At the opening of this novel, set in the 1920s, after the breakdown of his parents' marriage, 12 year old Matthew is taken to live in Paris by his mother. His inexplicable adoration of an older, male family friend becomes clearer to Matthew when he is sent to a French boarding school and experiences his sexual awakening with another boy - who at 13 is a year older, and is everything Matthew is not. Such hero-worship is later replaced when, at 15, Matthew falls in love with one of his teachers, Michel, who is in his late-20s. Inevitably the pair then face their own internal struggles as well as the external ones against a hostile society.
Fritz Peters' characterisation beautifully captures the naïve, isolated Matthew, and the somewhat bitter, cynical Michel, along with exquisite three-dimensional portraits of the members of Matthew's family. And in Finistère, the father of most contemporary coming-of-age novels, the author expounds those timeless sensations of burgeoning gay self-awareness: Matthew's love for Michel "had made him come to life"..."The sense of guilt that had formed questions inside him, pointing an angry finger at him, vanished".
Lest this simple exposition suggest that Finistère is a 'typical' gay coming-of-age novel, it should be stressed that it was originally published as a mainstream novel in 1951 - clearly a bold move by the author in that era. This is reflected in the content of the novel, which, unsurprisingly, portrays the life of a gay man as a dangerous one, and since two men could not constitute a 'family', the only thing left was for homosexuality to be equated with furtive, underground sex and ultimately, loneliness. What is surprising for a novel of its time is the sympathetic portrayal of the two lovers, Matthew and Michel. Undoubtedly this imbues the novel with a particular historical significance, and it is fortunate that it has been revived by a collaboration between Arsenal Pulp Press and the Little Sister's bookstore.
Much more can (and no doubt will) be said by readers about the importance of this novel in its historical context and how it sheds light on the lives of gay people in our past. Indeed, the eminent Michael Bronski ('Pulp Friction' etc) introduces this new edition with fascinating insight into this aspect of the work. However, it may reasonably be asked why it is important to revive novels such as this, when contemporary gay coming-of-age literature abounds on our bookshelves. Leaving aside the fact that Finistère is a beautifully written and poignant novel in its own right, clearly historical literature is important as a yardstick by which we can assess how society has evolved over the years, and it is for this reason, even if no other, that Finistère - and other works of its era - need to be kept alive. While one can point to many changes in the treatment of gay men since the 1950s, Finistère - as with other coming-of-age novels, is ultimately about the internal struggle that a young gay person goes through in trying to find his place in a hostile society. It thus serves as a necessary reminder that the torment that Matthew undergoes in the novel still exists, more than half a century later, for the young gay person struggling to "arrive at the only place where he has ever really belonged" - and this is one reason why Finistère remains as pertinent today as it was in 1951.
Moreover, it is illuminative that the 'shock value' of the novel when first published was its sympathetic portrayal of gay characters - not their respective ages. Disturbingly, the novel still has potential 'shock value' today - precisely because the relationship involved is that of a 15 year old adolescent and a late-20s man. It is therefore apparent that persecution and hatred have not disappeared in the 50-odd years since Finistère was published - they have merely found a new, more convenient, target. Clearly Matthew's consensual relationship with Michel was highly significant ("What had happened to him was an end to all fear...Michel had brought him back to life") - and yet the Matthews of today are still legally denied such life-altering salvation.
Ultimately, therefore, Finistère remains a work of importance and deserves to be read - not only for the beautiful sorrow and passionate emotions that the novel itself engenders, but because it provides a milestone from which the evolution of our society since 1951 (or regression, indeed) can be measured - and accordingly evokes the legitimate question of whether the persecution of minorities for their nature has really abated, or whether in fact the oppression and demonization suggested in the era of Finistère is still being perpetrated today.