Friday, 3 October 2008

The Only Son - Stephane Audeguy

7 out of 10
“Heirs and disciples can be terrible, vindictive little creatures. That the work of inspired inventors can be both brought to its apogee and utterly wiped out, simultaneously, by followers who are very different from them fascinates and disturbs me.”
Stephane Audeguy in an interview with French Book News, 2006.

Stephane Audeguy’s second novel is both a grand picaresque tour of Eighteenth Century France, and a thoughtful reflection upon Rousseaist thought, as conceived and fulfilled by the French Revolution. The Only Son is narrated by Francois Rousseau, the lost older brother of Jean-Jacques, about whom nothing is known bar a paragraph in The Confessions:

“My brother, who was seven years older than myself, was brought up to my father's profession. The extraordinary affection they lavished on me might be the reason he was too much neglected: this certainly was a fault which cannot be justified. His education and morals suffered by this neglect, and he acquired the habits of a libertine before he arrived at an age to be really one. My father tried what effect placing him with a master would produce, but he still persisted in the same ill conduct. Though I saw him so seldom that it could hardly be said we were acquainted, I loved him tenderly, and believe he had as strong an affection for me as a youth of his dissipated turn of mind could be supposed capable of…In the end, my brother's conduct became so bad that he suddenly disappeared, and we learned some time after that he was in Germany, but he never wrote to us, and from that day we heard no news of him: thus I became an only son.”

From these humble words is Francois Rousseau resurrected. But far from portraying him as lazy and unreliable, Audeguy conceives him as resilient, interesting, and venturesome. He is a capricious libertine, adaptable to whatever life throws at him, and inspired to seek out life in all its guises. The novel is written as a long address from Francois to Jean-Jacques, with the former using history to act as a critique of his brother’s ideas. The plot itself begins with Francois attending the re-burial of his esteemed brother, whose final resting place is being moved to Paris, where the other heroes of the Revolution dwell. Francois, although holding tender memories of his brother, is moved to anger by this absurd aggrandisement: “Why should I hesitate to invoke your ghost, when everyone in the street feels entitled to do so, calling upon you as the Christ of the Revolution? For many years, people have been naming their children after you. . . . Of course, no one reads your work anymore.” The tone is set, the impending revolution may be many years away, but history looms over the entire novel.

So we return to childhood in Geneva. Francois has a happy beginning, raised in an effeminate house, surrounded by adoring and indulgent women. But then his father returns, Jean-Jacques is born, and their mother dies in childbirth, and from then on Francois is a reject within the house. So he begins to walk the streets. He adopts a surrogate father in Maximin de Saint-Fonds, a free-thinking homosexual who opens Francois mind to the possibilities of the world. Under Maximin’s tutelage, Francois becomes interested in uncovering the secrets of human anatomy, and of closing the gap between the divine and impenetrable perfection of the body, and the imperfection of human scientific understanding. He is apprenticed in his father’s profession of watch-making, but having been involved in a confrontation over a women in which his assailant is severely injured, he flees Geneva. A few years later he arrives in Paris, where he finds a home for his libertine ways, first working in a bordello, and then setting up as an eighteenth century sex toy manufacturer. In this role that he is employed by a wealthy asexual philanthropist to outdo a mechanical duck that defecates by engineering a mechanical lover which ejaculates. After many years of effort, Francois accepts defeat but, refusing to be beaten, the two plan a hoax which involves slight of hand, hidden compartments, and a dwarf with a huge penis.

Sadly, such escapades cannot last forever!, and soon Francois has been arrested and sent to the Bastille. There he is afforded privileged treatment, even so far as to be allowed out to roam the local streets. But the same cannot be said for one of his more famous inmates, the Marquis de Sade, who is undergoing a campaign of psychological warfare at the hands of an overzealous attendant. But de Sade will not be broken, and goes to extraordinary lengths to write. Since de Sade’s paper is rationed, and the output checked, he rips thin strips off the bottom of each sheet, upon which he scrawls in minute lettering the scandalous tales bursting from him. But the Marquis is not a strong enough character, in a novel of brash, interesting characters, he is too small and broken to live up to his reputation. The pot slows, it becomes a little disjointed. There is even time for a little joke: “Would you believe it, Jean-Jacques? The Marquis de Sade was your most devoted reader, and he deemed himself your best disciple.” Or perhaps this is Audeguy presenting his own conception of Rousseauist thought. For, come the end, when all else has happened, Francois concludes, “Today, I believe in Sade’s infinite gentleness, in his sadness, and I say that had we only read him, deeply and entirely read him, we might have taken the road that leads to the end of all fear.”

But history does not work backwards. And so behind the thick walls of the Bastille, the years drift away. Eventually, Francois smells Revolution upon the wind, and soon the Bastille has been stormed and he is thrust into what he terms the “strange theatre” of history. We are afforded a privileged viewpoint to see the disappointment of the ramshackle bunch of revolutionaries when they realise that the Bastille has no torture chambers. But, thankfully, their disappointment is assuaged when they find some bones in the basement and choose to see them as remnants of barbarism, rather than what they actually are: the remnants of lunch.

And so the revolution comes and for a while, the spirit of change wafts through the streets of Paris. Francois meets with an entrepreneur and together, they dismantle and sell the Bastille piece by piece, taking advantage of the sentimentality of those who wish to own a piece of history. But Francois is now and old man, and so he settles down once more, in another bordello where he shacks up with a strong, independent woman who is fighting the tides to defend feminist interests against the more forceful proponents of the revolution. In the end, she fails, and there is little left for Francois other than to wait out the end of his life.

So although this is a book with a serious amount of historical revisionism, it is also crammed full of exciting events. Perhaps too many. Occasionally the plot feels like it is being stretched beyond its means to suit the needs of history. Francois wastes some time in Dijon, in Paris, in the Bastille. Years appear to fall off him like water off a ducks back, and so, come the end he is a very old man, yet we have spent so little time with him that he remains young in our head. Where the plot stays still for a while and we are allowed to dwell in the sights and smells of life, The Only Son is engrossing, but too often decades are cast off with barely a paragraph, and this makes it difficult to stay engaged. The Only Son is just short of 250 pages, yet there is material enough for twice as much, and it is impossible to take the grand, picaresque tour which Audeguy attempts in such a short space of time. In its epic scope The Only Son reads like Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx, but in abbreviated form. It wants to be longer, but it is not. And this makes it a little unsatisfying.

Furthermore, sexuality litters the book, a cross between the anti-Confessions of Rousseau, and something outrageous by the Marquis de Sade. Readers easily frustrated by such French erotica will quickly become bored of the endless passages which seem only to present pre-revolutionary France as the capital of excessive, wealthy libertinism, just as history has viewed it.

However, it is also in the realms of history in which Audeguy is at his most successful. The Only Son is a fascinating account of the hidden history of the French Revolution, from the perspective of ordinary people. It would be difficult to find a book freer from political history. Louis XVI is never mentioned, Rebespierre makes but a very brief appearance, and otherwise, the higher echelons of society are thoroughly ignored. Instead we meet fictitious, recognisable, every day folk, who really bring the period to life. Having no more than a basic knowledge of the French Revolution, Audeguy has ignited my interest in this period: what more can you ask of quasi-historical fiction than this? In its original French language, it was even written in authentic eighteenth century language; it is such a shame that this is so completely lost in translation.

Francois portrays history as an accidental, stumbling process, full of lies, fabrications, and misconceptions. And this is no more so the case than with the Rousseauist legacy which is at its heart. The Only Son does not read as a critique of Rousseau, for it is far too jolly and irreverent for that, but, at its heart, it is this. Audeguy has a talent for hiding his messages under layers of plot, so for many readers, myself included, it is almost invisible. But there is really passionate vitriol at its heart. Audeguy shows no sympathy whatsoever for the disciples of Rousseau. The revolution is the result of a mass of Rousseauist wannabes who see themselves as unique and perfected, who charge through history like a bull in a china shop, without pause for thought. As Francois notes, “You thought yourself unique, and because you were, an army of your kind rose up to change the order of things.” There is no romanticising the revolutionaries here. And modern day Rousseauists escape no better.
“Rousseau … gains by a reading that is neither too literal nor too sentimental, above all now, with the theories of all these bleating runts, these unwitting Rousseauists, filling our TV screens, our bookshops and using so many gigabytes in the blogosphere; tiny people all convinced that they too are unique on the simple grounds that they are individuals.”

For such a light-hearted, erotically bizarre, and picaresque jaunt through history, there is startling passion running through The Only Son. Although it is not as ephemerally beguiling as The Theory of Clouds, it does confirm Stephane Audeguy as a major talent, and one who is worth listening to. He has that rare ability to entertain, even while critiquing, and to make one think freshly about things you never thought to question before. The Only Son is witty, fun, serious, and compelling. I’m already eagerly anticipating his third novel.

No comments: