I am this young man there, in the winter of Barbezieux.
On to something a little different for this review: modern French lit. Once again, I had the wonderful fortune – courtesy of Netgalley and Penguin, who kindy sent me a proof in exchange for an honest review – of enjoying a book ahead of its release. Well, its UK release, at least. Philippe Besson’s novella Lie With Me, which is set for release in the UK today, has taken l’hexagone by storm since its publication there over a year ago. In the meantime, it achieved bestseller status and even won the Maison de la Presse prize. Now it is finally being introduced into the anglophone world, with a translation provided by one-time film starlet and all-round babe Molly Ringwald – which is as bizarre as it is exciting.
The story is narrated by esteemed writer Philippe, whose chance encounter with a stunning young boy plunges him in to recollections of his youth and blistering first love: Thomas Andrieu. It is a passionate and lovelorn account of desire, shame, regret, longing and identity – a short, though sweet and shattering tale of love and loss. It is not without remarkable similarities to the much-adored sensation Call Me By Your Name – the writer of which has described Besson’s work as ‘stunning and heart-gripping’. Besides the mirrorings within the plot itself (two young men; a secret, seemingly fatalistic romance), there is also a 1980s setting and an overarching tone of palpable, near-agonising nostalgia.
It seems crazy not to be able to show our happiness. Such an impoverished word. Others have this right, and they exercise it freely.
It should not, however, be regarded merely as an imitation. It is a valuable testimony in and of itself – an essential contribution to the regrettably sparse LGBTQ+ narratives within literary fiction. Its allusions to the HIV crisis (which Besson himself terms a ‘massacre’) are particularly harrowing, and one of the most striking elements of the work. Aside from this, Besson also presents affectionate meditations on writing as an artform, as well as subtly puissant illustrations of culture and class (what else would you expect from a French artist?)
It’s the most simple words that destroy us. Almost words for a child.
Yet Lie With Me is not without fault. I found that its short length made it ultimately a little unsatisfying – perhaps because the ending felt really quite rushed through. What’s more – and the film fanatic within me is gutted to confess this – I found the translation a little stilted, somewhat lacking. All throughout, I was struck by the sensation that some further beauty or power was lurking behind each sentence. It was a gifted and elegant attempt (and, of course, I can’t pretend that I could have done any better), but I can’t help but think that having studied French – knowing French intimately – kept leading me to imagine how bare the text before me was in comparison to its beguiling beginnings. But this is, in all honesty, such a tiny issue. Besides, nothing is stopping me from reading it in its original form (and Pretty In Pink is forever and always one of the best films to have come out of the states, hands down).
His beauty is devastating.
Ultimately, Lie With Me is a highly readable and heartbreaking coming-of-age story, a tiny testimony of time, tenderness and torment. It is deeply human, touchingly romantic and, as alluded to previously, greatly important in the struggle towards greater diversity in the literary world. Highly recommended for anyone who loves Call Me By Your Name, of course, but also for anyone who adores romance, drama, candour and softly pretty prose – and all within a work you can consume in a single sitting.
Lie With Me is out today in the UK, published by Penguin Books.