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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.

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.

Noir Désir

January 21, 2012 27 comments

Un homme accidentel by Philippe Besson. 2007. Not translated into English, very sadly.

Jack m’entraînait là où aucune rémission n’était possible, où aucun pardon ne serait accordé, où la survie n’était envisageable qu’à condition de mentir, de se cacher, où les jours toute façon seraient comptés puisque la vérité finit toujours par nous rattraper. Et j’acceptais ce sort. Mieux, j’allais à sa rencontre. Jack was dragging me to a place where no remission was possible, where no forgiveness would be granted, where survival was possible provided that we lied and hid, where days were numbered because truth always catches up with us. And I surrendered to that fate. Better, I was heading toward it.

Our Narrator has no name and relates the events that blew his life away. One year ago, he was married to Laura. They were expecting a baby. They were in love. He was a lieutenant at LAPD, in Beverly Hills, a quiet job according to him. Life was good until June 15th 1990, the day Billy Greenfield got murdered and dumped down on the manicured lawn of a rich man’s house. Billy was a prostitute. Searching his apartment for clues, the Narrator finds a notebook with the names of Billy’s clients. Among them, Jack Bell, a famous young actor. On June 17th, the Narrator pays a visit to Jack, to investigate the murder.

Then things get out of control when Jack and our Narrator fall in love.

Love at first sight, you say in English. It conveys a sweet image of a romantic encounter between a starry-eyed young girl and her righteous beau. Only the French can describe what happens here. Coup de foudre, lightening stroke. It has everything in it: the suddenness, the blinding quality, the violence, the fire, the storm and the destruction it brings in their lives. Coup de foudre.

Besson excels in describing the whirlwind love between the two men. Our Narrator discovers his homosexuality; he recounts his fatal attraction to Jack and their summer of love. The Narrator doesn’t hide or doesn’t try to find excuses. He doesn’t want pity. He takes full responsibilities of his actions and accepts their consequences. With a little hindsight, he deciphers the key moments, the tiny seconds of hesitation, of flawed decision-making. A hand that lingers too long, a look a little too insistent and the wrong words at the wrong moment. Still he doesn’t complain. No should-haves or would-haves here. He quietly unravels the events, not concealing that he had a choice and purposely headed to disaster, blown away by his relationship with Jack.

The LA setting is well-described but you can tell it’s not written by an American author, that he knows the city as a foreigner. Sometimes his comparisons betray his nationality. I can’t imagine an American novelist writing this:

C’étaient des paroles ordinaires, des choses de presque rien, comme en disent les couples qui s’arrêtent sur des aires d’autoroute, le jour des départs en vacances. These were ordinary words, small talk couples make when they stop on a motorway rest area when they go on holiday.

When I read this in French, I see the flow of tourists on the French motorways on August 15th. I see families pick-nicking on wooden benches between the gas station and the children playground, not a couple in California.

Despite this minor flaw, I couldn’t put this book down, Besson is a sensitive writer. He builds his style around short and forceful sentences, creating a plausible flow for a confession. There’s a music behind the words, a gift for little observations.

Je l’ai observée quelques instants avant de me signaler. J’ai toujours aimé observer Laura sans qu’elle s’en rende compte. C’est beau, une femme qui ne fait pas attention, qui se coupe du monde, qui n’est concentrée que sur son geste. I observed her for some time before showing up. I’ve always loved watching Laura, unnoticed. It’s beautiful, a woman who doesn’t pay attention, who shuts the world out, who only concentrates on her movements.

Or

Dans les étreintes, il y a tout ce qu’on abandonne. In our lovemaking lays everything we give away.

An accidental man. The title says everything. Falling in love is an accident. Meeting Jack is an accident, two parallel worlds colliding. Homosexuality is accidentally discovered. The murder is an accident. The Narrator’s life is accidental.

This novel isn’t translated into English, this is why you get my translations for the quotes. If I’m being honest, reviews are far from unanimous. Some hated it, some loved it. I loved it, but I guess you know that by now.

PS: the soundtrack in my head was A l’arrière des taxis by Noir Désir.

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