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three pairs of lovers with space



The future prize-winning French writer Gabriel Michel Hippolyte Matzneff (born 12 August 1936) visited Algeria five times in the years 1959-61 and wrote about it in his journals. The relevant ones were published as Cette  camisole de flammes. Journal 1953-62 (This Flaming Straitjacket. Journal 1953-1962) and L’Archange aux pieds fourchus: Journal 1963-1964 (The Archangel with cloven hooves: Journal 1963-1964) by La Table ronde in Paris in 1976 and 1982.

Presented here are all the passages of Greek love interest in his description of his visits there. During the first four, Algeria was part of France, but its people were fighting a war of independence against her, which they won before the last. Though a young man of twenty-two to twenty-four, Matzneff, however, did not go there as a soldier, but for pleasure, and in fact expressed considerable sympathy for Algerian aspirations. The translation is this website’s.


First visit, 20 March to 7 April 1959

Following Matzneff’s arrival, the first time he had crossed the Mediterranean:

    At the Café de France, around the table football, this charming cohort of children and adolescents. This is the place where I must set up my hut.

    Braham is the name of this young demon of fourteen, with a golden complexion, wild hair and dazzling white teeth.

Cherchell 1960. 13s collecting seashells d5    

I remember sitting on a rock at the tip of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat last January, dreaming of the day when I would set sail for North Africa... Today, that dream has come true, and it’s on an Algerian rock that I’m sitting, in my swimming costume, looking out at the sea, while a few metres away Braham is looking for seashells. (24th March.)  

    Among Braham’s little friends there are those who continue to speak in Arabic without bothering about me, and those who, as soon as I arrive, make the effort to speak only French. [...]
     Braham. Sensual desire, but also esteem and tenderness.

    The other kids have quickly realised that Braham is the protégé of the Parisian (“the Parisian” is my name here), and they make fun of us for it. “Are you going to take Braham to Paris with you?” they sometimes ask me, with a little smile at the corner of their lips. [pp. 146-7]

     Braham. His golden complexion, his fine features, his peach skin, his smile.
     I have the sun, the sea, freedom, work too (my Romans!), and above all I have Braham, who is a paradise in himself. [p. 148]

    Braham tells me: “I promise you, I’ve never seen a Frenchman like you!”
     “You’re very nice, very good. The others would eat us alive.”
     What an overwhelming declaration of love! (3rd April.)

    Like all his friends, Braham dreams of coming to Paris, where he thinks he’ll find work, money and fun. Our friendship reinforces his idea that the French in France are not like those in Algeria, that they are not hostile to Arabs. I try to dissuade him, but to no avail: his belief is fixed.
    With that, a finesse, a natural distinction that put him a hundred cubits above the other kids from Cherchell. A little lord. I sense in him that melancholy sadness that characterises superior children. But will he ever be able to express this superiority, when his future is already mapped out: factory labourer or mechanic in a garage? [...]

    Children are playing in the half-light of the Roman square, just before curfew. One of them, unknown to me, approaches me, offers me an ice cream and disappears into the darkness. Another says to me: “I’m Braham’s cousin. Braham’s pretty, isn’t he? He looks like a girl... Will you take him with you to Paris?” [...]

    Monday 6 April. Last day in Cherchell, spent entirely with Braham. In the evening, we take a long walk through the dark streets, our hearts heavy and our throats tight. When we parted (at 10 p.m., because of the curfew), I avoided any outpouring of affection. I didn’t kiss him. We shook hands, he put his hand to his heart, and then he disappeared into the night.
    7th April, six o’clock in the morning. Roosters crow. In an hour I will have left Cherchell. All the words of love that out of propriety I did not say to him now burn my lips...

Cherchell 1960 bus d3

     Seven o’clock in the morning. It’s all over now. The coach has left. Right up until the last minute, I hoped that Braham would come to the bus stop, but he didn’t come. Black, acrid waves of pain. I wanted the fellaghas to attack the bus, I wanted to die on the spot.

    On board the Kairouan. The liner hasn’t left the harbour yet, but already I’m no longer on African soil. The loudspeaker is blaring music for the mentally retarded. Leaning against the rail, I stare at the buildings on the seafront. In front of me dance his golden face, his wonderful smile, his locks blonder than the rest of his hair. My little boy.

    It was a splendid crossing, but I didn’t enjoy it at all. The sun is shining, but I don’t care about the sun, what I want is Braham, his gentle presence and his laugh full of stars.

Readers wishing to read Matzneff's journals in chronological order should at this point return to This Flaming Straitjacket, 1953-62.


Second visit, 18 May to 3 June 1959

Matzneff was brought back to Algeria by a longing and apparently a promise to be with Braham again:

    Braham is now busy all day: he works at a craftsman’s for a miserable wage. Between his job, the curfew and the meals he eats with his family, I wonder when we’ll be able to be together. It’s infuriating.

     21st May. I mustn’t blame anyone, it’s my fault, I’d waited too long for this moment: disappointment was inevitable.

    22nd May. Going off to play with some friends at the lighthouse, he entrusts me with his bike. It’s a charming way of making me feel that even though I’m not one of them, he likes me all the same... Alas! that’s not enough for me, I had imagined something else.

 Cherchell 1960. 14 in doorway shadow

    Since I can only see Braham in the late afternoon, I spend my days lounging on the beach or writing in the Roman square, sitting in the hollow formed by the roots of the tall trees, which resemble dead lava flows. [...]

    Like Dionysos always surrounded by a procession of young fauns, I can’t go anywhere in Cherchell without being followed by a cohort of noisy admirers aged between ten and fifteen. Sometimes I wish they would be more discreet, if only to avoid attracting comments like the one the cobbler made to me the other day (“The little Arabs really like you!”). But what’s the point? One has to have the courage to be who one is. [...]

    Our kisses exchanged in the shadow of a doorway in the rue du Théâtre romain, just before curfew. I would like to die like that, his fresh face in my hands, his mouth under mine. [pp. 156-8]

Readers wishing to read Matzneff's journals in chronological order should at this point return to This Flaming Straitjacket, 1953-62.


Third visit, 9 September to 20 October 1959

Matzneff stayed in Cherchell from 14 September onwards:

    14 September. […] diagonally across the Roman square. Two kids spotted me and came running towards me, laughing. Great effusions.
    Nothing has changed since 3rd June. My little friends are still spending their money at Allouche’s table football, Braham is as beautiful as ever, and at night the lighthouse lights up the dark waters where the ghosts of sunken hulks sail.
     Braham is happy to have me back, but not surprised. Since March he has become accustomed to seeing me appear in his life in this way, then disappear, then appear again. His skin, as soft and fragrant as ever, is golden from the summer sun. [p. 170]

Cherchell 1960. 14 French d7

    16th September. I had already noticed him in the dining room of the hotel, but it is only today that I have the opportunity to speak to him, when, on the Place Romaine, he passes in front of the bench where I am sitting. Fourteen years and eleven months old. A kid as I love them, full of the genius and fire of childhood. He’s beautiful, with a slightly wild, Mowgli-like beauty: brown, unruly comb-over hair, dark skin, big almond-shaped green eyes, a laughing mouth with full lips, the teeth of a young dog, a supple, graceful body. His name is Alain.[1] [...]

    17th September. It was love at first sight. Alain and I never leave each other’s side: on the beach, at the cinema, in the restaurant, in my bedroom, Alain is always by my side and I by his. His father, a judge at the Cherchell court, far from resenting the affair, seems to encourage it.
     20 September. From now on, every evening, Judge L., his son and I dine either at the Césarée or more likely at one of the two restaurants on the civil beach. […]

     Alain. Lively, hopeful, straight as an i. Adorable.

     25 September. […]

     Sea bathing and ping-pong on the military beach. Outside court hours, Alain and I install ourselves in the courtroom, and do his holiday homework. [pp. 171-2]

     At the cinema, seated between Alain and Braham, I am without any doubt the happiest man in Cherchell, the happiest in Algeria.
     Judge L. and Alain have left the Césarée and moved into a little Arab house, Lieutenant Jude Street. This is where we now spend our evenings, eating our meals in the courtyard on a low table, in the oriental style. Until curfew, we talk, laugh and heckle. His grace, his spirit, his age make Alain the ideal companion for me; and I believe that for my part I too can contribute something to him, help him to fulfil himself, to blossom.

    Reading over Alain’s shoulder the poem he has to recite tomorrow, Isolation, I discover to my surprise (so decried, so forgotten is Lamartine these days) that these verses are beautiful, that the sentiment behind them is true, and that they move me as they did when I first read them - at precisely Alain’s age. [...]

    6th October. Braham explodes with grief and jealousy. “You never come to see me any more... you’re always with that boy... you’ve abandoned me...”  He’s on the verge of tears. I try to soothe him with gentle words and friendly protestations, but I know that his grievances are justified.

    Is it my fault if I’m more at ease with Alain than with him? They are the same age - Braham turned fifteen in July, Alain will be fifteen next Sunday - but I can spend whole days with Alain without getting bored, and without boring him for a moment, whereas Braham and I, apart from our friendship, are separated by everything: education, social background, language above all (I don’t know ten words of Arabic, and Braham’s French, while sufficient for everyday conversation, is nevertheless very limited).

    Braham’s hazel eyes, brilliant and limpid. [pp. 173-5]

     Quite apart from the sensual attraction he exerts on me, Alain is a boy I’d like to have for a son (which would be impossible, since he’s only eight years my junior). He’s cheerful, curious, mischievous, serious, honest, as pure as a Toledo blade; he’s, in scout parlance, “an amazing kid”; he’s Raoul de Bragelonne[2]. [p. 176]

    11th October. Alain’s birthday. I give him a camera, which keeps us busy for most of the day. At the end of the afternoon, in front of the cake, just as Alain is about to blow out his fifteen candles, a gendarme knocks on the mechta door. The judge had to follow immediately: the body of a European shopkeeper had been found not far from the Military School.

Cherchell Infantry
                                        Cadet training at the Cherchell Infantry Military School, 1960

    That corpse could have been me, who just yesterday, disregarding Alain’s calls for caution, ventured out of town, towards the southern plateau, with an Arab boy (who wasn’t Braham) as my only companion. I could have been ambushed and shot like a rabbit. I don’t really think about it until today, because of that attack. Always, mixed in with everyday life, this presence of danger, of death. [p. 177]

    Night of October 17th to 18th. The curfew hour having long since sounded, the Djoudje[3] won’t let me return to the Césarée (“You’d make too tempting a target.”). So I sleep at the mechta, in the same bed as Alain. It’s our first night together. Touching mine, his warm, tender body... When he dozes off, I watch him sleep for a long time, I listen to his peaceful breathing, I observe his graceful face... Before I too fall asleep, I gently kiss his lovely, half-open lips. Such a chaste, unforgettable kiss.

    Love is a cage, but I wouldn’t care for freedom without love. I don’t care about apatheia. It’s my passions that justify my life. The doctrine of deliverance from passions, be it Buddhist, Stoic or Christian, I don’t want it and I never will. I might as well be walled up alive. I prefer my delights and my flames.

   October 19th. I spend most of the day repairing Braham’s bike. Seeing me, crouched in the street, dirty and ragged, fiddling with a stubborn inner tube, who would ever think that... [...]

Cherchell 1960. 12s in street d1

     One last time, I enjoy Braham’s gentle presence. This kid is astonishingly beautiful, of an enchanting, diabolical beauty.

    The real Algerian miracle is the kindness and soulfulness of these Moslem adolescents. Because it’s not just Braham: there are a good dozen others, aged between ten and sixteen, who have become my friends and who are great kids. [pp. 178-9]

    October 20th. Last night, Braham had warned me that he couldn’t be at the departure of the bus, because of his boss, but I was hoping Alain would be there. The torrential rain held him back. It’s doubtless for the best. [...]
    It seems to me that one suffers less from women than from kids. [p. 180]

Readers wishing to read Matzneff's journals in chronological order should at this point return to This Flaming Straitjacket, 1953-62.

Fourth visit, 26 January to 2 February 1961

Matzneff had begun his two years of military service in November 1959, hence he needed leave for this visit:

     Marseille, 25 January. Tomorrow morning, I embark for Algeria. In my wallet, three months leave for convalescence, renewable, given by General Rouvillois, commander of the autonomous military subdivision of the Seine.[…]

     I am not alone leaving. Like Childe Harold[4], I have my sixteen-year-old page with me: Alain is accompanying me.

Matzneff arrived in Algeria on 26 January:

27th January. Back to Cherchell. Sweet melancholy for what has been and can never be recreated exactly, whatever we do... Yet my relationship with Braham has not deteriorated: strange, it is fifteen months since we last saw each other, and I find him with the feeling that I left him the day before, which is usually more the mark of friendship, which resists separation admirably, than of love, where one has to see each other often. [...]

    I visit the delightful Roman museum at Cherchell with Braham. I explain everything to him, talk to him at length about Juba of Mauritania, and try to get him excited about his country’s past.

     The little Arab grocery shop on rue Fromentin.

     Braham tells me about the owner of Retour de la pêche: “He’s a real pied-noir.”

    At Allouche’s, I play table football, as I used to, with Braham and his inseparable pals (at least one of whom is very pretty), Mourad, the Pasha, Kadhour and Salah. [pp. 239-40]

    The Djoudje tells me that the local police are investigating me: my friendships with the street boys, my “liberal” opinions, my lifestyle, everything points to me as a “suspect”.... If they want to pin a vice case on me, it’ll be easy, but as, despite all, I’m not involved in any specific political activity, I don’t see why they would. Besides, I’m a soldier, and in the war-torn Algeria of 1961 the cops have, I think, better things to do (or rather worse things to do) than chastise the guilty love affairs of a “little lad from the contingent” (as our ministers say). [p. 241]

Cinema 1960 d4

    At the Rex cinema, with Braham. Zorro-style film, with a masked vigilante who goes underground to defend the poor peasants against the occupiers, and the final triumph of the popular revolt. The front rows, full of Arab kids, applaud and stomp with joy. The back rows, packed with Europeans and cadet officers, did not seem to grasp the subversive significance of the film. And what are the colonels of the Psychological Action doing? Braham is ecstatic, grabbing my thigh, nudging me with his elbow, putting his lips to my ear to whisper feverish comments. [p. 242]

    A delightful walk to the lighthouse with two of Braham’s friends, one of whom, seventeen years old, with black eyes, regular features and a fleshy mouth, is very handsome.
    All these kids dream of Europe, which they know only from the B-movies shown at the Rex. And their god is Eddie Constantine.[5]

    Why have men made sins of the two most divine and innocent states there are: sexual pleasure and idleness? Because men don’t like happiness.

     1st February. Strange dream, this night. Alain and me, both of us were falling in love with a boy of eleven, very kind and yet elusive. Always escaping us. [pp. 243-4]

    I’d probably have better things to do than spend hours hanging out with Braham, Mourad and Ali, writing Paludes for example, but apart from my own strategic reasons about love, there’s a “vitelloni” side to me that I don’t want to deny (and no doubt that’s why I love Fellini’s film so much). [p. 245]

Readers wishing to read Matzneff's journals in chronological order should at this point continue to This Flaming Straitjacket, 1953-62.


Fifth visit, 9 April to May 1964

Algeria had been independent for nearly two years.

14 outside villa 1960 d4

    K. is one of the last Europeans still living in Belcourt. With his brush of white hair, his eagle’s beak nose, his thin figure, his fourteen-year-old Arab boy, he looks like a retired cavalry officer. Yet he is only a working teacher.
     I ask him about the state of (pederastic) morals.
    “On the surface,” he tells me, “it’s time for virtue, but in reality everything is as it was before.” [p. 127]

     This boy is my delight. Whenever we are alone, he slips into my bedroom, jumps on my neck and drags me onto the (famous) mattress. He has been taught well, for he kisses and caresses very well; and he gets fucked with cries of enthusiasm.
     He only sulks when he catches me with one of his little friends. One can be hospitable and yet jealous. [p. 137]

     I’ve been sitting on a bench in Bresson Square for ten minutes now, and no little shoeshine boy has come to offer me his services. No more little shoeshine boys in Square Bresson! The traveller passing through Algiers thus finally has the right to have dirty shoes. Socialism is a beautiful thing. [p. 138]

     Lying on the rocks, behind the lighthouse that I celebrated in my poem A Night in Caesarea, we caress and kiss each other deliciously, the boy and I. I think of Braham, in the year 59... Love, too, abolishes time. Exquisite profusion of happiness.     No doubt I should have a guilty conscience: does a Frenchman have the right to be happy on Algerian soil in the year of Our Lord 1964? I am afraid the answer is no, and yet, at this very minute, I am perfectly happy. Do I have to ask for forgiveness for this moment of plenitude? [p. 141]

Undated, April/May in Belcourt, Algeria:

     I make love with little B. while, in the next room, Radio Alger broadcasts a discourse on the emancipation of peoples. [p. 143]

     K. tells me that he took refuge here “to escape European civilisation, which is ruled by women”.
     The misogyny of men to women is often spoken of; that of homosexuals is not spoken of enough.
     Perhaps only someone like me, who has the desire for women and also for (very) young boys, can escape the temptation of misogyny.
     Of course, men have excellent reasons to distrust women. The fact remains that misogyny is, spiritually, a dead end. [...]

Ship leaving Algiers 1964 d2

     Clusters of children like oranges ripened in the sun. Perfumed air, where mingle the smells of adolescent bodies, of trees in bloom, and of grilled mutton. Voluptuous warmth of the street.
     All this is summed up in one word: sensuality.

     K. and little A. accompany me to the pier. Why is it that every time I leave Algiers I feel so torn? A last look at the square Bresson, while the boat takes me towards boring Europe. [pp. 145-6]


Continue to The Archangel with Cloven Hooves, 1963-4.

[1] Alain L., is identifiable through his implicit date of birth of 11 October 1944 as the Alain Louis Max Catherine Lootgieter mentioned as a still close friend in Matzneff’s much later journals. He was born that day in Vanves, Hauts-de-Seine and died aged 77 on 11 July 2022 in Bordeaux.

[2] Raoul de Bragelonne was the youngest of the main protagonists in Alexandre Dumas’s novel Le Vicomte de Bragelonne, published in 1847-50.

[3] The “Djoudje” is Matzneff’s name for Alain’s father, “Juge” Lootgieter., through “pleasing imitation of the Moslems”.

[4] Childe Harold was the hero of Lord Byron’s narrative poem of that name, published in 1812. Like Byron, whom Matzneff had long revered, and Matzneff himself, Childe Harold was a world-weary young man seeking distraction in foreign lands.

[5] Eddie Constantine (1913-93) was an American actor and a star in France after acting in a series of B-movies.