Lie With Me – Philippe Besson (2017, trans. Molly Ringwald 2019) 148 pages
(For those of you who have noted the translator’s name – yes, that Molly Ringwald!)
Lie With Me tells the story of a closeted gay love affair between two teenage boys living in small town called Barbezieux, in southern France. The narrator is looking back on his relationship with a slightly older boy called Thomas Andrieu (the novella is dedicated to a man of the same name, but Lie With Me is presented as fiction):
“I recently returned to this place of my childhood, this village that I hadn’t set foot in for years. I went back with S. so that he would know. The grid was still there with the ancient wisteria, but the lime trees had been cut down, and the school closed a long time ago.
‘It must have taken great determination to have lifted yourself out.’
He didn’t say ‘ambition’ or ‘courage’ or ‘hate’. I told him: ‘It was my father who wanted it for me. I would have stayed in this childhood, in this cocoon.’”
The narrator knows he is different to his schoolfriends, and he knows why. It isn’t because his father is the schoolteacher, or because he is physically awkward, although these things don’t help. It is because he is gay:
“In this one regard, I would stop being the model child. I wouldn’t follow the pack. Out of instinct, I despised packs. That has never changed.”
Thomas is older than him, a mysterious and much cooler boy who both fits in and holds himself aloof:
“He also likes his solitude. It’s obvious. He speaks little, smokes alone. He has this attitude, his back up against the wall, looking up toward the sun or down at his sneakers, this manner of not quite being there in the world.”
The narrator is interested in Thomas but he seems entirely unobtainable. It is Thomas who makes the first move:
“I feel this desire swarming in my belly and running up my spine. But I have to constantly contain and compress it so that it doesn’t betray me in front of others. Because I’ve already understood that desire is visible.
Momentum too, I feel it. I sense a movement, a trajectory, something that will bring me to him.”
Lie With Me follows their relationship from beginning to end. There is an elegiac quality from the older, now successful writer – openly gay, well-travelled and living a cosmopolitan urbane life – looking back, but there is no sentimentality.
Instead, there is a pervading sadness, even following the first time they sleep together:
“I should be able to stay in this state of ecstasy, Or astonishment. Or let myself be overwhelmed by the incomprehensibility of it all. But the feeling that prevails the moment he disappears is that of being abandoned. Perhaps because it is already a familiar feeling.”
In this Guardian article, Tessa Hadley felt Lie With Me suffered from not enough focus on Thomas. The characterisation of the lover is thin, but personally I felt this worked. The first throes of romantic love, especially teen romantic love, can be very much wrapped up in how exhilarating it is for the individual. The narrator is waking up to the possibilities of life, the possibilities of gay life, far away from his childhood town and its constraints, and I felt his self-focus worked well.
Lie With Me is a coming of age tale, with the narrator realising not only who he is as a gay man, but of all that he could be, reflected in his lover’s eyes:
“In the end, love was only possible because he saw me not as who I was, but as the person I would become.”