French writer Baron Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen died on this day in 1923. As we’ve seen, his gloriously baroque name had become a little tarnished on its journey to the grave, and the obscurity into which he had sunk in his Caprese exile endured long after his death.
That we discuss this minor poet at all in the early 21st century is due largely to the efforts of another French writer: Roger Peyrefitte. Born in 1907, Peyrefitte was, like Fersen, no stranger to scandal. His first novel, Les amitiés particulières, appeared in 1944 and dealt with love among schoolboys. Improbably, the planets of critical and popular success aligned for this daring work, in a way that Peyrefitte could never again reproduce.
Peyrefitte’s oeuvre covered biography, fiction, gay cultural history – not infrequently a mix of all three – but he was never comfortable in French letters. He was prolific, he was widely read, but he wasn’t able to establish himself among the serious, grown-up literati of France. Barred, figuratively speaking, from the academy, Peyrefitte’s role became that of a professional irritant. He outed numerous public figures and had a compulsive habit of riling the most secretive institutions, those whose very existence depends on silence and complicity: the Catholic Church, Freemasons, the diplomatic corps. But his research was meticulous, and despite numerous suits he generally evaded censure. One of the few to successfully gain legal redress against Peyrefitte was Marlene Dietrich whom the writer foolishly accused of having at one stage been a supporter of the Nazis.
In the late 1950s, Peyrefitte took himself to Capri for an extended period. The Italian island was starting to attract large-scale tourism, but it was an earlier era that Peyrefitte was there to discover – the period in the early 20th century when it was a haven for northern European gays under self-imposed exile. It was Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen, in particular, who attracted Peyrefitte’s attention. He found Fersen’s home, the Villa Lysis, in a state of ruin, the baron’s beloved garden grown wild. He identified with the baron, that much is sure. Fersen’s isolation and luxury was curiously close to Peyrefitte’s position: estrangement from the French literary world alongside popular success.
The result of Peyrefitte’s research was L’exilé de Capri, a thorough account of d’Adelswärd-Fersen’s life which although thinly fictionalised has nonetheless proved the most substantial source for information on the baron. Naturally, it unleashed a scandal, but as Peyrefitte said in a TV interview at the time: “To me, scandal is foolishness, ugliness, hypocrisy, obscenity; I think it would be difficult to find these faults in my books…I love only truth.”
L’exilé de Capri perhaps came closest to recapturing the long-withheld acknowledgment of Peyrefitte’s peers, and it’s one of only a handful of his books which have been translated into English. It found few echoes in the ensuing four decades, a period in which Peyrefitte issued books at the rate of almost one a year.
Perhaps taking the identification with his subject a little far, Peyrefitte also died on this day in 2000, exactly 77 years after Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen.