Lovers, Daniel Arsand’s newly-translated novella, is a fever dream of romance. Set in the decades before the French Revolution, this story of two boys in love is emotional but not psychological—we know what the characters feel, but not why they feel it. They are blurred by that light of emotion that defines the edges of objects and characters in most modern novels; here it obscures all but the outlines of Arsand’s characters and their longing for one another. Realism, as we’ve understood it since Balzac, is a post-revolutionary artifact in any case, and we won’t find any of it here.
Balthazar de Créon, aristocrat, and Sébastian, a farm boy, fall in love during “a century in which it is rare to say I love you.” Aristocrats are permitted their affairs, but not with common people, and especially not with those of their own sex. Louis XI is enraged, and orders Balthazar de Créon to Versailles. But Balthazar is so lost in Sébastian that he abandons not only himself but his good sense. Why do the boys fail to flee? “In Spain, Italy, even Canada, over there they would name a city after them, the Créons would rule over the New World.” Arsand never makes clear why they linger in Paris. The young, disobedient aristocrat is seized and burned alive. Sébastian’s low caste makes his life unimportant, and so worth sparing. He lives, but only to grieve.
Much of the action of Lovers happens offstage—the eponymous pair’s first coupling, Balthazar’s arrest—so what we read directly is less the stuff of action than of action recollected through a haze of emotion. Sébastian is an herbal magician, but there is no real magic here, unless it is the way love between men can summon rage from nowhere. The prose is meditative: “A man’s bedroom is not a woman’s bedroom, obviously. The smell is different.” So far so good—like the characters and their world, the prose here is abstract, vague but compelling. “A man’s smell is more acrid, more external, less intimate, less secretive, emanating less from within, than a woman’s.” Then the spell breaks: “A smell of sweat and semen, basically.” Here is Lovers in a nutshell: it teases us with suggestive poetry, then lays into us with blunt facts. Love blooms, fools die.
The first half of this short book traces the boys’ love up to Balthazar’s immolation. In the second half—more absorbing and more complex—two women and two men, one of them Sébastian, come to grief through jealousy. Either the haze has lifted from Arsand’s abstract and capricious voice or the reader has become accustomed to it. But by opening the story up to two new points of view, Arsand has made this meditation more of a narrative, albeit one seen at a distance, and darkly, and less a series of sensations, meditations (“Is it possible, then, to be both mad and elegant?” etc.). Here the heady intoxicants of young love are replaced by the warm surprise of pleasure discovered later in life. But we are too soon reminded that the middle of the 18th century had bulwarks against such pleasures, and violence again asserts itself. In both cases, the violence has to do with a misperception of homosexual love: in Louis XI’s eyes, it is an inevitably sadistic and degrading affront; in the eyes of the scorned woman in the novel’s second half, it is so unimaginable that she never once considers it might exist, and so lashes out at a fellow woman whom she wrongly believes a seductress.
Lovers is slim—slightly over a hundred pages in exactly 100 chapters. Some of these chapters are only a few lines long, yet often so melodramatic (“I cannot hold back my tears”) that one wonders whether the translator, Howard Curtis, is trying to preserve a tone or impose one. Still, some scenes are rendered as spare as a well-described feeling for an ill-defined event. (Sébastian nods off beside Balthazar’s skeptical mother, where “she has the impression that she is moving in pure water, floating in an indestructible, shimmering, reassuringly tangible universe.” Why? We have no way to reason.)
The book is over quickly and the sense we’re left with is of a sensibility thrashing against the constraints of history—why did it have to be that way?—and desperately seeking what’s salvageable.
If the reader falls for the initial enchantment and doesn’t mind supplying background and detail of his own, this can be a moving book, a bricolage of several possible novels that weren’t written, but rather imagined, combined, and half-erased. It is a thoughtful reading experience, not always easy or pleasant.