Home > 2010, 21st Century, Besson Philippe, French Literature, Novella > In Lisbon by Philippe Besson

In Lisbon by Philippe Besson

October 15, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

In Lisbon by Philippe Besson (2016) Original French title : Les passants de Lisbonne.

Quand viendra le printemps,

Si je suis déjà mort,

Les fleurs fleuriront de la même manière

Et les arbres n’en seront pas moins verts

Qu’au printemps dernier.

La réalité n’a pas besoin de moi.

Fernando Pessoa

Je ne suis personne.

When spring comes,

If I’m dead already,

Flowers will blossom the usual way

And trees won’t get less green

Than the spring before.

Reality does not need me.

 Fernando Pessoa

I’m nobody.

Philippe Besson is a writer I’m really fond of. I don’t know how else to say it. He never lets me down and there are a few books by him that I haven’t read yet but I don’t want to rush to read them. I like to know they are out there and that if I need a safe bet, I can turn to this list and pick one. So, I’m going to enjoy reading them slowly. Philippe Besson has an English translator but not all of his novels are available in English. I loved Un homme accidentel which seems to be only available in Polish besides French. En l’absence des hommes has been translated into English and in other languages. The English title is In the Absence of Men and it’s a good introduction to Besson. I’ve also read De là, on voit la mer but I liked it less than the others. This brings us to Les passants de Lisbonne, another one that didn’t make it into English. I will come back to the title later.

Mathieu and Hélène stay at the same hotel in Lisbon. They are both alone, carrying around a heavy sadness that brings them together. They start talking and sharing their life stories. Besson imagined that The Big One had happened and that Hélène’s husband Vincent, who was on a business trip in San Francisco, died when his hotel collapsed. Grief made Hélène flee Paris at some point and she ended up in Lisbon. Mathieu had a long-distance relationship with Diego who is from Lisbon. He went back and forth between Paris and Lisbon. That was until he arrived from Paris to find their apartment in Lisbon empty, save from a breakup letter.

These two grieving souls will end up spending time together, talking, walking into the city, trying to move on with their life. Mathieu feels guilty when he rehashes his relationship with Diego because he thinks a broken heart is not as hard as losing a husband in such terrible circumstances.

Elle résume : « Ainsi, nous avons cela en commun, un disparu. »

Même s’il a écouté son raisonnement, il envisage encore de lui concéder que leur solitude n’est pas comparable, que la mort l’emporte forcément sur la rupture amoureuse, qu’on ne met pas sur le même plan un époux emporté par un cataclysme et un amant qui s’enfuit. Par politesse, il devrait donc admettre une forme de défaite si les chagrins se livraient un combat. Pourtant, il accepte de la rejoindre. Un disparu est un disparu. Peu importent les circonstances de la disparition. A la fin, ce qui compte, c’est qu’on est seul, affreusement seul. Dépareillé. Démuni.

She sums it up “So, we have this in common. A lost one”.

Even if he had listened to her reasoning, he still contemplates to concede that their loneliness is not comparable, that death obviously wins over breakups, that a husband who died in a cataclysm doesn’t compare to a lover who ran away. Out of politeness, he should admit a sort of defeat, if their griefs were in a duel. But he accepts to join her. A lost one is a lost one. Whatever the circumstances of the loss. In the end, what counts is that one is alone and terribly lonely. Mismatched. Helpless.

Hélène is a convincing character when she retells the shock of the catastrophe, the waiting and all the administrative nightmare that followed, on top of her pain. It could be trite, whiny and theatrical. It’s not, because Besson manages to stay on the right tune and choosing Lisbon was certainly not a coincidence. Portugal is known for the concept of saudade and for Fado music, both linked to melancoly. No city in Europe looks as much as San Francisco as Lisbon does. Look at the narrow streets,

The historic cable car,

The Ponte de 25 Abril

From Wikipedia by Vitor Oliveira

It seemed the right city to be in for Hélène to work through her grief. Mathieu helps her tame her pain and she helps him navigate through his. They are both passing in Lisbon. Their acquaintance is deep but fleeting. The title of the book is Les passants de Lisbonne. It is difficult to translate into English because, as often, the French has more meanings in one word than the English. Un passant means a passer-by and that’s what Mathieu and Hélène are, from a practical point of view. They walk around Lisbon. But passant also encapsulates the idea that they are transient in the city as foreigners and in each other’s lives as strangers. Their moment together is a parenthesis in their lives and they remain aware that the world goes on around them.

Loin d’eux, des enfants naissent et d’autres meurent, des bombes explosent dans des capitales et des routes sont tracées au milieu des déserts, des maladies frappent et des hommes sont sauvés, l’espérance de vie augmente et la famine aussi, on raconte des histoires extraordinaires dans les journaux, le monde continue. Far away from them, children are born and others die. Bombs explode in capital cities and roads are built through the desert. Illnesses strike and some people are saved. Life expectancy increases and famine too. Extraordinary stories are told in newspapers; the world goes on.

Their whole time together, their encounter, their shared time at a moment in their lives where they are the most vulnerable is precious and big for them but nothing in the grand scheme of the world. Besson does not belittle their pain but still puts it in perspective. His sensitive writing makes of Les passants de Lisbonne a lovely and poetic novel about love, loss and healing in a lovely city.

  1. October 15, 2017 at 10:46 am

    Fits in well with your trip to Lisbon. You got me onto Besson, if I remember correctly, and I always mean to read more by him. As you say, he is always slightly different but reliably good.


    • October 15, 2017 at 4:04 pm

      Yes, it fit very well with my trip to Lisbon. That’s why a thoughtful friend gave me this little gem.
      So far, my favourite ones are Un homme accidentel and En l’absence des hommes.


  2. October 15, 2017 at 10:56 am

    Philippe Besson is one of those I’m tempted to read but seeing how heavily promoted he is, I always put him in the “maybe next time” category. This one caught my attention when it was published but also the recent two, Arrête Avec Tes Mensonges, et Un Personnage de Roman. I’m glad you quoted the first paragraph; I was afraid that this idea of loss will be transcribed in a very mainstream style, but it seems it’s not and I like this idea of a competition between two sadnesses from two losses. One would always ask himself if my sadness is credible in comparison. I might give this book a try actually. Thanx 🙂


    • October 15, 2017 at 4:11 pm

      I’d like to read Arrête tes mensonges, I’ve heard it’s very good. I’m not interested in reading his narration about Macron’s political campaign.

      His style is not mainstream at all. He has a quiet subtlety and a nice voice. I also liked that he tried to analyse the impact of each of the character’s loss. And the question of the comparison between the pains is a good one. One could be tempted to judge someone else’s pain as out of proportion compared to the event that caused it but if this person is really distressed, who are we to judge?


  3. October 15, 2017 at 11:38 am

    I am (slowly) reading En l’absence des hommes which I chose on your recommendation. It’s wonderful:)


    • October 15, 2017 at 4:12 pm

      I’m currently Reading Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret and I’m tempted to re-read En l’absence des hommes.
      And to finish Albertine Disparue to at last get to Le Temps retrouvé which is a wonderful book.


  4. October 15, 2017 at 1:11 pm

    A quick look online indicates his only translated title in English that’s available is Absence of Men. I’m tempted to add it to the pile from what you say here, but I loved my trip to Lisbon last year (and Porto this summer), so would like to give my long-forgotten French a bit of exercise…But first to try to clear the backlog of unread books! Thanks for the recommendation, though.


  5. October 15, 2017 at 4:14 pm

    The Proust connection prompted the translation of En l’absence des hommes. Too bad the others aren’t available in English.

    I didn’t know you spoke French! Have fun with Les passants de Lisbonne.


  6. October 15, 2017 at 5:32 pm

    Shame it’s not in English…


    • October 15, 2017 at 6:36 pm

      I know…
      Next billet will be about a book available in English, I promise.

      I wonder why they only translated In the Absence of Men. Do you think the gay characters in almost all the books are a reason for this?

      Liked by 1 person

      • October 15, 2017 at 10:36 pm

        Wasn’t there a film made of The Absence of Men? Often it seems this brings on a translation.


        • October 16, 2017 at 8:50 pm

          I don’t think it has been made into a film but you’re right, that would push for a translation. I really think it’s the Proust reference in the book.


          • October 17, 2017 at 5:45 am

            I must have it mixed up with something else


  7. October 16, 2017 at 5:03 pm

    This sounds excellent (I read your review while listening to some Fado incidentally). A great shame that more Besson isn’t in English as The Absence of Men was very good.


    • October 16, 2017 at 8:54 pm

      I really don’t understand why he’s not more translated. A lot of readers would enjoy his novels. I wonder if he’s tagged as “gay lit” and not as enough “mainstream”.


  1. March 12, 2023 at 11:49 am

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