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From there, you see the sea by Philippe Besson

March 31, 2015 12 comments

 De là, on voit la mer by Philippe Besson. 2013. Not translated into English. (yet?)

Tu es une femme sans hésitation.

book_club_2For March, our Book Club picked De là on voit la mer by Philippe Besson. It was a safe bet, none of us has ever disliked a book by Philippe Besson. This one has not been translated into English but English-speaking readers can try In the Absence of Men and French readers may try Un homme accidentel which is my favorite of the three I’ve read.

In appearance, the plot of that novel is rather banal. Louise and François are over forty; they’ve been married for years. Louise is a famous writer and François has a corporate job in Paris. She’s currently writing her new novel and it requires her total attention. So she’s living in Tuscany in a friend’s house while François remains in Paris. Literature is a demanding lover. Arrives what must arrive, she starts an affair with a much younger man, Luca, until François is in an accident and his condition is serious enough to make her go back to Paris.

Besson_merReading this, you probably think you’ve seen it all before. (Even the cover of the book, a lot cornier than the other ones) That’s what I thought also for the first fifty pages. Since I’m fed up with foreign authors writing books set in Provence, I even wondered if the Italians feel the same about books located in Tuscany. So what makes a difference? The characters and the last twist in the plot. Since I don’t want spoilers in my billet, I’ll write about the characters.

First, the usual roles are reversed. You’d expect a male writer with a mousy wife sacrificed on the altar of Literature and you have a strong selfish female author with an almost submissive husband. Louise reminded me of Marguerite Duras in The Lover. Louise is cold, terribly self-centered and rude with François. He’s so in love with her that he accepts everything. He’s used to playing second fiddle to her art. He suffers from it but it’s for a good cause, the cause of Literature. And of course, Louise would have left him if he hadn’t complied. They don’t have children, Louise has no desire to be a mother. François had to accept this as well. He’s ready to accept everything for her in the name of love. Someone said to our meeting it’s the purest love possible. I’m a bit harsher, I found him a bit of a doormat. I don’t find this kind of love commendable because it’s unequal, partly unrequited. I wondered what kind of pleasure he found in his sacrifice.

Louise just takes what she wants. Luca. François. Her independence. Literature provides her with the best excuse ever. It’s her calling, how can she resist to its pull? Besson pictures a writer who uses her need to write to impose her lifestyle to her husband but also a writer consumed by the need to write. Louise’s life is writing material. Potentially, anything could end up in one of her novels.

Pour l’accident lui-même, c’est trop tôt. Elle ne connaît pas les circonstances. On les lui racontera. Ça fera un beau chapitre dans un livre.

As for the accident, it’s too early. She doesn’t know the circumstances. Someone will tell her. It will make a nice chapter in a novel.

There’s something final in this passage that tells everything about the ambivalence Louise feels towards literature. It owns her. And yet she uses it.

The relationship between Louise and François is odd and her attraction to Luca comes as a surprise for her. She wasn’t looking for an affair. She didn’t miss her husband very much but she was intent on writing her book and going home afterwards. Luca falls down on her like a bad curse. It’s supposed to be passionate and yet, I thought that something was missing in Besson’s writing.

I wondered how his being gay influenced this novel. Was he able to create such a female character as Louise because he’s not sexually attracted to women and thus sees them as human beings and not surrounded by an aura of I-don’t-know what? Does that give him another perspective? I can’t answer this question but it crossed my mind. For me, in creating Louise, he showed that he considers women as equal to men. Not all women want children and a woman is not necessarily soft and loving. Louise is cold, just like some men are. François is giving, just like some women are. What’s sure, though, is that it influences part of his writing. He’s better at describing passion between two men than between Luca and Louise. He didn’t manage to transcribe the urgency they’re supposed to feel for each other the way he did it in Un homme accidentel, for example. His style is elegant though and his voice takes you in his world with his short sentences where verbs may be omitted.

Voilà, c’est ainsi : il y a des moments dans une existence où on demande la vérité alors qu’on présume qu’elle va nous heurter. Des situations dans lesquelles on renonce au confort de l’ignorance, aux vapeurs anesthésiantes de l’incertitude et où on prend le risque du réel, de la dureté du réel. Des exaspérations telles qu’on a besoin d’en finir, une fois pour toutes. Voilà. That’s it. There are moments in life when you demand the truth even if you assume it will hurt. Circumstances in which you give up on the comfort of ignorance, on the anesthetic vapors of uncertainty and then you take a bet on reality, on the harshness of reality. Exasperations such that you want to end things, once for all.

I guess we’ve all been there one day or the other. I’m always drawn to his writing and I already know I’ll read more by him. I really recommend In the Absence of Men. You can also have a second opinion on that one here, at Pechorin’s Journal.

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