Rare masterpiece on a misunderstood subject *****
This is the deeply moving love story of brilliant 14 year-old aristocrat Georges de Sarre and beautiful 12 year-old Alexandre Motier at St. Claude’s, a French, Catholic boarding-school in the 1920s. Though determinedly chaste, their love is passionately expressed through kisses and poems, and there is no mistaking the sensuality underpinning it.
Whether consummated or not, for many centuries such intense love affairs between younger and older boys were a feature of boarding-school life that brought joy and relief to some of the more feeling and less hung-up sort of adolescents, as well as grief and catastrophe to the minority whose liaisons were discovered and crushed by the Christian authorities. They were essentially pederastic, satisfying different emotional needs in the younger and older participants, though the disparity in age lent them special intensity for both.
This ancient tradition more or less died a generation or so ago; the boys who would once have partaken or at least have approved of romantic friendships nowadays either never see their appeal, brought up as they are in a society so antagonistic to them, or shun them through terror of being misunderstood and branded as gay. Indeed, the number of reviews of this book implying gayness is proof they are right to fear it is now practically impossible to escape being judged according to the new dogma insisting on a fixed sexual orientation for even early teens.
It is salutary to remember that however responsible the priests at St. Claude’s were for the tragedy of Alexandre and Georges and however misguided the abhorrence of sin that drove them to act as they did, they acted as gentle lambs compared to the savagery with which their post-Christian successors today would crush an affair that any older and younger boy had the temerity to get embroiled in. Our new moral dictators would of course destroy Alexandre to save him from an unequal relationship rather than from the sin of homosexuality, but that would make no difference to either the cruel outcome or the monstrous bigotry behind it. Ironically it would actually increase the perverse injustice of such interference: Alexandre is typical of the younger boy in a special friendship in that his emotional need for it is evidently greater and so it is even more vital to his happiness than to George’s that it should not be broken up.
Considering special friendships at boarding-school have finally disappeared from our emotional landscape and are now so badly misunderstood, we must be forever thankful that in the short space of time when they were still fairly widely understood and it had also become possible to write candidly about sexuality, such a talented writer as Peyrefitte preserved their character for us so evocatively in his first and greatest work. It is beautifully written throughout, but the last chapter soars to heights of aching pathos rarely achieved by anyone.
Note that would-be readers of an English translation are strongly advised to look out for the 1958 one in the title here. Avoid the American reissue, entitled Secret Friendships (New York, 2000), spoilt both by countless confusing omissions of punctuation and by the addition of androphilic sketches of hunky men singularly ill-suited to a story narrated entirely from the point of view of one to whom “grown-up people seemed … devoid of either mystery or beauty.”
Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 22 Oct. 2013.