16 March 2018

Philippe Besson: « Arrète avec tes mensonges » | Lie with Me (2017)

The title refers to the narrator Philippe Besson's mother's criticism of him as a child, telling him to stop telling lies. But lies, of course, are Besson's profession: he's a novelist. On the other hand, this novel is the most autobiographical he's yet written. And through this novel, we come to learn that other books of his have skirted around this particular story, especially perhaps in Mon frère, where the character Thomas Andrieu is prominent. And «Arrète avec tes mensonges»* is dedicated to the memory of Thomas Andrieu (1966–2016): he really did exist.
Philippe Besson was born in Barbezieux (Charente), where he spent his childhood and adolescence, and where much of the narrative takes place; also, as Besson says, his family spent their holidays on Île de Ré, taking the ferry as this book is largely set in 1984, before the bridge was built in 1988.

But the main interest is between Thomas and Philippe, who meet for passionate sex on a number of occasions, although Thomas wants their activities to be kept strictly secret, as if he's somehow ashamed of being gay. Thomas lives on a farm with his parents (father French, mother of Spanish origin from Gallicia) and is still expected, as were children many years before, to follow his father's profession. Thomas knows that the academic Philippe will leave tiny Barbezieux (pop. then just over 5000) and that their friendship will end.

It is in fact Thomas who will call an end to the relationship by going to Spain, leaving Philippe with only memories of their affair as he leaves Barbezieux for Bordeaux and later Paris.

The second part takes place in Bordeaux in 2007, and here the narrative seems to swerve a little away from fact and into contrivance, although I may be wrong. The day after a book signing session in Bordeaux, Philippe is interviewed by a journalist in his hotel when he suddenly spots Thomas. Well, it's not Thomas but his son Lucas, the 'spitting image' of his father. Lucas is the product of a relationship with a Spanish girl and Thomas, and as she comes from a staunch Catholic family there's no question of abortion so they marry and live on the farm in Barbezieux. Lucas knows that Philippe is a famous writer, that he's been very friendly with Thomas, and reveals that Thomas has read Philippe's books and that there has to be absolute silence in the house when Philippe appears on TV. Lucas gives Philippe the family's phone number and takes Philippe's number to pass on to Thomas, although Philippe knows that neither will phone the other.

And then, in 2016, the bombshell: Lucas must see Philippe in Paris soon and hand something to him. The meeting takes place in Café Beaubourg, when Lucas tells Philippe that his father's hanged himself but not left a note saying why. He goes on to reveal that two days after Philippe met Lucas, Thomas announced that he was leaving the family definitively, giving his wife his land and his other possessions: they are to divorce. No one knows where he went. Searching around after Thomas's death, Lucas – who's carved a new life for himself in California but returns to France for his father's funeral – finds a number of letters to Thomas from another male lover, threatening to sever their relationship if Thomas doesn't live with him. But Thomas is incapable of revealing his real sexual identity, which is why he'd lived a heterosexual lie for so many years.

Before Philippe reads it, Lucas leaves the café giving Philippe an unsent letter Thomas wrote it to Philippe in 1984, in which he tells him that the time he's spent with Philippe is the happiest he's ever had, and that he knows that he'll never be as happy again.

*This book was translated into English in 2019, with the bizarre title Lie with Me, which didn't exactly receive a brilliant review in i: but then what do you expect, as this wasn't written by Philippe Besson, but a (seemingly pretty wobbly at that) translator?

My other Philippe Besson posts:
Philippe Besson: Un instant d'abandon
Philippe Besson: Son frère
Philippe Besson: En l'absence des hommes | In the Absence of Men
Philippe Besson: Un garçon d'Italie
Philippe Besson: La Trahison de Thomas Spencer

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