Like Michael Cunningham's homage to Virginia Woolf in The Hours and Jean Rhys's to Charlotte Bronte in The Wide Sargasso Sea, Philippe Besson's extravagantly praised first novel pays tribute to Marcel Proust. It also dares to introduce an asthmatic middle-aged Proust into its masterfully manipulated plot and invents a series of deeply felt letters written by him to the novel's young protagonist, Vincent de l'Etoile. In the summer of 1916, the emotionally precocious Vincent, who is the same age as the century, awakens to the possibilities of both erotic and platonic love. In the course of one week—at literary salons, at the Ritz, in cork-lined rooms—Vincent launches an intense friendship with the celebrated Proust, while at his parents' house in Paris he embarks on a sensual journey with Arthur Vales, the soldier son of a family servant, on leave from the front. Unknowingly, Vincent is also beginning a passage into a manhood that will be haunted by the secret he uncovers behind the love he bears for a doomed French infantryman and a famous middle-aged Jewish writer.
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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. After the week, Proust goes to take care of family business in Illiers, and Arthur returns to Verdun, where he is soon killed in action. This extremely romantic scenario concludes with a plunge into bathos, but the writing is so beautiful, and the characters are so convincing, that Besson's first novel seems to be the homosexual cousin of Hemingway's Farewell to Arms. Ray Olson
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