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Arabesques: a tale of double lives by Robert…

Arabesques: a tale of double lives (2008)

by Robert Dessaix

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An interesting, thoughtful book on travel, youth, aging, being gay, Andre Gide, North Africa and France. Definitely not a book for homophobes. ( )
  devilish2 | Mar 10, 2014 |
"Boys as dark as violets"

Arabesques. A tale of double lives is Robert Dessaix' very personal, and very subjective biography of André Gide. In fact, it is more of a kaleidoscopic travelogue than a biography. The subtitle A tale of double lives refers as much to the double lives led by Gide, as well as the intertwined exploration of the parallels and contrasts between the lives of Gide and the author. In the absence of a clear chronologie, the book has a dream-like quality of preponderences on the life of André Gide and its author Robert Dessaix, as Dessaix retraces Gide's steps in his travels all over the Western Mediterranean, with particular attention to North Africa, as chapter titles suggest visits to Algiers, Blidah, Tornac, Anduze, Morocco, Cuverville (France), Sousse and Biskra.

Without overmuch emphasis, Dessaix clearly emerges from the narrative as a very seasoned, and openly gay person, whose promiscuity may have been tempered with age. On the other hand, Dessaix portrays Gide as a very timid and closeted homosxual, who may not even have considered himself gay, and whose adoration of boys and young men verged on Platonic aestheticism. However, it is clear that Dessaix rejects that image. At the same time, the author seems to be at a loss to explain the apparent lifelong devotion of Gide for his cousin Madeleine, whom he married at a very young age, and is said to have truly and deeply loved. This contrast, the suggestion that Gide came to homosexuality after meeting Oscar Wilde and subsequently lived as a completely repressed homosexual, who may have truly loved his wife, seems to be a construct in the mind of Dessaix which is not really born out by autobiographical facts.

An interesting aspect of Arabesques. A tale of double lives is that it uncovers the history of various Algerian cities as travel destinations of the international demi-monde and gay sub-culture at the end of the Nineteenth and beginning of the Twentieth Century, which included such illustrious travellers as Oscar Wilde and "Bosie", among others. Richly illustrated, including many antiquarian postcards, point at the lost glory of cities such as Algiers and Biskra under French colonial rule. Some of the descriptions are also reminiscent of Albert Camus descriptions of Oran.

Especially in the first part of the book, Arabesques. A tale of double lives is slightly marred by some narrative techniques used by the author. In the first two or three chapters, there are multiple repetitions of the suggestion that Gide's life would all have been very different if, at paying his hotel bill in Blidah he would have "glanced to the left instead of to the right." Throughout the book there are many references to "Jacoub", one of Dessaix's guide in Algeria whom he portrays very unsympathetically. Maps at the beginning of the book suggest that the journey, followed tracing Gide's steps will lead through various countries, including Spain, Portugal and Italy, while in fact very little attention is paid to these countries. A whole chapter is devoted to Morocco, which seems much more relevant in the life of Dessaix than in the life of André Gide.

My appreciation for Arabesques. A tale of double lives increased with reading, although the problems described in the last part of my review, occurring in the first few chapters actually irritated me very much.

However, on the whole, the book has a very ejoyable poetic quality that is borne out as one reads more. The Picador first edition paperback's paper quality is, unfortunately, not very high, but the rich illustrations, and the fairly large size of the book, make for a really nice reading experience.

The high degree of subjectivity make the book quasi intimate. It is possible that these tricks are used by the author to stimulate the readers' imagination. Without annotation is is hard to make out what is factual about Gide North-African adventures. Dessaix in clearly well-informed about the life of André Gide, but, typically, some details of what could have happened usually are not included in biographical accounts or even primary sources. Therefore, Arabesques. A tale of double lives substitutes fact with some speculation and quite a lot of suggestiveness. This is a feature that makes the book attractive, although perhaps not to every type of reader. The book is probably somewhat more appealing to gay readership.

Another thing I really liked about the book was how, as a travel memoir, it introduced various cities in Algeria and North-African culture, which formed a nice complementary experience to my reading of essays from Noces (English tr. "Nuptials") by Albert Camus. ( )
4 vote edwinbcn | Feb 1, 2013 |
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'My whole life,' Jean-Jacques Rousseau once scribbled on the back of a playing-card, 'has been nothing but a long reverie divided into chapters by my daily walk.'
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"On this magic-carpet ride around the Mediterranean, in meditations and conversations with eccentric fellow-travellers on subjects as varied as why we travel, the essence of Protestantism, ageing and illicit passion, acclaimed author Robert Dessaix ventures into territory that is unexpected, often dangerous and always compelling."--Provided by publisher.… (more)

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