Jan 9, 2016

The Iceland Fisherman: Gay Romance in Collier's Encyclopedia

When I was little, there weren't many books in the house except for the Bible and the thick, black, ponderous volumes of the 1955 edition of Collier's Encyclopedia.  I used to leaf through it, looking for muscular semi-nude men (try "African Tribes," "The Circus," and "Egypt").   The last volume contained the Reading Guide, a list of the best books ever written, and among them was The Iceland Fisherman (1886), by French novelist Pierre Loti (1850-1923).

Why was a Frenchman writing about Iceland, I wondered.  Because of the Northern Thing, the Viking ships and horned helmets and "Baldur the Beautiful"?  Because it was a place of wild freedom, where men could hug, kiss, and marry?

The mystery of the French Icelander stayed with me for years.  When I took French in high school and then college, I was surprised that no professor ever mentioned Pierre Loti or The Iceland Fisherman-- wasn't it the "best book ever written"?  It wasn't in our library.  But one day I ordered a copy from interlibrary loan.

No professor mentioned it because it was a symbolist novel, no longer in style.  And gay-themed.

A group of Breton fishermen sail to Iceland each summer in search of cod. Sylvestre, "a girlish boy," befrieds the big, muscular Yann, who disapproves of women and says he'll "marry the sea."

Back in France, Sylvestre courts women, in darkness, "dreaming of death," but in the summer he goes out to sea again, and leans against Yann, and they go on "gaily with their fishing in the everlasting daylight."

When Sylvestre dies in Indochina, Yann is heartbroken, and finally marries his sister, so at least some part of him will remain.  But that is not enough, so in the end Yann surrenders to the sea.  But even in death they cannot be together, for Sylvestre had "gone to sleep in the enchanted gardens, far, far, away, on the other side of the earth."

The novel is famous in France.  Pecheur d'Islande has been filmed several times, notably in 1959 (with Jean-Claude Pascal, left, and Georges Poujouly) and in 1996 (with Antony Delon, top photo, and Marius Colucci).  The film versions apparently emphasize The Girl.

Pierre Loti was himself bisexual, sleeping with women but longing for the wild homoerotic freedom of Turkey and the Middle East.  He filled his home with mementos of his journeys, including many paintings of semi-nude men, such as these Easter Islanders, as well as semi-nude photos of his own muscular physique (most destroyed after his death).