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The Rediscovery of Achille Essebac

by Caspar Wintermans in Films & Books , 31 oktober 2008

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

‘Trembling With Fear, Elated With Joy’

On 2 February 1905 a drama was enacted in Bonn which hit the headlines. Jules-Marie Malbranche, an eighteen-year-old student from Paris, shot himself through the head, not once, but twice, in broad daylight in a park. Miraculously, he survived this act of despair, which he had previously explained in a letter to his parents: he could not come to terms with his homosexuality, was unhappily in love, and had been strengthened in his resolution to end his life by the perusal of Dédé, a novel by Achille Essebac in which he had seen the reflection of his own conflict.

The reporter of the Kölnische Zeitung mentioned that Jules-Marie had taken a well-thumbed copy of the book with him on what should have been his final stroll.

The young man was incarcerated in a well-known lunatic asylum by his angry and shocked father; the doctor who treated him there - and who gave an ample account of the “case” in a professional journal - may have laid at least part of the blame for the incident on Mr Essebac and his publisher, Ambert & Company. Some books exert a dangerous influence, and those of Essebac were deemed exceedingly dangerous by concerned parents in the years before the First World War when they went through numerous editions. Essebac’s works have been forgotten like those of many of his colleagues who during the Belle Époque delighted their readers with “psychological,” that is to say, “risqué” novels.

The series in which Dédé had appeared, the “Collection Ivoire,” also included books with gripping titles such as Luxuria, La Libertine and La Proie, the success of which resembled the effect of Chinese fireworks: dazzling, but short-lived.

Those who nowadays are at all acquainted with Essebac’s name are likely to have come across it in L’Exilé de Capri (1959), Roger Peyrefitte’s romanticized biography of the wealthy but unfortunate baron Jacques d’Adelsward-Fersen, who in July 1903 (when he was only 23), shortly before his intended marriage with a young noble lady, was arrested and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for the “decadent” parties he had organized in his house on the avenue Friedland.

These featured scantily dressed youths appearing in tableaux vivants which, in the eyes of the judge, were a bit too lively. Essebac, a friend of Fersen, declared that these manifestations had been innocuous and artistic. He was one of the very few who did not disown the compromised aristocrat, and when in 1909 the latter founded France’s first gay magazine, Akademos, Essebac contributed a short, autobiographical article.

The Charms Of Adolescents

Peyrefitte, author of the sultry public school novel Les Amitiés particulières (1944), did not think highly of Essebac. But his scathing criticism of his works, which he thought had nothing to do with literature, was not based on knowledge of facts. In a letter from 1979 he admitted not to have read the novels he had slated.
This letter was addressed to Jean-Claude Féray, who is the first to have broken a lance for the obscure author. In March his Achille Essebac, romancier du Désir was published, while he also provided the afterword to the reprint of the German translation (1902) of Dédé that has recently been issued.

The search for information about Essebac’s life was made difficult by the fact that his family has changed its name. That decision is understandable. “Essebac” is a pseudonym, an anagram of “Bécasse” which means “goose,” a word which in the French language has a pejorative connotation. A goose is supposed to be stupid, therefore the children of Achille’s brothers chose an alternative. In 2005 Féray spoke on the telephone with the grandson of the youngest brother, whose mother - Achille’s cousin, born in 1913 - was still alive at the time. The man promised Féray he would ask her about her uncle. The woman died a few days later. She had recalled that Achille used to dress up youthful supernumeraries of the Opéra; she said nothing whatever about his literary pursuits.

Henri-Louis-Achille Bécasse was born at Paris on 29 January 1868. His father owned a shop where gas lamps were sold, and earned a decent income. From his seventh to his thirteenth year Achille was a pupil of a catholic boarding-school in Passy. His experiences there made an indelible impression on him which he would express in his most celebrated novel, Dédé. It is unclear why he left the establishment at such an early age. A “special friendship” which had given offence? Or his poor results?

The archives have revealed that he was a mediocre scholar. He may have received private tuition after his departure. It is also unclear if he subsequently studied at the metropolitan École des Beaux Arts, but there is much to suggest he did. The institute is quite often mentioned in his works; the municipal list of those qualified to vote gives his profession as draughtsman; and he counted numerous artists among his friends. The copy of Dédé that forms part of Paul Snijders’s private collection has a handwritten author’s dedication to the painter George Barbier, who immortalized the ballet dancer Nijinski, incidentally an icon of the gay community.

The publication in 1901 of Dédé had been preceded by that of Partenza... vers la Beauté!, the account of a journey to Italy which had appeared at the very end of the nineteenth century. In it, an important theme of Essebac came to the fore: his admiration of masculine beauty, or, more specifically: his enthusiasm for the charms of adolescents. At a time when, to quote Féray, “the cult of the so-called weaker sex bordered on idolatry” - the biographer even speaks of vulvolâtrie -, Essebac hymned the beauty of the “ephebe” which he deemed to be superior. One needed courage to do so. Essebac fully realized this. “What I am about to write is immoral,” he warned in the preface to Dédé. “Perhaps.” He therefore advised “the prudes and the small-minded” to ignore his book.

An Ardent, Yet Chaste Passion

Dédé tells the story of Marcel Thellier’s love for André Dalio. Both are pupils at a public school in Paris. André, whose pet name gives the novel its title, is, needless to say, extremely attractive, hypersensitive and artistic. His health is poor; Essebac leaves us in no doubt that the hero won’t live to a ripe old age, and Marcel catches himself at the thought that this is as it should be; he cannot, does not want to imagine a grown-up Dédé handling a razor. A similar morbid reflection is found in Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice (1911): the writer von Aschenbach, mesmerized by the fourteen-year-old Tadzio, feels satisfaction in his premonition that the “tender, sickly” lad will die young.

The teachers play only a minor part in Dédé, unlike those in Les Amitiés particulières and Henry de Montherlant’s Les Garçons (1969). The narrator merely remarks ironically that most of them were conspicuous by their “immaculate plastic ugliness.” It is for that reason that Dédé is not interested in them: he is “tormented by everything which forms no part of beauty,” and conveys this preoccupation with visual perfection to Marcel, who is surprised to discover that boys, unlike girls, are not allowed to kiss one another.

Hence it is quite an event when, “trembling with fear, elated with joy,” he kisses Dédé on the mouth for the first time. The next kiss is also the last. Marcel gives it to his friend, who, a victim to tuberculosis, is lying in state. The nun who is watching over the body is looking the other way, and to Marcel it seems as if he were secretly touching the lips of “the Hermes of Praxiteles...”
Marcel’s passion for Dédé is ardent, yet chaste.

It is Albert who excites him sexually, Albert, with whom he likes to swim in the river during the summer holidays in the countryside. Essebac’s description of these healthy exercises is suggestive to a degree and likely would have appealed to numerous gay contemporaries. Féray draws attention to the fact that in his novels the author delicately refers to the “solitary pleasures” to which his youthful heroes abandon themselves, interestingly without any feelings of guilt - “bluish shadows” are seen under their eyes, an indication, according to opinions prevalent at the time, that we are dealing with masturbators.
The critics failed to notice this, or they chose not to touch upon the point in their reviews which on the whole were full of praise. Essebac’s style was even compared with Flaubert’s, no mean compliment.


Full of self-confidence the author embarked on his second novel, Luc (1902), in which his misogyny becomes more evident. Marcel’s attitude to women in general had been put succinctly in chapter 23 of Dédé: “Brrr...” The protagonist of Luc - acolyte, chorister, model and actor - is being loved by the painter Julien Bréard. He is much more modest than the “shameless” Rita Girly (what’s in a name?), who is determined “to get [Luc]” and who, during the dress rehearsal of a play in which he takes the leading part, “[puts] her avid hand under [his] tunic, with such an impudent precision, adding obscene language to the gesture,” that “the exasperated boy [spits] her full in the face.” “He expected the tart to react in an equally rude way. But the saliva had fallen right on her lips, and she pretended greedily to drink its tepidness, closing her bluish eyes in a cramp. Luc shrugged his shoulders contemptuously; on seeing which, she burst into tears...”

Rita Girly is a nuisance, but she does not pose a real threat, unlike a couple of ladies who play an important role in Essebac’s third best-seller, L’Élu (“the chosen one”), which was also published in 1902. La Sanguisuga, that’s to say “the bloodsucker,” and Albine de Miromesnil do what they can to thwart the love which has blossomed between Pierre Pélissier, a 22-year-old French ceramist, and Luigi, nicknamed Djino, a Roman youth of sixteen whose charms are amply, almost obsessively described. La Sanguisuga, a prey to jealousy, falls on the knife with which she had wanted to stab Luigi - Essebac did not shrink from melodramatic scenes -, and Albine solemnly swears only to release the hero, whom she has lured into her bedroom, when he has “pegged out” in her bed. The poor chap has a weak heart, and dies in the final chapter.

Tableaux Vivants

Essebac situates a few pages of L’Élu in the studio of Professor Peterson, who photographs Roman boys for a homosexual clientele. Luigi is one of his models, but had never agreed to pose in the buff before meeting Pierre. “The desire to please him finally overcame his touching scruples.” The reader is reminded of photographers such as baron Wilhelm von Gloeden and Wilhelm von Plüschow (nicknamed “le plus chaud”: “the hottest”!) who, working in Italy, had become famous around 1900 for their pictures of scantily dressed or undressed male beauty.

Essebac knew their work well - a photo by von Gloeden embellished the cover of an edition of Dédé -, and he enjoyed operating the camera himself, as was recently discovered when an album containing 156 of his photographs was sold in Paris for € 3500.

It is fascinating collection. Essebac photographed adolescents, just as the afore-mentioned German artists did, but while they produced nude photographs evoking classical antiquity, Essebac’s models are dressed in medieval or renaissance costumes. They look like actors in a play. Perhaps they played a part in Fersen’s tableaux vivants.

As we have seen, the scandal to which these parties led erupted in the summer of 1903. Féray conjectures it exerted a great influence on Essebac’s further career.

Many journalists fulminated against the dangers of “decadent” - meaning: homosexual - literature. Pleas for a revival of morals were the order of the day, and although reprints of Dédé, Luc and L’Élu continued to appear after Fersen’s conviction, Essebac’s next novel, Les Griffes (1904), had nothing whatever to do with Greek Love, no more than Nuit païenne (1906) wherein he described the yearly, rather boisterous ball organized by the students of the École des Beaux Arts. Apart from the article in Akademos mentioned above, Essebac only published a short story in the literary magazine Pan. That was in 1910. Until his death on 1 August 1936 at Paris as a result of pneumonia the author, who for many years had made a living as book keeper, maintained a complete silence. The newspapers did not report his demise. All eyes were turned towards the Olympic Games in Nazi Germany, where meanwhile all gay cafés had been closed by the State, including the “Dédé-bar” in Berlin. The dust of oblivion descended on Achille Essebac and his curious works.

Hidden Feelings

Jean-Claude Féray has done a pioneer’s job with his interesting biography of the novelist, which reprints large extracts from his scarcely obtainable books. He realizes that a novel such as Dédé, written in the mannered, slightly anachronistic style of the fin-de-siècle, may seem a bit quaint to the modern reader. But then each era has its own way of expressing itself. It would be unjust, however, to stamp Essebac as “old-fashioned” or “obsolete.” He had the pluck to portray homosexuality in a positive way, taking in stride the taunt of critics such as Henri Gauthier-Villars (“Willy”), who dismissed his passionate, poetical prose as “chaste smut.” The vicissitudes of Dédé in particular touched countless gay men profoundly. Essebac gave a voice to their deepest and usually hidden feelings.

I look at the portrait of the author that is to be found in Féray’s monograph (and which unfortunately Essebac’s family does not allow us to reproduce here), and wonder to what extent the immaculately dressed Frenchman, who has laid a protecting arm round the shoulder of his youngest brother, was able to enjoy life in a way that most of us nowadays take for granted. Did he find fulfilment? Or can we apply to him the words which Thomas Mann, bowed down by his sexual orientation, wrote in Der Erwählte? “All too often telling a story is just a substitute for pleasures we ourselves or heaven deny us.”

Our grateful thanks to James D. Jenkins and Paul Snijders

Achille Essebac, Dédé. Translated from the French into German by Georg Herbert. With an afterword by Jean-Claude Féray. Hamburg: Männerschwarm Verlag, 2008 (Bibliothek rosa Winkel, Vol. 47), 256 pp., illus. ISBN: 9783939542476
Jean-Claude Féray, Achille Essebac, romancier du Désir. Paris: Quintes-Feuilles, 2008. 340 pp., illus. ISBN: 2951602391



In the New Issue of Gay News, 323, July 2018

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