17 October 2014

Philippe Besson: La Trahison de Thomas Spencer (2009)

Philippe Besson's novel essentially involves two Americans – Thomas Spencer (the narrator) and Paul Bruder – who were born on the same day: 6 August 1945, when the plane Enola Gay dropped its lethal cargo on Hiroshima. Thomas was born in Savannah, Georgia, although he never met his father, who left when his mother was pregnant, and who took her young baby to Natchez, Mississippi, where the Bruder family lived next door.

So the story begins in 1945, when Thomas and Paul started growing up together and for many years are inseparable, much like loving twin brothers. The novel traces the couple through school, through their lovers, up to and a little beyond the messy end of the relationship. To a lesser extent, it also traces the history of North American culture of the time, particularly the South which was still living through the Jim Crow period.

The back cover explains many of the important elements in the story: Claire McMullen, a free spirit (young, like the brotherly pair, in the 1960s) comes along and brings great danger to the Thomas-Paul bond: as Claire Chazal states in Le Figaro magazine (also mentioned on the back cover), this is – but only in some ways, I have to add – a darker version of Jules et Jim. Claire has previously had a relationship with Paul, but as an adolescent has to move with her family to Atlanta, thus severing the relationship. But she returns years later, and begins living with Paul.

La Trahison de Thomas Spencer translates as 'Thomas Spencer's Betrayal', and it is more or less this betrayal that the story in general points towards. Thomas and Paul have continued to be 'brothers' throughout and no girl or young woman has come between them before. More importantly, they have maintained this strong bond in spite of political differences. Thomas is the more studious, left-wing one, and when he moves to 'Ole Miss' (Oxford University, Mississippi) he  (not altogether wholeheartedly) joins in the demonstrations and drug-taking that were almost part of the fabric of student life in the sixties; but he still returns home to Natchez by Greyhound during the summer vacation. Paul, however, has been indoctrinated by his commie-hating parents, and feels that it is his duty to go and fight in Vietnam.

Paul and Claire promise to remain faithful to each other, although the inevitable happens and Thomas and Claire get together sexually and intend to remain that way on Paul's return. When he does, though, the new lovers feel that the physical wreck of a man that Vietnam has made of Paul – who returns with one arm and half his face a mangled, gruesome mess – that he would be better dead. Claire confesses her relationship with Thomas to Paul, who not long after puts a bullet through his own brain.

This ends the affair between Claire and Thomas, who exiles himself to Oregon with his guilt. What is the real betrayal? Simply Thomas having sex with Claire? In a much colder clime, Thomas now misses swimming in the Mississippi, and the final short paragraph states that he misses 'La sensation de l'eau sur la peau nue' (The sensation of water on my naked skin'). This doesn't relate to the time when the 'brothers' were spellbound by watching Claire swim naked in the river, but rather to the elephant in the room.

Thomas is thinking of when he and Paul used to swim naked as children, but probably more specifically to when the slightly later developing Thomas first sees Paul's pubic hair by the river, to when Paul clutches him in fun in the water and he feels Paul's cock rub against his buttocks: as Thomas says: 'C'est un moment de communion absolue.' Although no specific homosexual desire is mentioned between the 'brothers', throughout the book there are references to or allusions to homosexuality: at school a lesbian 'girlfriend' uses Thomas as a cover, thinking that he too is homosexual and doing the same; lack of interest in sport (in this case football, which Thomas tries to hide) is a stock 'code' used in homosexual fiction; but far more telling is when Thomas says that although he found Elizabeth Taylor 'very sexy' in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof', Paul Newman impressed him more: 'It took me a long time to understand why. I was too young at the time, it was impossible for me to put words to my confusion.' Quite.

This I thought was a central problem in the novel: there's a huge homosexual undertow that is going nowhere.

On a few minor notes, occasionally I was struck by an incongruity, such as a reference to 'traversin', the long sausage-like French pillows that surely aren't used in the USA, and one definite anachronism is that 'flower power' didn't appear in the early seventies but the late sixties.

Link to my other Besson posts:

Philippe Besson: Son frère
Philippe Besson: Un garçon d'Italie
Philippe Besson: Un instant d'abandon
Philippe Besson: En l'absence des hommes | In the Absence of Men
Philippe Besson: « Arrète avec tes mensonges »

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