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three pairs of lovers with space

A REVIEW OF THE MARINE VICE BY JEAN BOSC

 

Le Vice marin, confessions d'un marin (The Marine vice, confessions of a seaman) by French writer Jean Bosc was published in 1905 by Pierre Douville in Paris. A translation by JM Thian for this website is forthcoming. 

 THE BLOSSOMING OF KERMAREC THE SHIP'S BOY

by JM Thian
30 May 2024

Vice Marin 1

A manuscript found in a rowboat next to the body of a shipwrecked sailor who had died of hunger and thirst... A gloomy, dark, suffocating atmosphere... A young ship's boy, Alain, aged fifteen, naive and puritanical, refusing to give in to the sexual advances of the other sailors... A sweet, tender friendship developing between this same Alain and Kermarec, a ship's boy younger than him... A mutiny, a revenge, a spell in prison, the death of Alain's mother, Kermarec becoming the lover of a Navy admiral... All the ingredients are in place for a read that promises to be full of tension and twists...

There are indeed plenty of tension, twists and turns in this 1905 novel. Perhaps even too many. If we are to believe the foreword by Jean Bosc, its author, to be found in the second edition of the book, lady patronesses did not really appreciate the work at all. The reason is given in its title, Le Vice Marin, which refers here to pederasty, a practice which is omnipresent in the first part of the book and which is tackled head-on, but without going so far as to be pornographic...

The work also “offended the modesty of newspaper editors, who refused to advertise it in their columns, despite the quality, according to the critics of the time, of the work as much for its moral scope as for its literary form...”[1] The author, backing down in the face of the assaults coming from both sides, was forced to give his novel a much more neutral title: Les Isolés, under which it was from then on published, thus avoiding complete censorship.

A word about the “literary form” of the book: it is of high quality indeed, drawing from the best of what was being written at the time in terms of maritime novels, with a good dose of Edgar Allan Poe (The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, 1838); a pinch of Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798), a large dose of Jules Verne (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, 1870) and there you have it, a dramatic backdrop of swells, dark skies, storms and ghosts that grabs the readers by the gut and plunges them into a world from which there seems to be no escape.

Let’s say a few words about the “moral significance” of the book, also mentioned by the critics: if the subject of pederasty is tackled with a frankness that commands respect, it is nevertheless cloaked - and this is perhaps the book's weakest point for a contemporary reader - in a heavy-handed Puritanism, with all its characteristic cries of outrage, the author most of the time acting like a frightened virgin fascinated by sex and crying scandal every time she sees a bit of fresh flesh in her field of vision.

The novel's interest, in its first part at least - the theme of pederasty is totally absent from the three parts that follow - lies in what is said and what can be inferred in spite of the puritanical veil that permeates every page of the story: carried away by his lyricism, Jean Bosc sometimes forgets all caution and unwittingly reveals, as we will try to show, a fascination, a sincere and honest tolerance, a real understanding of what nourishes the relationships between men and young boys that abound in this perfectly enclosed place that is a ship. And in that regard, there is more to it than meets the eye!

***

The year is 1881, the month October. Alain, soon to be 15, embarks as a ship's boy aboard the Moskova, a vessel anchored in the French harbour of Brest. It's the only way he has found to survive after the death of his father and financially help his mother. Alain is confronted by “the marine vice” as soon as he gets on board. Lost and disorientated, he finds it hard to fall asleep. The reader plunges with him into a darkness from which he will have trouble emerging:

I see,” he says, “children my age slipping silently out of their hammocks, dressed in simple striped knitwear, heading for other hammocks, which they climb in a single bound, like monkeys.... I listen [...] to the rather disturbing noises [...] that reach my ears, noises like murmurs of caresses and kisses... something new to me, something frightening, that confuses and distresses me, fills my soul with terror, shame and disgust... (p. 16)

And a little later:

Vice Marin 2

[The quarter-master] stops, bends down to read the number on the canvas [2] ... is searching for somebody, there’s no doubt about it, and doesn't quite know where the ship’s boy he's trying to find lies... It's a diabolical figure that I see, a tense figure, with eyes that shine like those of a hag cat, with lips like the suckers of a giant octopus and greedy lips that bend over the hammock where the child lies... [...] But when those haggard eyes catch naked boys skimming the walls, disappearing who knows where; when my ears perceive the confused sounds of stifled sighs, the creaking of some hammocks, or the laughter of some ship’s boys, I still don't understand anything... (page 17-18)

Alain, portrayed from the very beginning as a naïve young adolescent who knows nothing about sex, will later be described as somebody who is “fragile”, “shy”, “with a pale face”, “thin skin” and “black eyes”. After having observed him, a sailor will remark: “This kid is really beautiful... Look at his eyes, his face, his hands... He really looks like a girl...” (page 32). And as such, Alain will very quickly become a perfect prey for those sailors who are eager for fresh meat.

Shortly after his arrival on board the Moskowa, Alain meets Kermarec, a boy younger than him who tells him that, in order to obtain the essential equipment needed to carry out his duties as ship’s boy (emery cloth, oil, rags, drink, tobacco, etc.), all he has to do is answer in a positive way the sexual demands of the crew:

At first, I didn't want to do it either. I used to cry all day and all night, I was worried sick... I was sure of getting all the dirty jobs; my older comrades would beat me up and force me to serve them... In turn, the instructors would get on my back and drink my quart of wine... After a while, I got fed up and ended up saying to myself that I was really stupid not to imitate some of my companions, and well... one day, as I was more discouraged than usual... You understand, don't you? (page 29).

Vice Marin 4

Does Alain really understand? It's doubtful. One thing is certain though: he does fall under Kermarec’s spell:

[Kermarec] is so kind, with his velvety black eyes, his fresh, bleeding lips - a woman's lips - there's something so singularly captivating and graceful about his whole body, that you feel overcome by an imperious attraction, and you love him, despite the equivocation of his demeanour and the haunting caress of his perverse gaze... (page 31)

A portrait of unfeigned kindness. It's a pity that the author, taking over the reins of his description, refers to Kermarec’s gaze as being “perverse”. This word, Jean Bosc will use again - as if he were afraid of being misunderstood - three pages later, by including it in Alain's comments about his comrade:

Ah! Kermarec... Guardian angel, perverse demon, genius of God and Evil, I don't know... His slim silhouette disappears into the depths of the battery [3] and still I keep within me the obsession of his singular charm and the fear of his disquieting enigma. (page 34)

In other words, if Alan is attracted to Kermarec, it has nothing to do with him, it is entirely his comrade’s fault. Alain's attraction to Kermarec never waned after that, though always tinged, alas, with a tenacious feeling of “disquieting” guilt that refuses to appear under its true name: Alain has fallen in love with the boy:

There are times when I just want to scratch that girl's face... At other times, an incomprehensible sympathy pushes me towards this caressing friend; and then I feel that I am his thing... I wonder what he is waiting for to demand indulgences of me that I would probably not dare refuse... But what does he want, what does he hope for, my God? Why this particular friendship that he devotes to me and that manifests itself at every moment... (page 36-37)

Later, after Alain has fallen out with Kermarec and is mourning his absence, “missing the charm of his voice and the caress of his eyes. (page 40):

“Alain...”

“It's you, Kermarec... Why are you sulking?”

He doesn't answer. But his arm embraces my waist, his cheek comes so close to mine that it brushes against it... I tremble. I'm happy to feel my friend's tenderness again, and yet this tenderness bothers me, disturbs me more than usual...[4] It's true that it has never manifested itself so precisely. For his right hand is gripping mine tightly, while his left is now caressing my neck... He is speaking:

“Poor little thing; you were not made for this life... Oh, I know what I'm talking about... and I pity you!”

For a long time he remained silent, as if thinking of things he shouldn't tell me. Then, as he came closer:

“Your nature, on the contrary, calls for gentleness, affection and love, and that's what you haven't been given...”

He stops, squeezes tighter and continues:

“You're so right... I understood you, didn't I? And that's why you love me...”

Lower and right in my ear:

“Because you love me, don't you?”

I make a great effort to strengthen my voice:

“No, Kermarec, I don't love you like that...”

And while he remained on deck, unmoving, a little stunned, I ran away, climbed down the battery ladders, then lay down in my hammock to weep to my heart's content. (page 41)

Alain has every right to tell his friend that he doesn't love him “like that”. But then, why run away? Why the crying fit that follows? There's an astonishing reversal of roles here: it's Alain who should have been stunned, and Kermarec devastated and crying after being rejected so by his friend...

***

At this point in the story, Kermarec's and Alain's paths diverge. Kermarec joins the apprentice fusilliers in Toulon and Alain the apprentice rifle battalion in Lorient. As they say their final goodbyes, Kermarec throws himself around Alain's neck and starts to “cry like a little girl...” (p 50)

His girlish face is all crumpled up... but suddenly I too feel an imperious tenderness for this caressing friend, and I wrap my arm around his neck, filling him with words that astonish even me... I can give him this illusion since it's time to say goodbye... (p 51)

So it is when it's time to say goodbye that Alain finally reveals a truth that he has refused to acknowledge so far: that he loves Kermarec. A truth disguised as a lie.... And Kermarec, the boy who looks like a girl, the “caressing friend”, the “perverse” Kermarec becomes the one who embodies love without any lies, As such, he reveals himself as the real hero of this story, one for whom the author has the most simple, honest affection, devoid of any trickery or stylistic effect, one who is always true to himself, in other words: righteous.

***

Before following each of them on their respective journeys, let's pause very briefly to see what Jean Bosc, through the mouth of young Alain, has to say first about the “tyranny of sex” between the ship's boys and the crew and then about what the future holds in stock for those who have “succumbed” to pederasty:

1 – The “tyranny of sex” is analysed very briefly on page 37:

I've seen ship’s boys, old-timers, half-stunning younger men, in order to force them into strange manias that their already corrupted instincts demanded... At other times, it was they themselves who were subjected to the will of men; but from top to bottom reigns the appalling tyranny of the strongest over the weakest...

Vice Marin 5

The law of the strongest...  On one side the victims, on the other the executioners. Total absence of any sentiment in between, no room for love in this power struggle, which is all the more surprising if you've closely followed the affectionate relationship between Alain and Kermanec...

2 – According to Alain, what happens to those who have been caught in this power struggle between the dominated and the dominant falls under three alternatives:

  1. Some, again according to Alain, who suddenly finds himself the soul of a sex sociologist, will get out and “find the salvation of their soul and the rehabilitation of their flesh in the passionate kiss of a woman who will teach them about love”. (page 39). The pederastic episode will have no impact on the sexual orientation of those who experienced it, whether voluntarily or by force. They will return to a heteronormative life. Jean Bosc claims that only a small number will follow this path. We are allowed not to agree...
  2. Others, Alain continues, will continue to prostitute themselves in order to escape the drudgery and “hard necessities of the profession” of sailor. Probably true, but no example is given...
  3. Last possible alternative: some will end up at the hospital and “suffer cruelly, tortured in their flesh by the terrible diseases that are Love's revenge”.

If points 2 and 3 refer to the morality in vogue at the time - vice corrupts irremediably - Jean Bosc's honesty lies in his having included point 1, in which the ship’s boy, after having had a relationship with an older crew member, will discover love in the arms of a woman. Nothing is said about him marrying her and having children with her later. Too bad... An interesting point remains, though: still according to Alain (or Jean Bosc for that matter) the pederastic relationship in some instances will have no impact whatsoever on the social and sexual development of the ship’s boy (whether he played the role of ‘torturer’ or ‘victim’): try holding such a discourse today, and you run the risk of being sent to prison, being suicidally ostracised or having a finger pointed at you, all for refusing to succumb to the widespread hysteria that says that in a pederastic relationship, the child can only be a victim scarred victim for life, with a social and sexual future that is more than compromised.

***

The year is 1882, Alain is now 16 and he is now a student in Lorient. For him, nothing much has changed:

Vice Marin 3

Every day, every night, I come close to the same vices, I witness the same traffic that used to disgust me and that today I see with an unhateful eye, accustomed to it. However, many of my comrades from the Moskova capitulated here, for the first time... (because) if you want, at the end of the year, to get the certificate entitling you to the title of marine-fusilier and extra pay, you have to know how to bend over backwards and satisfy some desires. (page 54)

To which he adds:

Oh how I pity them, those whom nature has made pretty and supple in body. More than the others, they are doomed to the torment of enervating desires and special brutalities. (page 54)

Is Alain really feeling pity for Kermarec? Or is he not just sorry for himself, who is also as pretty as a girl? Alain and Kermarec, two sides of the same coin, with Kermarec on the bright side of it - he has bent over backwards, true, but he is on his way to find happiness at last – while poor Alain pitifully remains on the dark side, as preoccupied as he is with preserving fiercely his own virginity. For his mother alone Alain keeps “the flower of [his] pure affection, and this flower, so delicate and fragrant, amid poisonous stems and corollas, [he] will tend with such devotion that it will never die.” (page 55)...

Delicate flower... Poisonous stem... Enough to fill long sessions with a Freudian psychoanalyst!

“Many of my comrades from the Moskova capitulate here,” says Alain. I so wish he could have given more details as to the how, the when or the where... Under what circumstances? We won’t know, the narrator won’t tell... For Jean Bosc, in a pederastic affair, there is a winner and a loser and that’s it, the rest must be kept under the carpet of decency, and that is really too bad. The only time the carpet is lifted and more explanations are given is when the plot moves from the Moskova to some far more distant shores: once the action is moved from France to the jungles of Tonkin, where Alain is sent to fight for his country, the author somehow becomes more emotional, more eager to comment and make the reader feel the situation. The rape of children by French soldiers is mentioned with the author’s habitual casualness and lack of precision...:

These are children, with their hair gathered in a heavy bun, who, by the equivocation of their sex, die of a torment otherwise painful... (page 64)

.... but in the following episode, Jean Bosc really gets carried away:  

 Vice Marin 6

Last night, when I returned to camp after an hour's guard duty at the edge of a thicket, I found a 12-year-old child on the ground, whimpering and with a sabre wound in his side, who had been defiled and then murdered by thugs. He died in my arms, and I was so saddened that I cried for a long time, bending over his little corpse. Then I thought of Moskova, of the passions that germinate in our miserable flesh, in our damned souls... And I couldn't move away from him without placing my fraternal lips on his blood-stained forehead. (page 64).

To equate the desire to murder with sexual orientation is more than dubious, as is the correlation between having been a pederast (victim or executioner, to use Jean Bosc's dichotomy) and consequently becoming a murderer. It's a cause-and-effect relationship that smacks of cheap rhetoric, or even fakery, designed to reassure, or shock, the lady patronesses we mentioned earlier. But this in no way detracts from the overwhelming evocative power of such a scene: the heartfelt emotion described in the above-mentioned passage seems to come straight from a Signe de Piste novel - I'm thinking of course of La Mort d'Eric by Serge Dallens (1947). [5]

***

As the novel progresses, a constant in Alain's character emerges: his attraction to the bodies of pretty boys or teenagers who look like girls with their “languorous black eyes”, “fine features”, “deliciously weary gestures”, “red lips”, “voluptuous mouth” and “imperceptible skin breath”. We are about three quarters into the story and at this point, I confess I really felt pity for the boy, hoping with all my heart that he would very quickly find at last a soul mate in the arms of a handsome young boy or man fitting that description.

Alas, the author never went down that road. Instead, he inflicts us with a few rather well written scenes in which Alain's repulsion for anything female is explicitly revealed. Fighting against his inner demons, the boy throws himself into the arms... of a female prostitute. Now, here's what he has to say about it:

The touch of this dirty, vicious woman, whose body was writhing under mine, whose mouth was screaming words of pleasure into my mouth clenched by disgust? Is this love? (page 78).

Following next is the neurotic, hallucinatory vision he gives of the sexual act itself. All the elements of what constitutes a healthy sexual relationship (with its convulsions, embraces, pleasures and sighs, naked bodies etc...) are present but seem to have been inverted... The dark side of the coin, as it is:

Vice Marin 7

I become the plaything of a cerebral agitation and a hallucination that tortures my body. All the vices and monstrosities I discovered on this ship flash before my bewildered eyes in a vertiginous phantasmagoria... I seem to see, in front of me, groups of people writhing in terrible convulsions, biting, devouring each other, merging in impossible embraces that make them howl with rage, pain or pleasure, I don't exactly know... so different are these cries from the human voice... Are they groans or sighs, these strange noises that strike my ears?... In truth, I don't know... I don't belong to real life, my mind is sinking into an atrocious nightmare... And from the dark corners on which I gaze, it seems to me that naked phantoms are emerging, reaching out towards me with their gaunt arms and their vile lips of insatiable ghouls... Every object that I stare at seems at once to split into two, to take the form of singular bodies, hermaphroditic, hideous and green and rotten... Frightened, my skin breaking out in a cold sweat, I recoil as if faced with the apparition of a stinking carrion that has suddenly come to life and fallen into my arms... An even more frightful dream: the corpse kisses my lips, poisons me with the smell of its flaccid, viscous, decomposing flesh... (pages 104-105)

What is revealed here is a sexual act that could have been beautiful if it wasn't wrapped up in a discourse of disgust, self-hatred, dread and putrid flesh, reminiscent of the atmosphere that emanates from certain poems by Baudelaire (La Charogne for example), some passages by the Marquis de Sade and certain parts of Tony Duvert's Paysage de Fantaisie... And that Alain goes through this hallucinatory experience shortly after his mother’s death is surely not a coincidence. God, what I would give to be his psychoanalyst! [6]

***

The year is 1886, Alain is now 19. He is still “pure” and at his lowest morally and financially. After nearly four years without seeing one another, Alain meets Kermarec. Kermarec is now aged 17, or 18, he is a young prostitute, has a girlfriend and has become the lover of a naval admiral, Admiral Sukdick, aged 59, who pays for his room in town and has promised to help him leave the navy and start a promising career on land. Kermarec, seeing the poor state his companion is in, gives him the following advice:  

Vice Marin 8

To think that you could be the happiest man on your ship... Favours hold out their arms to you, all you have to do is say one word, not even one, and immediately money, leaves, freedom will pour down on you... But you refuse them all... Better to exploit men's instincts than to suffer from their cruelty - for instincts are terrible forces, because reason cannot control them... To harness them for our own benefit is to turn our tormentors into submissive slaves... (page 109-110)

How did a 1900’s reader react to such a declaration? I don’t know... But I know that the contemporary reader I am feels sympathy for the boy, for the maturity he shows, the realism he demonstrates, a realism tinged with cynicism and opportunism, indeed, but a clear-sighted realism that defies and discards the stifling rules set by society. Kermarec is free and happy, and that is what matters, and to hell with law, order and its subsequent ethics. Is Le Vice Marin an anarchist pamphlet underneath its puritanical, right-thinking exterior? More than probably so. Whatever it is, the speech Kermarec gave Alain is in itself quite fascinatingly mature from the mouth of a boy still so young...

***

At this point of the story, the two young boys are at a crossroads. How will Alain behave afterwards? Will he follow Kermarec's advice? Will he finally put some water in his mill and fall in love with a young ship’s boy with “a caressing face”, “black eyes”, “soft skin” and “red lips”, a boy that “looks like a girl”? Will he offer his virtue to a sailor who has set his sights on him? By doing one or the other, will he finally manage to get back on track and find the happiness that keeps eluding him?

And Kermarec? Is he destined for a fall into hell? Will his quest for happiness suddenly end in a hospital bed, the victim of a shameful illness? Or will the admiral who maintains him keep his word and help him out of his predicament?

The road they will travel will take each of them towards a future that is far less clear-cut than what we may be led to believe by the apparent Manichean ideology of an author who, so far, has been rather good at disguising his intentions.

***

 

[1] Foreword to the second 1905 edition of Le Vice Marin.

[2] Each sailor is allocated a hammock number on arrival on board a ship.

[3] Name given to the place where the sailors sleep.

[4] Surely a polite way of saying Alain is having an erection.

[5] The pederastic murder, whether fantasised or not is one theme dear to C. J. Bradbury Robinson and is developed in a much more interesting way (without intellectual manipulation) in, among others, Arabian Boys or Bare Knees, Boy Knees.

[6] Upon reflection, no, I wouldn’t give anything. Too boring, too much work, too much super ego to fight against.