right up my street. Thanks for the recommendation! It’s on my shopping list, and I’ll try to put it aside for something to look forward to.


    • October 9, 2014 at 10:05 pm

      I hope you’ll like it, Jacqui


  9. August 5, 2017 at 9:11 am

    Je lis ce livre maintenant; c’est vraiment magnifique!


    • August 5, 2017 at 9:21 am

      Je suis très contente que ça te plaise. J’ai adoré ce livre.
      Je viens de lire Les passants de Lisbonne et j’ai beaucoup aimé aussi.

      Liked by 1 person

      • August 5, 2017 at 9:38 am

        I’m only up to page 24, but ‘m not finding it too hard so far:)


        • August 5, 2017 at 10:39 am

          Great. After this one, there’s Un homme accidentel. Not available in English: you’ll be so proud to read one only available in French !


          • August 5, 2017 at 2:16 pm

            Ah, but first I have two charming little books given to me by a friend…published in 1947 with quaint little dustjackets, I have La Mare au Diable by George Sand, and Les Captifs Delivres by Henry Bordeaux. I think that will take me through to the end of the year, at least!


  1. May 18, 2012 at 3:58 pm
  2. July 16, 2012 at 6:15 pm
  3. December 27, 2012 at 12:18 am
  4. June 7, 2014 at 11:10 pm
  5. March 31, 2015 at 10:48 pm
  6. April 26, 2015 at 2:29 pm
  7. October 15, 2017 at 10:42 am
  8. April 5, 2018 at 11:23 am
  9. March 12, 2023 at 11:49 am

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