three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
user_rating: 
0
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A-The Only SonIn this madcap faux memoir (a genre rapidly outdistancing the genuine memoir), the libertine brother of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau makes a mockery of his brother’s Confessions. Recently reviewed: The Theory of Clouds ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Jan/Feb 2008).

The Story: In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, his older brother, Françoise Rousseau, is written out of the story in record time: "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." Of course, in Audeguy’s hands, Françoise goes on to bigger and better things, involving himself in the French Revolution, the Marquis de Sade, French libertines in Switzerland, and an 18th-century sex toy factory. But Audeguy also explores the darker side of such behavior, writing unflinchingly of alcoholism, abuse, and savagery, though ultimately the madcap tends to conquer all.
Harcourt. 256 pages. $24. ISBN: 0151013292

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s quite an achievement, this picaresque adventure, which reads without any false notes of anachronism and in John Cullen’s translation harmonizes beautifully with the cadence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s style. … It is this refusal to allow François any shallow triumphs … that makes this book something much more than a clever literary exercise." Judith Warner

New York 4 of 5 Stars
"In John Cullen’s translation, the sensual decadence of the age is fully conveyed, from the goings-on of a Chinese bathhouse to the squalor in the Tour de la Comté. It’s an exuberant reply to the younger Rousseau’s fabled Confessions."

New Yorker 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Full of arch asides—the hero notes that ‘the French are readier to pardon a murderer than a man who attacks the dignity of money’—the book strives to be both a critical gloss on the Revolution and a madcap romp, with more success, ultimately, at the latter."

Seattle Times 3 of 5 Stars
"It’s as much a comedy as a horror-show, as François sees his world in the most unvarnished terms (Audeguy is unsparing in his depictions of public executions, prison conditions and disease-ravaged street prostitutes), yet somehow finds the strength to live in it. … But for this reader, The Only Son, for all its color and bite, was an oddly arid journey." Michael Upchurch

Critical Summary

Though this charming bit of French picaresque was not widely reviewed, those who did so enjoyed it quite a bit. Critics praised the setting, which naturally lends itself to adventure and misbehavior (Tom Jones, after all, was running around England while Françoise traveled the Continent). So, too, did the translation elegantly capture Audeguy’s imitation of 18th-century prose. Some reviewers complained that the novel veered too suddenly from raunchy to repellent, lessening the effects of both characteristics, and others thought that, overall, it would be appreciated more by French readers than American ones. Still, The Only Son is an entertaining period piece for interested readers.