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Lovers (Europa Editions) by French author Daniel Arsand is a book reveling in love in all its forms: love between men, love between parent and child, temporary love, everlasting love, love and all the things and actions and words we connect with it. The novel is short and bittersweet – readers will delight and then cringe, balancing from states of heaven and bliss and then thudded back down to reality that moves into the peace of acceptance.
As the book begins, teenaged Sébastien Faure, of a poor family, falls for nobleman Balthazar de Créon in 18th century France. Balthazar “meets-cute” with Sébastien as the nobleman is saved from injury by the young healer, at once an angel apothecary and a nice allusion to the patron saint of homosexuals, immortalized in the last century in art by Salvador Dalí, Thomas Mann, and Derek Jarman.
At once, the light-purple prose of cadence and magical beauty fits the romanticism. Choice diction creates a medieval gay wonderment, part fairy tale and part revisionist fiction. Arsand presents a clear, crisp, poetic, graceful tale of how the young lovers reach intimacy and union. It’s a delightful, bodice-ripper romance for this emoticon age where the Internet is the new closet, something illusory, imaginary, and hallucinatory to hide in rather than face the real world: get your heart’s desire to read these passages aloud to you in a field of lavender.
The novel starts at a leisurely pace, but then picks up, hurtling toward frenzy and a tragic decrescendo – switching narrative modes and points of view along the way in its short chapters. The readers will get to remember that although in our developed nations of the present-day, love between men is becoming accepted as a norm, times of yesteryear looked like some of our crueler contemporary nation states–it was, for instance, England’s Henry VIII who passed the Buggery Act of 1533 making all male-male sexual activity punishable by death.(An act removed by Mary Tudor, and then reinstated by Elizabeth I.) As Sébastien and Balthazar spend more and more time together in their prism of love, it becomes first a cocoon and then inescapable quicksand. Balthazar has been called to court by the king, but Balthazar, selfishly, remains insouciant: “This Créon will be executed sooner or later, not because he is a murderer or a maker of gold, nor because of his morals, but because of his indifference to the crown and scepter.”
Balthazar’s fate is the action of the novel, but Sébastien’s Künstlerroman journey is its prime mover. The freedom he wins through Balthazar’s love presents two paths. Escaping from his humble beginnings, he opens himself up to creating art, capturing how he newly perceives the world through painting. That freedom also leads Sébastien to other lovers, as Balthazar lets him have his way: “They are as close as two lovers can be. They no longer even need to say: I love you.” Both fear their love and actions have trapped the other. As Balthazar wrestles his fate, he ponders if he is being irresponsible and careless toward Sébastien by ignoring the growing mob out for his head. Sébastien, likewise, suffocates knowing his soul-mate will be condemned to the flames as he goes free.
With simplicity, Arsand turns their enchantment into not tragedy but authenticity: “Here on earth, one always suffocates a little, for one reason or another, even at moments of great happiness. He can only live on this earth, even if he is alone. He is of this world and no other.” It is that balance that grounds the whole, trenchant work. All of the novel’s love is requited – it all must go forward, gain momentum, come to an end. Although every character wants their spaces of love to last and go on and on forevermore, the novel makes clear that death signals the end for all. Love is final.
By Daniel Arsand
Paperback, 9781609450717, 120 pp.