Robert Dessaix, Arabesques: A tale of double lives (2008, Picador 2009)
Consider a hypothetical book that opens with two wealthy European men visiting a developing country. The elder of the two men asks the younger if he’d like to have sex with one of two adolescent musicians who are playing for them. When his friend answers in the affirmative he roars with laughter, and continues roaring as they drive away in a cab accompanied by the two boys. The younger of the two Europeans later reports that he had a great night with his boy. You’re likely to expect the book to be about sex tourism.
What if the Europeans were famous, not as sportsmen or politicians (which would make it a book about sex scandals), but as writers – one a great wit, playwright, essayist and children’s author and the other as a vastly erudite man of refined sensibility, a Nobel Prize winner? They’re still sex tourists, do I hear you cry? Why should having a way with words bestow immunity from ordinary moral considerations?
That hypothetical opening scene is strikingly similar to the opening of Robert Dessaix’s Arabesques. The Europeans are Oscar Wilde and André Gide, and the incident happens in the casbah of Algiers in 1895 . I don’t think I’m being unfair to Dessaix if I say that he appears to regard the power imbalance between the ‘moneyed’ writers on one hand and the Arab boys on the other as of no consequence – nobody forced the boys to do anything, after all, and it’s not paedophilia, because they were adolescents (which makes it pederasty, quite a different thing). When Dessaix’s friend Albert uses the mild word ‘sordid’ of this incident and Gide’s lifelong habit of visiting North Africa to have sex with adolescent boys, Dessaix wonders if Albert ‘secretly found something about homosexuals in general unpalatable’. Edward Said’s notion of Orientalism is mentioned only to be dismissed as ‘pretty one-sided, even wrong-headed, these days where I come from’. The word prostitution is never mentioned, nor is the phrase sex tourism. That would just be crude, rather like the pink tourists who turn up plodding and stunned at intervals throughout the narrative.
This is a very attractive book, beautifully designed and illustrated, written in mellifluous, finely nuanced prose, but it’s not a comfortable read. The casbah moment turns out to have stuck in Robert Dessaix’s mind from when he first read it at the age of 14, and he offers it to us as a moment at which Gide could ‘start living out who [he’d] been all along, at first in the shadows and now in the light’.
It’s a travel book. Dessaix visits Normandy, the south of France, Portugal, Algiers, Tunis. He does have living companions – a number of Parisians, an enigmatic north African – but his main travelling companion is André Gide. Dessaix visits Gide’s childhood home; the house where Gide lived with his pious wife Madeleine, whom he loved without sex and made miserable by going off on his sexual adventures; cities, towns and oases that Gide visited and wrote about. As well as the physical journey, he takes us on a journey to get to know Gide, and to get to know himself in relation to Gide. Though he eschews quick moral judgements, he does explore the ‘who’ that Gide lived out, questioning the effects on other people, defending him against criticism and then questioning his own motives for defending him.
The double lives of the subtitle are manifold. Dessaix sees himself as a kind of double of Gide: their lives have an astonishing number of similarities (a love of an eroticised North Africa, intensely Protestant adolescence, commitment to the writing vocation, marriage to a woman soon after discovering the joys of sex with men, and more). He and Gide each have a kind of doubleness – tension between adolescent religion and powerful homoerotic impulses that comes to a point of crisis and self-knowledge in their early 20s. And the book fairly teems with other doublings, pairings and dichotomies: the sexually active Gide and his wife Madeleine, who lived and died a virgin; Madeleine and the young man Dessaix describes as Gide’s beloved; European and North African attitudes to sexuality; Protestantism and Catholicism; and more.
One of the most interesting mini-essays deals with an ‘epiphany’ in a church in Oporto, in which Dessaix realises he is a Protestant. The moment of self-knowledge arrives when he looks at some women hearing Mass and realises that ‘every last loose thread’ of their lives ‘had already been lovingly gathered up and woven into the sacred tapestry of the Church’, that their ‘lives had been redeemed, not by understanding, not by seeing Truth face to Face, but by being gathered up into the Church’. His ensuing discussion of his own Protestantism is very interesting, but something about the scene gave me pause. Dessaix expresses his ‘realisation’ so beautifully that the reader almost fails to notice that he doesn’t know those woven women at all, that he’s projecting something onto them to as a springboard for talking about himself. Which brings me back to my central worry about the book: when it talks about Gide’s sexual compulsions (another crude word that doesn’t darken its pages), isn’t there a similar projection involved? Edward Said may be old hat where Robert Dessaix lives, but those adolescent boys don’t emerge so much as individuals in their own right as dark-skinned screens onto which the finely tuned European can project his own desires.
I’m reminded of one of A D Hope’s ‘Sonnets to Baudelaire’ (just the last seven words, really, but here’s the whole thing):
You saw it rise, I see it set, that sun,
The bright aubade, the serenade’s dying fall,
Between us, brother, we have seen it all.
But was it worth, now all is said and done,
The great Romantic theme: My heart laid bare?
One thing, like Ozymandias, they forgot:
To make it worth the trouble, someone must care
To watch Narcissus give himself a hug
Or Onan practice on his magic flute.
Now as the stars light up, for better or worse
Time throws away the key that locked those smug
Museums of self-regard, the universe
Expands, but something’s slimy underfoot.