Lie With Me – Review

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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.

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Philippe Besson

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.

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Call Me By Your Name – Review

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Today, the pain, the stoking, the thrill of someone new, the promise of so much bliss hovering a fingertip away… – all these started the summer Oliver came into our house. They are embossed on every song that was a hit that summer, in every novel I read during and after his stay, on anything from the smell of rosemary on hot days to the frantic rattle of the cicadas in the afternoon…

Autumn is fast approaching and, while I can’t deny how excited I am about milder weather, big coats and darker evenings, I recently felt a strange rush to read something summery before the heady heat of August came to a close. I’m a recent Kindle convert (you can take books everywhere! They don’t take up space in your house! They’re cheaper, and you can even read at work on the sly!), and was delighted to discover André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name was available for free with Kindle Unlimited.

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*Sufjan Stevens plays softly in background*

I had not changed. The world hadn’t changed. Yet nothing would be the same. All that remains is dreammaking and strange remembrance.

Now, of course, I’d already seen the very beautiful 2017 film version (starring the babe that is Timothée Chalamet alongside Armie Hammer – a man I would, in all honesty, probably lay down my life for). I really, really loved it, and I’d been keen to read the book ever since. Aciman’s announcement that not only is he writing a sequel named Find Me, but that it is being released on October 29th this year, only intensified that urge.

In case, by some miracle, anyone reading this has neither seen the film nor read the book yet, the plot is as follows: it is Summer 1983, in an unnamed village in the sun-soaked idyll of Northern Italy, and the precocious 17-year-old Elio is staying at his family’s villa. Elio’s father, a scholar, invites 24-year-old Oliver, an insouciant doctoral student from the United States, to stay with them in exchange for academic intern work. Over the course of the summer weeks, in a splendorous Mediterranean paradise, Elio and Oliver find themselves increasingly drawn to one another, and at the mercy of an intensity of desire that will mark them for the remainder of their lives.

“And we’ll want to call it envy, because to call it regret would break our hearts.”

Having already seen the story’s events unfold on the silver screen, I really wasn’t expecting to become as engrossed in the novel as I did. As noted previously, I was reading this a lot, and secretly, at my work desk, and whipping it out everywhere, at any slow moment: on the bus, in the bath, in between mouthfuls of food at meals. And this infatuation was purely down to Aciman’s very unique and gloriously poetic narrative voice.

While I found the style, and certain phrasings a little clumsy, grandiose or affected, I eventually really softened to it. Told from Elio’s perspective, Aciman’s fervent and tender passages – brilliantly depicting the indelible agony of youthful desire – harboured something of a stream-of-consciousness quality. It was near-diaristic, raw, impassioned, intimate, confessional, and, ultimately, intensely moving at times. Diving back into the narrative after a break always felt like diving back into a vivid personal memory – back to an agony of my own.

… if I could have him like this in my dreams every night of my life, I’d stake my entire life on dreams and be done with the rest.

It must be said, too, that this book was really, genuinely sexy. It was ardent and erotic – graphic but with retained sophistication – illustrating the heady heat of lust and intimacy in a starkly beautiful way. There were odd, explicit, even discomforting moments (one word: peach), but these simply strike the reader as frank and unapologetic depictions of the true nature of love and longing: uninhibited, intense and yes, often pretty lurid. The truth of it, at least, is pretty lovely.

Ultimately, Call Me By Your Name is a transportive, sumptuous and warmly wise love story. Its prose is urgent and beguiling, its setting paradisaical, its characters endearing and enduring, and its ending absolutely killer. I’ve never quite read anything like it before now, and I simply cannot wait for Aciman’s next installment, and to be able to revisit Elio and Oliver in that precious Italian paradise of their (and their love’s) own making.

The Man Who Saw Everything – Review

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‘I don’t want to talk about it now.’

‘But you must,’ she said firmly. ‘You are history.’

I don’t normally pay much attention to the Man Booker Prize lists. I’ve always had something of a weird gripe with literary prize culture. While I understand the value of competitions in terms of marketing and elevation, I also believe, very strongly, that reading is a thoroughly subjective pleasure – and how on earth can you justify ranking subjective works of art? Who decides what is most notable? Isn’t it more about what brings you, the reader, personal joy and inspiration? It all just feels a tad commercialising, and the Booker is no exception.

This year in particular, the Man Booker Prize longlist feels almost pointlessly predictable. The inclusion of Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson, and a whole host of other well-established authors makes it pretty difficult to get excited about. That’s not to say these authors aren’t immensely deserving – I’m personally super excited about Elif Shafak and Kevin Barry’s longlisted works, and it would be hopeless to  pretend that I’m not ecstatic about Atwood’s The Testaments – but this year’s list certainly lacks any big shock or surprise.

That said – there was one longlisted work which caught my eye immediately: Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything. I’d never read any Levy before (the shame!), and in fact had read very little about her or her work. It was simply the novel’s plot which drew me in. Levy’s protagonist, Saul Adler, is a young, beautiful 28-year-old historian studying communist Eastern Europe and, in particular, the GDR (the East German Republic). The premise seemed completely wonderful – especially since Saul quickly ends up travelling to Cold War East Germany himself.

Marx, Engels and Me! In Berlin, January 2019

I’ve been a tiny bit obsessed with the history of the GDR for a few years now. I wrote a blog post last year on my favourite related reads, and even dedicated my second-year Long Essay project (essentially half of a dissertation) to the topic of East German subversive music culture. (It is probably worth mentioning, too, the wonderful TV show Deutschland 83, alongside its brilliant second series, Deutschland 86). It’s a fascinating topic – historically, culturally, socially, economically – and so I was immediately eager to seek out Levy’s work. I had the extreme good fortune to have a digital proof sent to me by Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Books) via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review, since the novel is not in fact released in the UK until August 29th. The Man Who Saw Everything, therefore, is my first ever book (p)review!

As I mentioned before, Levy’s eponymous ‘man’, Saul Adler, is an eccentric and unconventionally beautiful, albeit narcissistic, modern historian, preoccupied in particular with authoritarianism, the GDR, and the imperious personal characteristics of Joseph Stalin. So far, so brilliant. He had a seemingly troubled relationship with his recently deceased father, and lost his mother when he was young. He is dating 23-year-old art student Jennifer Moreau, who is equally as pretentious and earnest as himself (the pair, for example, overwhelmingly refer to one another with their full names). They live in London in 1988.

I was starting to look a little too much like my father, so I smudged a little Ocean Spray under my eyes and set off to research cultural resistance to Nazism in 1930s Germany.

One day, while crossing the iconic Abbey Road on his way to meet Jennifer, Saul is hit by a car and superficially injured. He continues on his way, meeting Jennifer at her apartment. The pair sleep together, Saul proposes, and Jennifer rejects, immediately breaking up with him. Nursing his physical and emotional wounds, Saul embarks on a research trip to the GDR, where he stays with translator (and suspected Stasi spy) Walter Müller. Walter, along with his Beatles-obsessed sister Luna, come to play huge romantic, familial, personal and philosophical roles within Saul’s narrative, while Saul’s immersion in the GDR itself rouses great political and sexual enlightenment.

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East Germany, 1970

At the same time, Levy’s narrative – surreal, playful, impassive and slippery as ice – continually imbues the text with a disorienting absurdity. Luna Müller, for example, is tormented by a jaguar which stalks Cold War Berlin. Saul repeatedly – prophetically – reassures his newfound German friends that the Wall will fall in 1989. The dialogue is fragmented; the politics of East Germany, modern Britain and Saul’s personal life intertwined; and all the while varying and vital ‘spectres’ stalk Saul’s seemingly passive recollections. It’s difficult to describe and, at times, utterly baffling to follow. Fluid, incomprehensible, unstable, and largely impossible to discern what we, the reader, can trust or know.

‘I had less sex in social democracies than I did in authoritarian regimes.’

Around half-way through the book, Levy brings us forward to 2016. Again, Saul Adler – now 56 – finds himself crossing the crossing at Abbey Road, where he is struck by a car and immediately hospitalised. We come to discover that Saul is unstable with sepsis, and delirious with morphine. Characters, encounters and visions from 1988 appear at his ward bedside, the narrative as erratic and heady as ever. Yet, as we discover the history of Saul’s life between these two time periods, many of the previous chapters’ mysteries start to unravel. Saul’s narrative voice has been betrayed by his illness and delirium, though also by his selfish narrow-mindedness, representing the ultimate and utter fallibility of all histories.

‘Go away. Leave me to my sepsis and morphine and sunflowers.’

I’m being as vague as possible, so as not to spoil too much of this highly-anticipated release. However, as the novel comes to a close, exposing the obscurity of everything we’ve so far been presented, it electrically calls in to question themes such as history, subjectivity, politics, tyranny and perspective. The distinction between the personal and political, objective and impressionistic, seen and felt, material and imaginary are increasingly more porous. Consequently, Levy’s incredible narrative urges us to question notions of complicity and ideology, all the while presenting us with haunting characters and occasional, glittering passages evoking anguish, love and the bitterness of hope. In the end, the reader finally sees everything. And the closing passages in particular are ridiculously, unexpectedly heartbreaking. They left me a little dazed and desolate for a good many hours after.

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Deborah Levy

If that all sounds unintelligible, then that’s a good start. While Levy’s book is initially very difficult to adjust to, the payoff is spectacular. You put down this novel truly believing you’ve read something of a modern masterpiece – regardless of whether you trust your own mental capacities in deciphering exactly why. It is remarkably inventive and undeniably absorbing, even at its most obscure. It is pertinent, powerful and singularly poetic, a gorgeous morphine-mess of a story. It is, at the very least, a book to feel: a jumbled picture of human relationships; of the love and tragedy of life; of losses and divisions and yearnings – a coherent disorder, nonsensical but wondrous.

The Man Who Saw Everything is released in the UK on August 29th, 2019.