Summer is not my favorite season. As much as I love a revealing tank top and a short short (and boy, do I), the heat always unsettles me—bringing on a very particular melancholy each year as the days stretch interminably on.
Logic (and the better part of my life spent in therapy) seems to point to my first love, a summer fling at 14 that ended in heartbreak, as the source of my kind of seasonal affective disorder. Accordingly, while others may reach for a breezy, beach-ready paperback, a tragic love story is my preferred summer reading.
This July, Daniel Arsand’s LOVERS (Europa Editions) is the book to which I keep returning. Though it’s short enough to finish in a single sitting—with many chapters not more than a few paragraphs long—Arsand’s prose, gracefully translated from the French by Howard Curtis, is hypnotic, sensual and slippery, the sort of writing that warrants more than one re-reading. Like so many first loves, it’s a sad but beautiful story, chronicling the doomed affair between Balthazar de Créon, a prince in ancien régime France, and the angelic peasant boy to whom he devotes himself, Sébastien Faure.
As suggested by its title, Lovers feels very much inspired by Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, a French classic of the tragic romance genre (and, not shockingly, one of my favorite books). Like Duras’ female protagonist, Sébastien is fifteen when the book begins but has an obvious erotic precocity. De Créon, like Duras’ Chinese lover, is older, of a markedly higher class, and in complete thrall to the beauty of his beloved, “[a] skinny boy with hair like frozen hay.”
Unlike the famously autobiographical Duras novel, of course, Arsand’s Lovers begins in 1749 and is firmly historical, unfolding in a world in which homosexuality (buggery, what have you) is still punishable by death. As in the best historical fiction, however, Lovers feels as specific to its time period as it does timeless—fitting, as questions of time re-assert themselves again and again throughout the text. After the lovers’ first meeting, Arsand cleverly quips: “…for a few days Sébastien Faure will have the impression that Balthazar de Créon is the only person who will ever occupy his thoughts.” And later, more gravely: “Créon is of no century and of all time, but it is our century that will condemn him.”
Even in translation, Lovers is an unmistakably French book: lush, indulgent and, at its less convincing moments, a bit overwrought. But the book’s tendency towards melodrama does not distract from the story; instead, its high stakes and grand sense of scale effectively embody the madness of new love. “Most [men],” Arsand writes, “are insignificant, except them, these two lovers…they are not insignificant, they cannot be, here they are: magnificent.”
Whether you’ve forgotten this feeling of magnificence, or can never forget it, reading Lovers will slip you back in time—to 1749, and then, like a T-shirt you kept when he left, to your own first love. I recommend beginning it at dusk, with a good red wine and an open window to let in the long, hot summer.