Fritz Peters: FINISTERE
Another episode in my trawl through the gay ‘classics’. Finistère was first published in 1951, three years after Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar. In many ways it’s a more daring novel. Matthew, our young hero, moves to France – the year is 1927 – with his mother following her divorce. At boarding school he begins a relationship, more sexual than romantic (though nothing too explicit), with a fellow pupil. Then, aged fifteen, he falls in love with Michel, a thirty-something PE teacher. Their intense affair is explored from both viewpoints – and also from the viewpoint of the mother and stepfather. When Matthew’s stepmother enters the story, she and the stepfather begin the process of ‘outing’ Matthew and precipitate a terrible climax. Happy endings seem to have been ruled out in these early gay novels, although in all fiction a tragic finale tends to have more resonance.
The implicit element of pederasty – a slightly lesser ‘sin’ (or crime) than paedophilia – is largely overlooked by the author. He presents the relationship between the teenager and his teacher as if it’s entirely natural (which it is, obviously) and even normal, which it very clearly is not. This must have been a ‘shocking’ story in the 1950s. It’s fairly shocking today.
The writing is sometimes a bit precious, a bit ‘twee’. Perhaps because of the French setting there’s a Proustian attention to details of setting and moments of introspection. Rapid switches of viewpoint, much frowned on by writing schools, are always disconcerting for the reader. And of course it’s a bit dated, but the struggles of a teenager with his sexual identity are as relevant now as they were sixty years ago, and Matthew’s difficulties in coming to terms with divorce and step-parents are powerfully conveyed. Overall this is an elegant read and a story that engages the reader’s emotions.
Even in these liberal times of ours there are many places (not all of them in Muslim countries) where homosexuals face intolerance and often persecution. In the ultra-liberal West we face a growing threat from the forces of ultra-conservatism. We need to keep our guard up.