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.