Review: In the Absence of Men by Philippe Besson

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:… 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.

Author’s website

Buy:   Amazon UK Amazon USA

3 Responses

  1. By the time of WWI homosexuality was seen more as a medical condition (certainly was in the late 19th century according to what I’ve read). The police, I think, cracked down on ‘pederasts’, for example arresting transvestites and male prostitutes, and acted beyond what the letter of the law required.


  2. An utter waste of time.
    This is not a novel. It is a short story, at best.
    Totally contrived and totally forgettable.

    When we accept rave reviews online, we must remember that these reviews are not produced by professionals. As far as I know, they might be written by someone who has read only one or two books and is so overwhelmed by finishing one that he thinks it is the best book in the world. Well it is the best book you have read, perhaps, but the sentiment rarely travels.
    I think my days of relying on reader reviews to make choices are over.

    • Firstly, I made clear it was a novella, not a novel, and it is also tagged as such. I could post the accepted lengths for each size of book, but it’s easily searchable. Secondly this is not a rave review. I had issues with it, and whilst I liked the writing, I had definite issues with it.

      As to your slur on professionalism, I think someone who gets paid to review books can be named as a professional–not that that makes any difference, there are lot of professional reviewers and not all of them are any good. I’m also a professional in terms of “writing for a living” If you had perused the site at all you would see that I’ve written hundreds of reviews here. some when I wasn’t a professional–quelle horreur!

      I’m sorry you didn’t like the book, though, you should have done what I did, and got it from the library.

      Nowhere did I say it was the best book in the world, or the best book I’ve ever read–it certainly wouldn’t have got four stars, which is our “good” mark.

      All reviews, obviously, are subjective. I’ve read many books that I didn’t get and the world raved about -” Kavalier and Clay” for example or Perry’s “Hero” – but I wouldn’t lambast other reviewers for liking what I did not!

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