Charming Young Man by Eliot Schrefer


Review by Walter Cummins

Eliot Schrefer’s title character, his charming young man, Léon Delafosse, is a teenaged parvenu, a poor country boy sought after by fin de siècle Parisian society for his exceptional talent as a pianist. He is touted to be the next Mozart, or at least Schubert, and the fashionable elite living in the great houses of the city are eager to have him perform in their salons. Léon is whisked from a small flat, where he lives with his sister and mother, into vast rooms of elegant furnishings filled with people dressed at the height of fashion—this boy who has to be taught to wear cufflinks and knot a bowtie.

An equally young Marcel Proust, at the time reporting on the doings of the elite for a Parisian newspaper, leads him to crash a party and kisses him on the roof of a mansion, then introduces him to the young Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fézensac, a poetry-writing dandy, who becomes Léon’s patron and companion.

At this point, the novel is reminiscent of a Horatio Alger story, the humble young man just one step from poverty whose true worth is discovered, leading to success and affluence. In effect, a number of chapters seem to be following a familiar trajectory, enlivened by Schrefer’s ability to create compelling characters and provide amusing descriptions of the happenings of Parisian society. But Schrefer is much more subtle as he reveals the artificiality behind the finery as Léon, even while being seduced by grandeur, has this insight: “Everyone here, woman and man alike, fell into such splendid poses. All the same, it seemed like it must be exhausting to spend an entire evening finding new splendid poses. How could anyone relax?”

Schrefer goes behind such posing to reveal a world of decadence and potential betrayal, as in this seeming clowning when Sarah Bernhardt in men’s clothing lifts the beautiful Comtesse Greffulhe from a chair fixed high on a wall: “Light as it was, the countess’s body still caught Sarah off balance. She gasped and then the tulle of the countess’s dress fully engulfed her. Sarah started shouting something, the words lost in the fabric. The guests in the room hollered as Sarah turned in a circle, the countess laughing and kicking her legs.”

Even before Bernhardt and the countess collapse onto the floor in a “mass of gray tulle,” Léon has realized that everyone in the room was drunk. Count Robert, seemingly rescuing his countess cousin “from the ravenous Miss Bernhardt,” flops on top of her while everyone laughs at the performance.

Léon, not amused, leaves the room in search of Proust, unaware that this seeming slapstick is a precursor of his future fate of gender ambiguity, failed rescues, and vicious mockery.

Marcel Proust, hardly the great novelist to come, jealous that Léon has chosen Robert over him, belittles Léon and Robert in an ostensible review of Léon’s public concert. Robert, ashamed that his crush on Léon has revealed his homosexual tendencies to the world, humiliates Léon even further by tricking him to appear on stage to perform for Queen Victoria, when another pianist has actually been scheduled. The self-serving cruelty of Parisian society is exposed.

Léon, abandoned in England, with only a few coins and a channel crossing ticket back to France, must walk to the port in Dover with rain-soaked clothing and shoeless:

Léon winced, both at the pain in his feet and his sorry prospects. That article accusing him of unnaturalness with Robert would soon be joined by the news of his public shaming at the Kensington Palace. And look at him, bedraggled and pathetic. What house would open its doors to him? He wasn’t even allowed to sit in first class on the ferry, when he had a ticket for it!

In truth, no doors are open to him. Only an impoverished flower seller offers him food and shelter before he returns for his village for a life echoing his mother’s career as a piano teacher, but satisfied in his love for his childhood friend, Felix.

Homosexuality and the tensions of a shame that must be hidden dominates the lives of the central characters, illuminating the hypocrisy of this society and exacerbating the self-loathing of some and the fear of exposure of many. What emerges from Léon’s story is hardly a Horatio Alger fantasy.

While the novel is fiction, the crucial people are historical figures, much about them available to Schrefer through research in archives, but the dramatic scenes are products of his inventive imagination as he fills in what is missing from the public record.