Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 5, 2018

En l’absence des hommes (In the Absence of Men) (2001) by Philippe Besson

It has taken me ages and ages to read this book because it was a handbag book: I read it in coffee shops, in waiting rooms and on trains.  I read it that way because I read the French edition, and I wanted to stop myself from consulting the dictionary every time I was stuck for a word.  And even though this means I mainly read it at plot level and probably missed some of its nuances, I still loved reading it because it is a beautiful book.

En l’absence des hommes is a story of doomed love.  Doomed because the story is set during WW1 when Vincent is 16, and his first love, Arthur, is destined for the carnage on the battlefront. And even though Vincent’s narrative is imbued with all the insouciance of youth, there is a melancholic tone which tells the reader that this is going to end badly.

The story begins in Paris with Vincent meeting an esteemed middle-aged man of letters called Marcel. Although never named specifically as Marcel Proust, this character resembles the great author in many ways and Vincent is suitably intimidated.  At first he can’t think of anything to say, and in their early acquaintance the reader imagines the awkward youth humbled in the presence of greatness – until gradually a gentle (platonic) friendship develops and they spend their afternoons in conversation at Marcel’s salon.

In the same week of summer 1916, Vincent also meets Arthur, their housekeeper’s son, who is home on leave.  Arthur is a little older than Vincent and has yearned for him in silence for years.  With fate looming, he declares his love and it’s reciprocated.  It’s a grand passion, but Vincent remains a bit reserved while the older man is full of tender passion.

Part Two is titled Separation, and it’s written almost entirely in the form of letters to and from Vincent, Marcel and Arthur.  Marcel has gone to Illiers, and Arthur has gone back to the front.   Eventually Vincent confides in Marcel, who – while not condemning the lovers – warns Vincent of the prejudice they may face.  And Arthur, shocked to the core by the violent death of a young comrade-at-arms, writes to Vincent asking him to forget him, to save himself from the pain of loss.  Vincent, of course, takes no notice of either of them. He has now realised how much he loves Arthur and he writes to him because that makes him feel as if they are together. And then fate intervenes… and there’s a plot twist which I didn’t see coming at all.

Even with my inadequate French, I can see that the writing is beautiful. The rhythm, repetitions and poetry of Vincent’s sentences are just gorgeous, capturing the innocence. inexperience and arrogance of youth.

C’est l’été, quand je vous rencontre. Ce que je pense d’abord de vous, c’est: il est vieux, il a trente ans de plus que moi. Je n’ai rien à vous dire.  Que pourrait dire in garçon de seize ans à un homme de quarante-cinq? Et l’inverse est tout aussi vrai. D’ailleurs, nous ne nous disons rien. Je vois bien que vous m’observez. J’ignore ce que vous me regardez.  J’ignore ce que je vous inspire: de l’envie, du désir, de dégout, ou plus sûrement de l’indifference?  Je crois que vous me regardez comme vous regarderiez un petit animal.

It is summer when I meet you. At first, what I think of you is: he is old, he is thirty years older than me. I have nothing to say to you. What could a boy of sixteen say to a man of forty-five? And the opposite is true too.  Besides, we have nothing to say. I see that you are observing me.  I do not know what you are seeing in me.  I do not know what I inspire: envy, desire, disgust or more likely indifference?  I think that you look at me as you would look at a small animal.  

(My apologies for the inelegance of the table.  I don’t know how to get the padding right in HTML.)

En l’absence des hommes shows us (if we didn’t know already) that gay love is the same as every other kind of love – just two people who care about each other, delighting in each other’s company, distraught about being separated…

This book is BTW a rare example of successful use of second-person narrative (which is usually one of my pet hates along with child or dead narrators).  But in En l’absence des hommes the first part of the book the reader knows what Arthur and Marcel say to Vincent, because he recounts it using ‘You said…’  I don’t know how it might be achieved in an English translation, but in French, the French formal and informal verb forms Vous dites:..’ and ‘Tu dis…’ are used to show in a delicate way how intimacy develops.

Emma from Book Around the Corner loved this book too.

Author: Philippe Besson
Title: En l’absence des hommes (In the absence of men)
Publisher: Editions Juilliard, Paris, 2001 (Pocket)
ISBN: 9782266144322
Personal library.  I think I bought it from Amazon Fr…

Availability: Paperback English editions are available from Vintage and there’s a Kindle edition too.


  1. Congratulations for reading it in the original! For English speaking readers, it’s available in translation.

    I’m happy you liked it too. Besson’s tone draws the reader to the characters and yes, one of the merits of the book is to show that gay love is more about love than about being gay. (obviously) Besson is a popular writer so, he might reach people for whom this statement wasn’t obvious.

    Proust is well crafted in this novel even if eveything is pure literary licence: Proust didn’t go to Illiers during the war, he was writing his masterpiece in his Parisian appartment.

    There’s another one by him, Un homme accidentel, that is not available in English, so it’s an added bonus for you to be able to read it in French. :-)


    • Yes, I’m going to try that one. But I have four other French novels to read first, two that were given to me and two that I bought in the New Caledonia airport. They will keep me going for a while!


      • Great. I’m curious. Which ones do you have?

        Btw, let me know if you want me to bring French books for you when I come in August.


        • I have Mano a Mano by Francoise Bourdin; La Voix du Violon by Andrea Camillerai, La Mare au Diable by George Sand, and Les Captifs Delivres by Henry Bordeaux.
          Merci for your offer, but I think you will need all the room you can spare in your suitcase for clothes. You will need warm things for Melbourne and summery things for Perth or if you go up north!


  2. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    I try to read German and French glaringly. Even though not fluent, the foreign modes of expression I find haltingly beautiful.


    • Yes, that’s what I find. I’m not fluent either, and I know my lips move when I’m reading (just like children’s do when they’re learning to read!), but I really like being able to do it, and I know I get better with every chapter I read.


  3. Why title novel is called “En l’absence des hommes”, there are relation between novel homosexual and the title ?


    • It’s a double-edged answer. The book is of course about a gay relationship. But also, during WW1 so many men were away fighting the war that in many places there was indeed an absence of men. In villages and small towns in Australia, which joined the war as part of Britain’s empire, every young man of fighting age enlisted and so there were only old men and boys left.


  4. Congratulations. Australians are funny about ‘foreign’ languages. I could easily have read French novels if I’d continued on from high school and it never occurred to me (though I did make beginnings at Spanish and Arabic). I belatedly tried French tapes while I was driving but couldn’t bring myself to speak, even on my own! Time for another try I think (less than three years to my 70th in Paris).


    • I think the big mistake was when they dropped the requirement that you had to have a foreign language to enrol at university.
      Have a look at an app called Duolingo on your phone… that will get you started again:)


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