Friday, December 29, 2017

Review: THE BRETHREN by Robert Merle

Hankering for fiction set in sixteenth century France? I recently discovered THE FORTUNES OF FRANCE by Robert Merle, a series of thirteen historical novels that span the years 1547 to 1661. Written in French from 1977 to 2003, the books follow the Siorac family of Périgord through the tumultous Wars of Religion and into the reign of the Bourbon kings. The first three novels (THE BRETHREN, CITY OF WISDOM AND BLOOD, and HERETIC DAWN) have recently been translated into English by Professor T. Jefferson Kline and published by Pushkin Press. Having just ripped through the first volume, I fully understand why this captivating series has sold over five million copies in France.

Pierre de Siorac, a Huguenot doctor turned spy, narrates the first six books; his son picks up the thread in the remaining volumes. In Book I, THE BRETHREN, Pierre recounts the establishment of the Siorac family in remote southwestern France. Consulting his father’s Book of Reason, a combination diary and account book, for information on events that occured before his own birth, Pierre describes the arrival of his father Jean de Siorac and his comrade in arms, Jean de Sauveterre, in Périgord after successful service in the French army. The pair, close as real brothers (hence, “The Brethren”), pool their plunder to buy the castle of Mespech, a neglected property they soon coax into a thriving estate. Staunch Protestants, they work to establish Mespech as a reformed stronghold, but the resistance of Jean’s wife Isabelle, a devout and unwavering Catholic, complicates their plans and threatens their allegiances. Furthermore, as soldiers and wealthy landowners, the two Jeans must constantly weigh their loyalty to Catholic king and country against steadfast devotion to their new faith.

The clash between Catholicism and Calvinism--strife that plunges France into an era of long and bloody wars--not only defines the novel's political landscape but colors the characters' interactions. The religious impasse between Pierre's parents affects their children’s relationships with them and with each other, as well as the servants’ and retainers’ relationships with their overlords. Many of the servants continue their Catholic practices in private, and the two Jeans often disagree on how strictly to punish infractions against the Protestantism they impose on family and estate. Moreover, Mespech’s adherence to the Reform, long undeclared, causes friction with neighbors and municipal authorities. In recounting the events of his childhood, Pierre finds his loyalty torn between respect and admiration for his Protestant father and attachment to his Catholic mother and the female servants who raise him. His engaging voices captures the tone of a difficult era, one which forced people to make difficult choices between the demands of heart and mind and soul. With great finesse, author Robert Merle chanels the religious strife fracturing the kingdom into the specific personal conflicts that power the narrative, showing how the abstractions of competing religious philosophies play out in concrete fashion within intimate circles of family and friends.

Despite its theological underpinnings, however, THE BRETHREN reads like a swashbuckling novel reminiscent of an Alexandre Dumas. A master at creating original and memorable characters, from defiant gypsies to doting wetnurses to disabled veterans to blustering butcher-barons, Merle embroils his large cast in an endless series of entertaining and cleverly interwoven escapades. Quick-paced and wide-ranging, the novel unfolds with delightful Rabelaisian exuberance. At the end of this first volume, with Mespech secure and flourishing, young Pierre, as second son, sets out for Montpellier to take up medical studies. Ready and eager to follow, I look forward to his continued adventures. With twelve more volumes to read, I'm certain to be busy for quite some time!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robert Merle (1908-2004) was born in French Algeria and moved to Paris at the age of eight after the death of his interpreter father. He graduated from the Sorbonne and served as a professor of English Literature at several universities. During World War II, he was conscripted as an interpreter in the British Expeditionary Force and was captured by the Germans. After the war, he won the Prix Goncourt for a novel based on his experiences at Dunkirk. Another of his novels was translated into English and filmed as The Day of the Dolphin (1973) starring George C. Scott. He wrote numerous novels, a biography of Oscar Wilde, and several translations, including one of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. His major achievement was the thirteen volumes of the Fortune de France (1977-2003), whose popularity have made him a household name. The first three books of the series have recently been translated into English by T. Jefferson Kline. For further information, see this article in The Guardian.

No comments: