Does one ever write other than to preserve a moment?

In The Absence Of Men, by Phillipe Besson and translated by Frank Wynne

As an adolescent I thought that most adults were idiots, obsessed with things of no consequence and seemingly wilfully ignorant of anything that really mattered. Now I’m an adult myself, and I have many of the same concerns as the adults I once looked down on. That doesn’t of course mean that I was wrong, it could just be that I joined the idiots.

In the Absence of Men is, in part, a novel of adolescence. It’s also a novel about first love, about grand passion and undying commitment. Most of us make undying commitments as teenagers, but they tend to pass. At 16 we are all immortal, it’s easy to expect things to last forever when you know in your heart that’s how long you’ll last yourself. Here’s the first paragraph:

I am sixteen. I am as old as the century. I know there is a war, that soldiers are dying on the front lines of this war, that civilians are dying in the towns and the countryside of France and elsewhere, that the war – more than the destruction, more than the mud, more than the whistle of bullets as they tear through a man’s chest, more than the shattered faces of the women who wait, hoping sometimes against hope, for a letter which never arrives, for a leave of absence perpetually postponed, more than the game of politics that is played by nations – is the sum of the simple, cruel, sad and anonymous deaths of soldiers, of civilians whose names we will one day read on the pediments of monuments, to the sound of a funeral march.

The narrator is a boy of aristocratic, or at the very least haute bourgeois, family. The year is 1916 and and a boy born with the century is both old enough to enter into adult society and yet too young to be called to the front. It’s a privileged position, and all the more so when the boy in question is intelligent, precocious and extremely good looking.  In peacetime a 16 year old of good birth, however good looking, would be unlikely to come to the attention of a great man. In wartime however, in the absence of men, everything is possible.

The great man I’m referring to is called Marcel. In Paris, in 1916, he doesn’t need to give his surname. He and the narrator, whose name is eventually revealed as Vincent de L’Étoile, form a close friendship. Perhaps too close for propriety, but then as Vincent observes: “We live in a world in which everyone knows and says nothing.” 

Vincent is a boy filled with the vanity and self-importance of youth and beauty. He sees the friendship of Marcel Proust as no more than his due, a natural compliment to his own gifts and charms. He sees his parents as dolts, well meaning but lacking his sophistication and worldly insight. “My conception was not planned. My coming was an accident. They transformed this curse – for curse it must have seemed at first glance – into an important, long-awaited event.” He is, of course, profoundly vain: “In my bedroom mirror I face my reflection. I see my black hair, my green eyes, the hint of a smile.”

By way of aside, having a character look in the mirror and then describe their own appearance is generally an extremely lazy authorial trick for wedging in details of what the protagonist looks like. How many of us spend time pondering our own images in this way in reality? I suspect very few, except of course as teenagers when one’s own image can be the subject of doctorate-level investigation. Vincent returns time and again to his black hair, his green eyes, beautiful as he is one has the distinct impression that nobody spends as much time looking at him as he does himself. Vincent falls in love in this novel, but arguably he starts it in love too, just not with someone else.

Marcel’s friendship is deeply important to Vincent. The two meet, in cafes, in Marcel’s bedroom from which he receives all his more important guests. Exciting as all this is though it becomes almost a sideline when Vincent discovers a different and much more immediate sort of passion in the form of Arthur, 21 year old son of Vincent’s family governess. Arthur is home from the front for a brief leave, almost every night of which he will spend in Vincent’s bed.

Besson then has set up an examination of different forms of love, one based more on intellect and bonds of friendship, another which is physical and raw. As the novel progresses it switches (quite naturally) to an epistolary style which allows Besson to speak in each of the central three character’s voices, Vincent, Marcel and Arthur. It’s one of the novel’s many strengths that I never had to check which name was at the bottom of a letter, from style alone I knew who had written what.

In the Absence of Men was Besson’s first novel, and it’s hard to think of a greater statement of ambition in a first novel (particularly by a French writer) than to include Marcel Proust as a character and then to include letters ostensibly written by him. I’ve so far only read two volumes of Proust, but that’s enough to say that Besson pulls it off. For Besson Proust is a character focussed on what was, on memories and the reconstruction of a past forever out of reach. Proust goes beyond mere nostalgia though in using those memories to reconnect more deeply with the present. As Besson has Proust say:

I work with memory. Some think of it as mere nostalgia, they say I am retrospective. I study the past the better to control the present and I discover feelings in the present which I know from experience of the past. Memory weaves a connection between yesterday and today. It is as simple as that. No need to look any further. I say: time is these moments I spend with you, it is no more than that.

Arthur by contrast is not so intellectual, thoughhis use of language is at no less a level of sophistication than that of Vincent or Marcel. At first Arthur’s eloquence struck me as somewhat unlikely, but on reflection as son to the governess to Vincent’s family it may well be that he would have been highly educated even if his station wouldn’t have allowed him to do much with it.

Arthur has no desire to reflect on the past, which since his entry into the war has become filled with horror. He cannot gaze on the future either though, because all that offers is a return to the front and the likelihood of death or maiming. For him there is only the present, physical passion as an escape from a temporal Charybdis and Scylla. 

In the Absence of Men is very much a novel of language. Vincent is fond of epigrams (“Surely it is important to leave no trace behind?”, “Does one ever tell a tale other than one’s own?”), and is deeply conscious of the literary potential of his own experiences. He writes as if for an audience (naturally, since Besson in fact is writing for an audience). The letters later in the book are equally carefully crafted, even Arthur’s from the front. Each is designed to be read carefully and scrutinised for meaning.

At times the book is powerfully erotic. Although Besson has none of Hollinghurst’s fondness for explicit description, and there’s no direct portrayal of actual sex, as filmmakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age knew you can get pretty steamy without showing any actual action. Here’s one example:

 As day breaks, I study your face, turned from me and resting on your right arm; the folds at the nape of your neck; the hollow between your shoulder-blades where the sun has cast a pool of light; your back strewn with freckles, like points of reference for later use; your downy buttocks on whose crown the sheet has come to rest; your heavy sleep.  

It’s also intensely French. and at times almost archly pretentious. Whether of course that’s a question of Besson’s style, or the fact that at 16 Vincent almost certainly is a bit on the pretentious side is hard to say on the strength of one novel, but everything here is deeply meaningful and considered in a way that is ultimately quite alien to English traditions (which are often fiercely, even bumptiously, anti-intellectual). That doesn’t stop it however from often being very funny. I particularly loved how Vincent’s father becomes concerned at the time Vincent is spending with Arthur, not because he suspects their affair but because of the class divide:

Father says: you were seen with Blanche’s son. You know how fond we are of Blanche, how much we appreciate her. In fact, she would hardly still be in service with us after almost twenty years if we didn’t have some small affection for her. Her son seems a fine lad. He is honest, hard-working, he has been educated – I believe he is a schoolmaster – and is doing his duty as a soldier to defend his country. But you must understand that these people are not of our world, and it is important that we keep a certain distance from them. We have always opposed this kind of contact between the classes, this social mixing – no good can come of it, believe me. I feel obliged to discourage you from seeing the lad again, do you understand? This may seem a little harsh now, but later you will thank me for helping to preserve the purity of our class. I do not answer. To my father, this silence amounts to acquiescence. I make no attempt to contradict his repellent convictions. Mother, for her part, can accept such friendships as these turbulent times create. She is happy that her son is not alone. She says: the solitude of wartime can be very destructive. You shouldn’t deprive yourself of the company of people your own age. She could not possibly guess the nature of the company I keep with Arthur. I am grateful for her encouragement, and for her naïvety, which merely typifies her stupidity.

 In the main I loved In the Absence of Men. I found the characters convincing, the writing often beautiful and the rawness of emotion persuasive. Sadly towards the end Besson relies on what even Vincent describes as “the most bizarre coincidence” to bring various plot strands together and in doing so makes things too neat, too convenient.

It’s a shame because that neatness wasn’t necessary, books about language and emotion don’t need tidy endings and In the Absence of Men would have been a better book without one.  It’s a significant flaw in an otherwise highly successful book, but it’s a flaw some readers might well forgive and some might even admire. One reader’s excessive neatness is another’s satisfying resolution after all.

I read In the Absence of Men because Emma of bookaroundthecorner raved about it here at her blog. I bought it almost immediately after reading her thoughts on it, and while I have that caveat regarding the ending in the main I agree with Emma. In the Absence of Men is well written and perhaps more importantly is ambitious, both in the way large parts of it are written in the second person and of course in the use of Proust as a central character. It’s no wonder it made an impact on its 2001 release.

Like Vincent itself it sets out to impress, confident of its own charms, and if perhaps at times it’s not as clever as it thinks it is it’s nonetheless dazzling and quite charming. Thank you Emma, and here’s hoping that more Besson makes it into translation (Frank Wynne has already translated a second Besson in fact, but so far it’s only available in hardback. Let’s hope that changes).

While writing this I found that Stu of Winstonsdad’s blog has interviewed Frank Wynne. The interview is here, and if you’ve any interest in translated fiction and don’t already know Stu’s blog it’s well worth exploring a few of his posts while you’re there.

18 Comments

Filed under Besson, Phillipe, Epistolary Novels, French Literature

18 responses to “Does one ever write other than to preserve a moment?

  1. “As an adolescent I thought that most adults were idiots, obsessed with things of no consequence and seemingly wilfully ignorant of anything that really mattered. Now I’m an adult myself, and I have many of the same concerns as the adults I once looked down on. That doesn’t of course mean that I was wrong, it could just be that I joined the idiots.”
    Don’t tell me. I swore to myself I wouldn’t become like my parents and here I am with a pre-adolescent daughter who quizzes me about the music she listens to, betting I won’t know any of the singers. And indeed, I don’t know them. The horror. I need to do something about it.

    But back to Besson.

    I’m delighted you enjoyed this book too and thank you for the link.
    Your review is very insightful and I have a lot of comments.

    I agree with your description of Vincent. “Vincent falls in love in this novel, but arguably he starts it in love too, just not with someone else.” It’s really part of adolescence, as you say later, your body changes and you spend a lot of time in front of the mirror. I remember it and I witness it everyday. (back to the pre-adolescent daughter mentioned before…)

    With hindsight, I also agree about the ending but when I read it, by the time I reached the ending I was so engulfed in emotions that I didn’t really think twice about it. Besson makes that to me, the same thing happened when I read Un homme accidentel. In this one, I discovered that my hands have memories of their own.

    Proust is well depicted, isn’t he? I imagine him like this, I thought Besson did a good job and that was risky, especially for a debut novel.

    I loved the passages about silences, that stayed with me.

    I’m intrigued by this sentence: “It’s also intensely French. and at times almost archly pretentious.” I didn’t think it was pretentious, it never crossed my mind. But well, I’m French too. What to you mean?

    About this: “Arthur by contrast is not so intellectual, thoughhis use of language is at no less a level of sophistication than that of Vincent or Marcel. At first Arthur’s eloquence struck me as somewhat unlikely, but on reflection as son to the governess to Vincent’s family it may well be that he would have been highly educated even if his station wouldn’t have allowed him to do much with it.”
    Arthur is a school teacher, a pure product of the French school. In 1916, school had been mandatory for 35 years and armies of teachers were trained and sent in the whole country. The school teacher of the village was supposed to be the counterpower to the priest and he was a notable, the representent of the Republic. Selecting and encouraging brilliant students among peasants and workers and push them to high school to take their baccalaureat and sometimes become teachers themselves was part of their mission. They would talk the parents of the student into letting them continue their education and help them getting scholarships.It lasted at least until the 1960s. (That’s why Albert Camus thanked his school teacher when he got the Nobel prize.) So yes, Arthur could speak and write properly. You need to be French to know that, though.

    Again, I’m happy that you share my enthusiasm about this book; that’s the best thing about blogging, writing something that leads someone else into discovering a new writer. There’s a sequel. (Retour parmi les hommes) I’m tempted and a bit afraid to read it.

    PS: I like the French cover better.

  2. I never thought adults were stupid. I thought they were mostly an unhappy bunch and I still think that.

    I don’t think this book is for me–I’m not that much into teens, but I have a fondness for French fiction. I suppose I prefer tales of people who are behaving badly.

  3. This sounds fascinating – not sure I’d dare to use Proust in a first novel though…

    Who published this, by the way?

  4. this looks very good Max ,thanks for the mention .I ve yet to read him but this does seem like a great first novel and of course by a wonderful translator,all the best stu

  5. leroyhunter

    Sounds interesting Max, with some really good things and some not so good. Two strong recommendations from you and Emma are hard to ignore. My worry would be that, even in your review, I’m forming a picture of Vincent as an insufferable brat. Does Besson leaven that tone of self-possession and assurance?

  6. Firstly, apologies to Berfrois whose comment got accidentally spamfiltered and then deleted.

    Emma,

    I did enjoy it, and I’ll read more by him. He does depict Proust well, which is critical as if he hadn’t Besson’s ambition would rather have been hubris.

    Intensely French, almost archly pretentious. I thought you might ask about that. It’s a little hard to capture, but from a UK perspective it does stand out. It’s partly a seriousness, French culture in my experience is far more comfortable with the abstract than Anglo-Saxon, and with the intellectual. Intellectualising experience, thinking deeply about feelings and the meaning of feelings, seems more legitimate. In the UK, and perhaps more so in the US, we would tend to call that overthinking and see it as a negative. also It’s the frequent making of grand pronouncements (those epigrams, which is why I included them) which sound so very definitive and deep, but which ultimately don’t truly say anything (though they do say it well).

    One sees it in French cinema also. There’s no real Anglo-American analogue to those intense relationship dramas that France does so well. I’m going back a few years now but stuff like Un Separation, Un Coeur en Hiver, there are many others the titles of which suddenly escape me. In Anglo-American cinema generally people do things, rather than talk about things. Woody Allen is the most evident exception. He is of course far more popular in France than at home. I like those films by the way, so none of this is intended as criticism.

    Thank you for the points on Arthur. That’s the sort of thing as a foreign reader that’s hard to be sure of. Our own system is so class ridden that I simply wouldn’t expect a man of Arthur’s background back then to have anything near Vincent’s level of education.

    A sequel? Hard to see any need for one. The French cover is better I admit, though I’m not sure I love that also.

    One question, when you read that Arthur was going to Verdun did that have a particular resonance? My impression is that it’s a very famous battle/place in France, like the Somme for the British, but it’s not as well known in the UK.

  7. Guy, in fairness the adults I grew up among generally had made some quite poor choices. Still, I was I admit a particularly obnoxious adolescent.

    Nobody behaves badly here, save perhaps Vincent’s father but his crime is merely snobbery and he’s hardly a major character anyway. It’s more a question of unfortunate circumstances – the stigma of being gay, the looming threat of the war.

    Tony, it is daring isn’t it? A definite statement of intent to be noticed. I read it on Kindle, it’s published though by Vintage who are I admit one of my preferred publishers.

    Stu, definitely a good one to start with for him, or at least it was for me.

    Leroy, he’s pretty self-possessed and assured. He’s a highly educated 16 year old of extremely good birth and noticeable good looks, he’s already being noticed by society and in the wartime absence of men is the centre of attention wherever he goes. He’s bound to be a little fond of himself. His path in the book however is not without difficulties. I wouldn’t say that tone is leavened, but then he’s gilded youth and their self-confidence now as then does tend to be pretty unshakeable. Emma, do you have any views on Leroy’s question?

  8. Thanks Max, I understand what you mean about French “overthinking”.

    Verdun? I hear/read the word and I think death. It must be the most terrible battle of WWI for France. (163 000 French soldiers + 140000 Germans died there). I visited the place once. It’s haunted, Max. The landscape still bears the scars of the bombings and it’s a strange feeling to be there.
    It’s like Ypres for you?

  9. Leroy, I don’t see Vincent as an “insufferable brat.” He might be loud in his head but things stay mostly in his head.
    With Arthur, he’s more into silences.
    For me, he’s the typic adolescent perhaps showing off a bit only to hide better his insecurities. Sure he knows he’s handsome, rich and educated. But he’s still fragile because he’s gay and he knows it (and in a society where it is a crime and it will remain so until 1981), because he’s not very close to his family, because he lives in a world in war. At his age, it’s difficult to envision your future but in his case, his future is blank. So he lives in the present.
    I read another Besson, the passion is the same but the voice of the adult character in Un homme accidentel isn’t the same as Vincent’s. So the tone is crafted for this book.

  10. Max: No one does relationship films as well as the French IMO

  11. I should add that Eric Rohmer is a huge favourite of mine. esp. Claire’s Knee.

  12. Ypres doesn’t really mean anything much to me Emma, save as a place name. Then again we learn nothing about WWI in our schools, and I’ve not read up on it much subsequently. WWII is the war we learn about in Britain, it’s so much more uncomplicated in narrative terms.

    I agree wwith your comments on Vincent. It’s good to hear though that it’s a tone crafted to this book.

    Guy, absolutely, though the Japanese do a pretty good job at times.

  13. LaurencePritchard

    Looks very interesting. Always a risk to introduce a character from “real life” and would be intrigued to see how Besson does it. I’d think a lot of it depends on how much the author thinks the reader would know about the character.

    Emma (et al), I’ve lived in France for ten years now and I’m originally from England. I would agree that a cultural difference between the two countries is that in France I think it’s generally seen as positive if you argue or put forward a point very passionately, whereas in England if you’re too passionate making a point then people think you’re being rude, or don’t “respect” the other persons point of view. In England we’re suspicious of emotions strongly displayed—certainly in a social context; it’s OK in the football stadium— and tend to think the speaker isn’t being rational, I suppose. In England we tend to give opinions in a kind of code (“well, i can’t say i loved the book/film, but yes it was kind of interesting i suppose” – which actually means you hated it) or we would tell an anecdote that tries to express how we feel. Not a criticism of the French of course; it can be quite frustrating in England when people don’t say what they mean; and a generalisation, but nevertheless there’s some truth in it.

  14. Thanks for your comment, Laurence, it helps although it makes me a bit self-conscious about what I write. I must sound rude sometimes , especially since I’m considered pretty straightforward even in my own country. I’d rather not imagine how I sound to an English audience.

    Yes, I think splitting hairs and argue loudly is part of French culture and honestly, sometimes I think it’s too much. I avoided reading French lit during several years because of this constant instrospective trend and only re-started again with the blog. As for French cinema, some directors are excellent but I also think some go too far. (for example, I can’t get along with films by Christophe Honoré, although he’s very praised by the critics)

  15. Max, Anne Perry wrote a good crime fiction series which is set during WWI. The first one is “No Graves As Yet”.

  16. leroyhunter

    Max, Emma – thanks for the comments. I was being unfair and exaggerating that element of Vincent based on how you’d described him.

    I’ve read a lot of Great War literature in the last few years, so that aspect makes this very interesting. Plus the portrayal of Proust, which sounds exceptionally well done. It’s on the wish list.

  17. Laurence, there’s a definite concept in English culture of being too enthusiastic, diffidence is arguably a prized trait. Restraint is perhaps a better term.

    Emma, WW1 crime? Interesting idea. The larger tragedy would seem to swamp the smaller one, but of course not to those involved in the smaller one.

    Leroy, then I didn’t describe him well enough. It’s well done.

  18. Pingback: That Was The Year That Was: 2012 | Pechorin’s Journal

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