7 December 2014

Philippe Besson: En l'absence des hommes | In the Absence of Men (2001)

Most of the men are absent in this summer of 1916 because they're fighting in World War I, although a few men are brought together in Paris: the aristocratic Vincent de l'Étoile and the great writer Marcel Proust; and Vincent again with the housekeeper's son Arthur Valès, a soldier who has a week's leave.

Vincent, a sixteen-year-old far wiser than his years, is soon seeing the forty-five-year-old Proust every afternoon either at his home or in an expensive café: the two men are of the same class, are very intelligent, and almost instinctively recognise that they are of homosexual persuasion. But although the relationship becomes loving and confidential, it remains Platonic.

When Vincent gets together with the twenty-one-year-old Arthur though, the two enjoy seven nights of sexual bliss. Vincent's father knows nothing of this, although he knows that his son is friendly with Arthur and tries to discourage the mixed-class relationship. Later, Housekeeper Blanche will initially tacitly show that she is aware of the real nature of the relationship.

More than half of the book is the first part, which ends with Arthur leaving for an unknown future in an increasingly bloody war. The second half – almost a quarter of the book – is purely epistolary, with Arthur and Vincent expressing their deep love for each other, and Vincent slowly revealing his love affair to an understanding and avuncular Proust. The final letter is just a few lines: Vincent sending the news to Proust of Arthur's death.

The final part of the book is brief, with Vincent giving some consolation to Blanche by telling her of his deep love for her son, who Blanche informs him has loved Vincent since he first saw him. She also tells Vincent why she could never reveal who Arthur's father was. At the end of the 19th century circumstances drove Blanche to prostitution, although her shame led her to only have sex once with one client before she fled from the brothel.

The client was an aristocratic man whose father had given him money to go to the brothel because of his reluctance towards the opposite sex, and both Blanche and man found the experience uncomfortable. It doesn't exactly require great guesswork to figure out the identity of the father of Arthur.

The strength of the book is in its psychological insights, its understatement, the subtle characterisation. This is Philippe Besson's first novel, and I found it much more successful than the other two novels of his I've read: Son frère and La Trahison de Thomas Spencer. One small point though – on page 66 Vincent mentions the word 'surréaliste': this is supposed to have been written in 1916, but surely the word wasn't used until later?

My other posts on Philippe Besson:
Philippe Besson: La Trahison de Thomas Spencer
Philippe Besson: Son frère
Philippe Besson: Un instant d'abandon
Philippe Besson: Un garçon d'Italie
Philippe Besson: « Arrète avec tes mensonges »

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