Michel Déon's The Foundling Boy (translated by Julian Evans, review copy courtesy of Gallic Books) takes us to Normandy, where Jeanne and Albert Arnaud, caretakers of the estate of the du Courseau family, are woken one morning in 1919 by cries. On investigating, they discover a baby in a wicker basket abandoned on their doorstep, and they decide to take the child in as their own, despite the objections of Madame du Courseau (who would prefer the child to grow up in her own house).
The years pass, and Jean, as the child is named, grows into a strapping young man, blessed with good looks, a strong body and ample intelligence. However, the mystery of his provenance is always at the back of his mind, and this refuses to allow him the peace required to settle down - he's a boy with itchy feet, and his wanderings will take him far and wide. Meanwhile, just as Jean reaches maturity, the clouds of war begin to gather once more. France prepares itself to send another generation of young men to the slaughter...
The Foundling Boy is wonderful, a really enjoyable novel. It's a book you fly through, sepia-tinted, but with a razor-sharp drollness, a Bildungsroman of the best kind:
"I sense that the reader is eager, as I am, to reach the point where Jean Arnaud becomes a man. But patience! None of us turns into an adult overnight, and nothing would be properly clear (or properly fictional) if I failed to illustrate the stages of our hero's childhood in some carefully chosen anecdotes."With a sympathetic main character, and an excellent supporting cast, this is a book full of interesting people living through very interesting times.
p.80 (Gallic Books, 2013)
The novel paints a picture of France, and elsewhere in Europe, during the interwar period. The scars of 'The Great War' are still visible, whether psychological, as in the constant fear of another conflict, or physical, in the form of Albert's missing leg or the mutilated face of another old soldier, Léon Cece. Throughout the novel, the tension gradually builds, and by the end of the story, the uneasy peace binding Europe together has finally broken down...
Despite the shadow of war in the background, though, the novel is really all about Jean. He's a boy growing up with a mystery, a child of humble origins who will owe his rise in the world to a mysterious benefactor. If that sounds vaguely familiar, it should, as there are numerous parallels here to Great Expectations. The eerie start to the book has echoes of Dickens' novel, and the enigmatic figure of Constantin Palfy, Jean's own Herbert Pocket, helps Jean to understand the ways of the world (in London!). There's even a beautiful, seemingly untouchable, love interest in the form of Chantal de Malemort.
If it's a Great Expectations tribute, though, it's certainly a very French one, from the images of the Norman hawthorns on the first page to its occasional mocking of the English and Germans. One of the major themes of the novel is Jean's sexual awakening, and there's a fair bit of action between the sheets, and seduction of willing housewives. As he says in his diary:
"I've bought myself a notebook where I've started making a few notes:Ah, the French... Suffice it to say, this is one lesson Jean manages to take to heart ;)
a) Duplicity: absolutely necessary for a life without dramas. You have to harden your heart. I need to be capable, without blushing to my roots, of sleeping with a woman and then being a jolly decent chap to her lover or her husband. This is essential. Without it society would be impossible." (p.240)
Moving on to non-sexual matters, part of Jean's education is learning from the people he encounters, as each person teaches him something new, removing the scales from his innocent eyes. His travels in Italy with the budding Nazi Ernst teach him that a helpful nature and racist rage are not incompatible, while his friendship with Palfy shows him that people with no morals can make the most enjoyable companions. It takes time, but our hero eventually grasps that what we see on the outside rarely reflects the inside completely - people tend to have more than one face...
My enjoyment of the novel was enhanced by the idiosyncrasies of the narrator. He's a constant intrusion, a self-important, witty, manipulative ghost, who leaves you in no doubt as to who is in control of the story:
"...Everyone came to watch: Adèle, Jeanne, Marie-Thérèse, Albert, Jean, Michel, Antoinette and two other servants, whose names I shan't bother with because they were only casual staff." (p.48)Not everyone likes this kind of authorial presence, but I appreciated the skillful switches from a distanced narrative to a distinct involvement in the tale. Occasionally, however, this intrusion has a darker side. From time to time, the narrator takes us on little trips into the future, where we see the fate of minor characters who are no longer required for the story...
The Foundling Boy is a book I enjoyed immensely, gripping and very funny, with never a dull moment. It's a novel with a wonderful style - Evans' translation is excellent, and the text never seemed clumsy or unnatural. The best thing of all, though, is that the story doesn't end there. With The Foundling Boy ending at the very start of the Second World War (revealing some secrets, but leaving others to uncover another day), the scene is set for a sequel - which you can get your hands on now too! Gallic Books is bringing The Foundling's War out in a matter of days, and I, for one, can't wait to catch up with Jean and his friends for another trip down memory lane.
I'm sure it'll be another very French experience ;)