Review: Finistère by Fritz Peters

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A lyrical gay coming-of-age story first published in 1951, acclaimed by many including Gore Vidal and The New York Times, about Matthew, a young American who moves to France with his mother following his parents’ divorce. In boarding school and on trips with his mother into the countryside, Matthew investigates his budding sexuality and complicated new relationships with trepidation and hardship until he is forced to confront finistère – land’s end – where the brutal truths of the world can be found.

Review by Hayden Thorne

Though the novel was published in the 1950s, the story takes place in the late 1920s. As a historical novel that’s also a coming-of-age story, it’s very much the classic problem novel of which we see a lot being published as Young Adult fiction. What we have in modern sophistication and cynicism becomes postwar America’s confining views about homosexuality, and that said, it comes as no surprise that Peters’s novel is a tragedy – the kind of pre-Stonewall fiction that some readers criticize or dismiss as self-hating and/or trashy.

On the whole, Finistère is both easy and difficult to read, the reasons lying largely in Peters’s narrative style. Given the delicacy of the subject – fifteen-year-old Matthew’s process of self-discovery, which involves a man who’s twice his age – Peters tackles it with a certain elegance and grace that adds color to the frank sensuality of Matthew’s relationship with Michel. The sex scenes are suggestive, not explicit, and even the slightest gesture, touch, or even kiss is beautifully erotic.

The characters’ complexities, particularly those facets of their natures that are shaped by their pasts, are subtly and skillfully drawn. The effects vary, of course, depending on the character and how Peters is able to develop him or her. Some minor characters – such as Edith, Matthew’s stepmother – are on the scene for a very limited span of time and yet are able to convey so much about themselves through mannerisms, dialogue, casual gestures, and simple interactions with others. There are those – such as Paul – who are there from start to finish and yet come across as unsatisfying and flat. In Paul’s case, Peters does try to say as much as he can about the man’s character, but in the end, it’s simply not enough. Paul, in fact, though adding texture and color to Peters’s impressive cast of characters, remains a problem for me. He’s simply too villainous, and while there’s an effort in the end to give him a more multi-dimensional quality, it’s simply too late in the story for him to rouse sympathy in me. To some extent, Peters’s efforts in developing him in the final chapters feel almost forced.

The greatest weakness in the book, I think, lies in Peters’s use of the third person omniscient POV. While readers are treated to close and in-depth looks at each character, the heavy dependence on so much telling, not as much showing, can take its toll. The book relies a lot on introspection and exposition, and being in a character’s head can last a few pages at a stretch. It’s during those moments when I feel myself slow down quite a bit in my reading. Despite the interest these scenes raise in me regarding a given character, they can be relentless and even repetitive. There are, in fact, scenes in which Michel ruminates about the same things that Matthew does in other scenes. There are also times in which situations that are shown in a previous chapter resurface in another, but this time it does so in the form of exposition, with the reader rehashing the same issue in, say, Scott’s head.

On the other hand, this omniscient POV also works to give the characters – pretty much all of them – varying degrees of complexity, which really adds to the dramatic texture of the plot. Most of them undergo a process of transformation, and some end up being revelations. It’s an effective approach to take in telling Matthew’s story, especially when one considers that Matthew, at fifteen, is the only youngster through most of the book. His innocence comes under fire from his environment, which is peopled with bitter, loving, pragmatic, misguided, selfish adults. The boy is alone through his ordeal, and the sympathy he rouses in his readers is sharp and strong. It’s quite easy to see Michael Bronski’s point in the book’s introduction when he says that Matthew, in his youth and innocence, becomes a metaphorical symbol of “the naturalness and the ingenuousness of homosexual desire.”

Michael Bronski’s lengthy introduction is a gem in itself, for it provides readers a fascinating mini-study of postwar gay fiction and, therefore, a historical context for the conception of Finistère and its successful reception. His discussion of post-Stonewall attitudes toward pre-Stonewall gay fiction is also significant, given the fact that most postwar gay novels are tragedies, conveying pessimistic views of homosexuality against the backdrop of past mores.

“While it is understandable that gay readers of the 1970s would reject these earlier novels in favor of a new wealth of literature that was being published by both mainstream and alternative publishing houses post-Stonewall, the rejection incurred emotional costs as well. Not admitting these novels into a growing canon of gay and lesbian literature meant that the gay reader of the 1970s did not allow himself access to the world view – and more importantly, the emotions and the psychological mind-set of homosexuals who had come before him…These new gay cultural norms were so set that they did not allow gay liberationists to take the time to understand the people or the cultures of the recent past. This lack of cultural empathy created a generational divide that was difficult for people on both sides.”

Well said, and that can certainly be applied to new generations of readers as well.

Buy the book: Amazon, Amazon UK

11 Responses

  1. Lovely review, I’ll certainly seek this one out.

    Several things spring to mind, while I ponder this. That it’s similar in theme to Junction X and I wonder, in this day and age whether an English Suburban tragedy will be at all welcomed.

    Secondly I wonder if this book was accepted more readily because the action took place in France and not in America? As Mrs Grundy would say, “Oh.. France. We all know what the French are like…”

    I don’t think that portraying the angst that homosexuals went through is a bad thing, even today. There are so many more positive books these days for balance, but I’m sure that there wasn’t a man alive who didn’t angst a bit over his sexuality pre-Wolfenden/Stonewall.

    And a world-view. That’s an excellent phrase. I’d love to read more historical accounts of gay men in other parts of the world, there’s so much emphasis on europe and america, I’d like to see more from other countries.

  2. Several things spring to mind, while I ponder this. That it’s similar in theme to Junction X and I wonder, in this day and age whether an English Suburban tragedy will be at all welcomed.

    I’m sure it will. There are still books out there in the literary genre that end in tragedy or at the very least an unhappily-ever-after. There’s always a place in the gay fiction canon for stories like Junction X. To extend Bronski’s analysis, denying books with pessimistic views of homosexuality would be denying gays and lesbians’ experiences that fall on other parts of the spectrum.

    Secondly I wonder if this book was accepted more readily because the action took place in France and not in America? As Mrs Grundy would say, “Oh.. France. We all know what the French are like…”

    It’s very possible. The book is almost a study of two completely divergent cultures, with Americans coming out as childish and selfish (though some of the French characters are just as horrible, and some Americans – like Matthew’s father and stepmother – are very loving albeit within typical conventional boundaries).

    The most accepting and non-judgmental character is Francoise, the live-in lover of Scott (Matthew’s first crush). She’s a “fallen woman” type, an outcast like the boy, but she holds her own really well against everyone else and in fact exerts the most independence among them.

    I don’t think that portraying the angst that homosexuals went through is a bad thing, even today. There are so many more positive books these days for balance, but I’m sure that there wasn’t a man alive who didn’t angst a bit over his sexuality pre-Wolfenden/Stonewall.

    Even today. GLBT teens are the group with the highest suicide rate among youngsters. I think dismissing the more depressing stories that are part of gay men’s experiences is really doing them an injustice.

    I’ve been hoping for gay historicals (especially coming-of-age fiction) that are set in Asia, but so far what I’ve managed to dig up are books set in the west. Then again, I probably might enjoy greater success if I looked at new titles as opposed to lurking around the dusty, neglected corners of the web for more references to old, obscure books. Never say never, though. :)

  3. Even today. GLBT teens are the group with the highest suicide rate among youngsters. I think dismissing the more depressing stories that are part of gay men’s experiences is really doing them an injustice.

    Well, being I was at one time one of those depressed Gay teens, I must say the worst problem with Gay Lit was I could not relate to it because it was less than realistic.

    I mean I began reading in the age of Andrew Holleran ~ The Dancer From The Dance (1978) and Charles Nelson ~ The Boy Who Picked Up The Bullets (1981) and Patricia Nell Warren ~ The Front Runner (1974).

    All decent Gay writers sure but not very interested in showing typical Gay people struggling and surviving even in the period they were writing in.

    Hell, Andrew Holleran was more about the party culture of New York and had disdain for anyone he felt was an ignorant blue collar worker and the others were more interested in poignant drama.

    Thank god for Armistead Maupin ~ Tales Of The City (1978) who I think through his humor and awareness of a special time and place was so accurate in his portrait of San Francisco and the Gay scene there. Anyway, I was and still am much more impressed with his work and how positive it turned out to be.

    I think in the end his literary voice will carry more weight simply because he showed people living a Gay lifestyle and not rolling around in angst about it. That said far more to me as a Gay teen.

  4. That’s the whole point behind Bronski’s discussion, isn’t it? That’s there’s room for all kinds of gay literary titles, party-themed, AIDS-themed, angst-themed, and whatnot. To dismiss past gay writers’ works just because they reflect a certain kind of experience that one doesn’t like or don’t agree with – in the case of these postwar novels, a pessimistic view of homosexuality – is to dismiss an important segment of the gay literary canon. No one’s saying that everyone has to like everything that comes out. It’s an issue of deriding certain books and slapping them with labels that are dismissive of a past generation’s experiences just because they don’t reflect present beliefs or modern progress in thinking.

  5. I think to simply embrace ALL of these “classics” is to ignore how much they have not held up well over the years or to fail to see how pale and affected they actually come across to the modern audience.

    I am not saying that there are not gems to be uncovered still especially in works that continue to fail to be republished and are consistently over looked in favor of all those rote “Gay classic” books so and so one time said were oh so important back in their day.

    Nor is it dismissal in analyzing these works and pointing out the classist, racist, sexist and sometimes out right derogatory undertones that will frankly turn people off.

    That is being honest and giving the reader fair warning.

  6. Yes, the whole young man suicide thing was something I meant specifically to address, Alex may have killed himself anyway, it was in his make-up; intense-living up to expectations-peer and university scholarship pressure. The fact that he’s gay is NOT the reason he does it. I had a friend in school who killed himself, and it wasn’t because he was gay-young men (gay or not) are, as you say, the highest suicide statistics, sadly. There now, I’ve spoiled you, but I think that tragedy fairly well speaks for itself!

    Like Teddypig, I did love Armistad’s stories, and for the same reason, I love a positive outlook and in these (generally, and UK based) more accepting times it’s much easier to write about gay lifestyles with no angst at all. But JX is a true story, Edward was married, Alex was 17, and I’m sure as eggses is eggses it ain’t a unique story either.

  7. Armistead. *headdesks self to death*

  8. I think to simply embrace ALL of these “classics” is to ignore how much they have not held up well over the years or to fail to see how pale and affected they actually come across to the modern audience.

    Affectations aside, sexist, racist, etc., issues aside, these are still books that have a significant place in the gay literary canon, regardless of our present day opinions. None of the old, buried treasures reviewed here are considered perfect. What they have in common by way of significance is their place in literary history and what insight they can offer to modern readers about a past generation’s values and experiences. Period.

    Everyone’s certainly welcome to discuss and dissect them, and it’s farcical to expect a consensus all the way around. But to dismiss them as irrelevant or insignificant or simply garbage just because this generation of readers move around a completely different set of values versus that one is, as Bronski says, doing the past generation an injustice. What we hold up to be great literary classics nowadays may very well not hold true in the future, and the same argument will apply. It’s well and fine for that generation to disagree with this generation’s literature, even find it affected and unrealistic, but it’s still going to be an injustice if they were to dismiss us just because our values and experiences don’t jive.

  9. Affectations aside, sexist, racist, etc., issues aside, these are still books that have a significant place in the gay literary canon, regardless of our present day opinions.

    One can also argue that these affectations, shades of sexism, racism, etc., are what make these books significant in literary history. They reflect their times just as our positive portrayals of homosexuality reflect ours. That’s what these books offer future generations – a glimpse of the past, glamour and warts and all.

    Incidentally, I’m a huge fan of Andrew Holleran, too. His books touch a lot on AIDS, aging, and dying, which are also reflective of his generation of gay men.

  10. George Chauncey, in the introduction to his book, Gay New York, writes that the concept of internalized homophobia in pre-Stonewall homosexuals is flat and blind. Though the presence of self-loathing cannot be denied, and not all homosexuals experienced it, the internal resistance to it was far more vibrant. When I read vintage gay fiction, I am most struck by the revolutionary aspects inherent in the stories. Very few novels written by homosexuals, even among the most sensational and lurid, were intended to be precautionary. Some our best gay authors wrote, under pseudonyms (a trick used by publishers), beautiful novels which superficially accepted the normative rules but, at the same time, broke them. The novels had to walk that line between advocacy and denunciation in order to bypass strict postal laws. Men and women read these novels, but, at the end, said to themselves, “This ending doesn’t have to be,” or, “I’ll make it end differently in my life.”

  11. When I read vintage gay fiction, I am most struck by the revolutionary aspects inherent in the stories.

    The points you raised tie in really well with what Bronski notes in his introduction to the novel. He, in fact, emphasizes how Finistère actually celebrates or at least explores – along subversive and uplifting lines (hopefully that makes sense) – homosexual desire, but that one needs to read past the pessimism to see all that. :)

    The novels had to walk that line between advocacy and denunciation in order to bypass strict postal laws. Men and women read these novels, but, at the end, said to themselves, “This ending doesn’t have to be,” or, “I’ll make it end differently in my life.”

    Excellent, excellent point. I’m glad you brought that up.

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