During one week in 1916, 16-year-old Vincent de l’Etoile befriends the greatest writer in France and experiences the first great love of his life. Fortunately, he keeps a journal and writes letters, is an exquisitely limpid stylist (kudos to Wynne’s translation), and considers himself too young to have morals. His new friend is Marcel Proust, then 45 and known to be attracted to very young men. Vincent’s first lover is Arthur Vales, a soldier on leave to see his mother, a servant in the de l’Etoile household. Vincent meets Proust in the well-trafficked cafes in the afternoon and welcomes Arthur to his bed every night.
Review by Erastes
I thought originally, probably because it’s a French translation, that this was an old book, possibly published in the 30’s – but it was actually written in 2003. However, (again, possibly because of the translation) it reads like a story written in the year it portrays.
It’s short, novella sized, but it does pack a punch, (I advise NOT to read the full Amazon blurb which stupidly gives away the entire plot) and more so to me because I’d just finished reading The Ghost Road by Pat Barker which deals with the same war. Hint.
The style is hugely literary, so if that style isn’t your cup of tea, then you won’t like this. There is almost no conversation in the book, it’s written in first person, almost second person style “I say:…..You say:…..you turn over.” as if he’s talking directly to the person he’s in the scene with. It takes a little bit of getting used to, but once you do it pays off because there’s no doubt it’s beautifully written. I won’t go overboard and say it’s the best gay historical ever written, or that, like some reviewers, it’s innovative and original because it’s none of those things, but it is beautifully written — or translated, as I’m entirely incapable of reading it in the original French.
Vincent is sixteen (and this got a bit wearing, due to the literary style, if we are told he’s sixteen with black hair and green eyes once we are told fifty times) and like all sixteen year olds everything is black and white. He’s embarrassed by his elderly parents and adopts the traditional world-weary pose that teenagers often take. He thinks he’s so sophisticated and clever the way he plays with Marcel Prout’s affections, and he attempts to be mysterious and full of sang-froid when faced with Arthur’s return to the front–but promptly falls apart when Arthur actually leaves.
What I found unrealistic was that he spent all night every night with Arthur, making physical (although not graphically described) love with him in “tangled sheets” and there’s a lot of releasing and spending, but no-one ever suspects he’s got a man with him. It’s a wealthy family with servants so what? Don’t they ever wash these sheets? I was also – having read Pat Barker’s trilogy and hearing many times about the censoring of mail – rather bemused that Vincent and Arthur’s love-letters were allowed to go through, but perhaps that did happen, it just didn’t ring very true. There was also mention of sodomy being a crime, which I thought it wasn’t in France, but as the author is French, I’m sure he knows better than me!
However, very lovely – and it’s a keeper for me, I had a library version but I’ll certainly buy a copy, I just wish I had the skills to read it in French.