His Brother

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2004-01-01
  • Publisher: William Heinemann
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Based on his own experience of losing his brother to a wasting disease, Philippe Besson's new novel is a powerful exploration of the experience of watching a loved one die young.

Author Biography

Philippe Besson lives in Paris. He is the author of one previous novel, <b>En L'Absence des Hommes</b> (<b>In the Absence of Men</b>).


July 31

Thomas is dying.

Thomas accepts that he is dying. It is here, in the house at Saint-Clément, our childhood home, that he has chosen to wait for death. I am by his side. It is summer, still. I did not know that it was possible to die in summer.

I had thought death always struck in winter, that it needed the cold, the grey, a sort of desolation; that only then could death truly feel on home ground. Now I discover that it can just as easily go about its business in the sunshine, in the clear light of day. I think Thomas will receive it in the clear light of day.

I used to think it began with a numbing of the extremities, a spasm, and then suddenly an urgency, a headlong rush, a violence. But no: it is casual, a sort of holiday, an indolence, a surrender in the heat. A yellow, pulsing heat.

There can be no doubt that this inevitable, this long awaited death will be a catastrophe nonetheless. It will spew out over our whole lives. It will change them, send them in unexpected directions. It will cause an upheaval which none of us will be able to check. This death will be the greatest of events. The wave of pain will ripple down the years. It will haunt us, overwhelm us.

My brother is dying.

Saint-Clément-des-Baleines is the most remote village, one perched on the westerly tip of the "le de Ré, at its farthest edge, the village which most looks out towards the Americas. After that, there is nothing, no islands, no land, nothing but the ocean for as far as the eye can see, nothing but the boundless Atlantic. The lighthouse's shaft of light points the way.

Saint-Clément is the end of the world, just as Cape Horn once was in my imagination as a child. It is the point beyond which the waters prevail, beyond which men must lay down their arms. They say boats have been lost here in these treacherous waters, off the coast, in spite of the lighthouse; that sailors have drowned and their bodies been carried by the tides, carried back to shore. They tell extraordinary stories.

Here, it is easy to feel a sense of abandonment, like being the last man on earth, as if it were enough now to simply let oneself drift, to lose one's grip on everything. The feeling is as much a respite as a sacrifice, as much an imposed solitude as it is a conscious exile.

One's gaze is lost in the distance. I know that there are paths behind me, pine trees, marshes, churches, cemeteries. But in front of me: nothing, nothing but the ocean. Everything. The essence of childhood is here.

The house is white, a whiteness that on certain afternoons is almost unbearable and makes one turn away, the walls are painted with whitewash as the island tradition requires, the shutters are green. It is a simple house as summer houses so often are, more functional than charming. On the first floor, my bedroom and my brother's, though separated by a corridor, are identical. The wallpaper is blue, probably because we were boys. Beams hug the slope of the mansard roof. Windows open between the beams, letting light flood through the mansard as they breach it. The furniture is perfunctory. You could guess the people here are only passing through. How could we have known that Thomas would come to die in this place?

From these bedrooms, you can see the sea. The blue of the sea draws one's gaze far out.
But first, the garden: a few trees I still can't put a name to after all these years, and a copse or two, a table and some chairs of rusted cast-iron, flowers my mother planted and our neighbour tends in the off-season (three of the four calendar seasons), a garden which was enormous when I was five, and which, as I grew, seemed slowly to shrink to what are its true dimensions, a garden which smells sweet and slopes gently towards the beach. From the house, it's barely possible to make out the sandbank, the curve of a dune on the left: it almost seems as though the garden hurries down to die in the sea itself. The green runs down and melts into the blue. It is the mingled blue and green, the shimmering brilliance of colours that I recognise from my window; they seem to me to be a gracefulness, a gentleness.

The sea is both a boundary and a negation of all boundaries, it is a horizon whose limits one can look for in vain, it is a landmark and yet it is everywhere. The sea is everywhere. When I think back on the time we spent here over the years, it is the sea that I remember first, it envelops me, it haunts me, it reassures me, I never tire of it, it is with me everywhere I go. I have spent more time contemplating the sea than anything else. I think I contemplate it even when it is not there. You have to be gripped by this magnificent obsession with the sea to understand what I mean. It is not simply the tales of sailors and islanders. They live near the sea, by the sea, and so assimilate it, so consume it that they no longer see it. Their love of it is unspoken, something so obvious that it becomes a form of detachment. This is not at all how I feel. Most of the time I live without the sea, far from the sea, it is returned to me only on beautiful days, resplendent in the sunshine; to me the sea is a perpetual accident, a magnificent event, an astonishing fact to which I never grow accustomed. An endlessly recurring marvel.

Excerpted from His Brother by Philippe Besson
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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