1920s, 1930s, coming-of-age novel, France, Henry Fielding, historical fiction, Michel Déon, Normandy, picaresque, Provence, Stendhal
With this post, I’m starting a summer schedule, in which I’ll review one book a week.
Review: The Foundling Boy, by Michel Déon
Translated from the French by Julian Evans
Gallic, 2013 [Gallimard, 1975] 415 pp. $16
Halfway through this poignant, often hilarious tale, the protagonist, Jean Arnaud, comes across a truth I wish I’d taken to heart at age seventeen, as he does:
There was, then, no shame in being young, not the way adults wanted to make you believe, saying every time you advanced the slightest opinion, ‘Wait till you’ve grown up a little. . . . When you’ve done what we did, then you can speak.’ . . . [I]t was no crime to make mistakes, to give in to your enthusiasms, to be happy or unhappy because a girl made you suffer.
Jean imbibes this lesson after reading Stendhal, who’d have enjoyed the young man’s amorous adventures and the gentle irony with which Déon tells of his growing up. But this picaresque novel also harks back to Henry Fielding’s rollicking eighteenth-century masterpiece, Tom Jones. Both begin with a foundling child of mysterious origins who fits no societal niche and will have to make his fortune through his gifts of character, which turn out to be considerable.
However, The Foundling Boy takes place in France between the world wars, not eighteenth-century England, and the particular atmosphere in which people try to recover from old wounds offers a perfect forum in which to observe how people enjoy life (or don’t). In this, the novel has a distinctly French sensibility, by which I mean that the characters who succeed are those who know better than to take themselves too seriously. I think this notion is what the French, at their best, have given Western civilization.
Once the basket bearing a newborn infant is left on a doorstep belonging to a childless couple, caretakers of a Norman estate, there’s little plot to speak of. But don’t worry. Episode quickly follows episode, and Jean gets into scrape after scrape, portrayed with wit, charm, and keen observation. Most of the story takes place in Normandy and Provence, so if you like France, or can imagine or have experienced the pleasures of either place–cider and ancient greenery in one; warm colors and aromatic herbs in the other–you’ll like this book.
Sometimes, the omniscient narrator takes time out to tell you who’s important to remember, and who isn’t, as if Déon were your mentor. The role fits, for practically everybody wants to mold Jean to his or her own purposes–for his own good, of course. His adoptive father wants him to be a gardener, like himself, and to stay close to home; a con man tries to teach him to be a con man, and roam the world; and Ernst, a German youth he meets on a bicycle trip to Italy, insists that fascism offers the only useful, honest path in life.
All this is ripe for satire, and Déon doesn’t miss a trick. Especially as a young boy, Jean has no experience with which to filter out the useful advice from noise or what, to the reader, appears the counselor’s self-interest. Jean’s not weak–far from it–just green, but that constantly gets him into trouble. And as he navigates through his difficulties, what’s personal to Jean is also political and social commentary about 1930s Europe, though he doesn’t always know that. For instance, he can’t figure out why Ernst, who seems to laugh a lot and be good-natured, should take himself and his country so seriously, especially to spout hateful, vaguely frightening ideas from a book called Mein Kampf. Jean’s puzzlement reflects a common attitude of the time, one explanation for why so many Europeans underestimated Hitler.
Originally published in 1975, The Foundling Boy is a classic in France, though only recently translated into English, as with its sequel, The Foundling’s War. Déon belongs to the Academie Française, but he’s now also part of my personal pantheon: a great writer I’d never heard of.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.