31 January 2014

André Birabeau: La Débauche (1924); trans. as Revelation (1930)

I can never stop repeating that I have a serious allergy to novels in translation, so it is very unusual for me to read one. As I can read French novels fluently in the original language, it is almost unknown for me to read a French novel in translation. However, La Débauche – apparently the only novel by the playwright André Birabeau (1890–1974) – was originally published in 1923 in Oeuvres libres, then the following year (probably in a very small print run) on its own by Flammarion, but seems unfindable at any price. So, it had to be Una Troubridge's translation into English as Revelation (1930).

I particularly wanted to read it because it is generally believed to be the first fictional representation of a mother's reaction to her son's homosexuality. I was very pleasantly surprised to find not only that the essential ideas of the book  bear up to translation, but also that the book in general reads very well.

Mathilde Casseneuil is married to a 'special reporter' who has spent almost all of the twenty years of his marriage away from his Parisian wife, who now discovers that her son Dominique – in his early twenties and working for a car company in Avignon – has been killed in a car crash. Distraught, Mathilde flies (by train, as people of course had to do in those days) to Avignon.

The novel is interrupted at times by Mathilde's recollections of Dominique, who at the age of six wanted to marry a girl acquaintance of the same age who had 'masterful ways' and held a 'tyranny over him'. A sentence, addressed in thought to the tyrannical girl about Dominique, prepares the reader for the future 'revelation': 'Of the two of you, he was undoubtedly the girl', as does the knowledge that he was 'timid', '[f]ragile', and 'a mother's child': such language served to 'demasculinise' the male child, and (as I have acknowledged in my thesis on Lionel Britton) served to act as a code used by often homosexual writers – as in the examples I give by Rhys Davies and John Hampson – to suggest homosexuality.

Mathilde Casseneuil finds a cache of love letters written to Dominique, and at first believes them to be by a girl whose spelling is bad. As she reads on, though, she discovers that Dominique's lover was a man. She is shocked by what she considers to be an 'abomination', and returns to Paris feeling very differently, very negatively towards her son.

Mathilde eventually decides that Dominique had always been weak, 'too yielding', had become the victim, and she buys a gun to return to Avignon and kill 'the beast' who corrupted her son. But on meeting Gilbert Savinnes, her son's lover, she realises that they have a vital thing in common: her husband never really had the time to know Dominique, whereas here is a man who has something in common with her: they both loved him.

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