Enjoyment of Michel Déon’s French take on Tom Jones, a rambling account of the foundling boy Jean Arnaud’s adventures, which end mid-stream with his departure for the Front on the outbreak of WW2, in the company of conman Palfy, gave me sufficient enthusiasm to start on the sequel – but this proved a disappointment, with all the shortcomings of the first novel magnified in spades. Déon has been praised and honoured for his straightforward prose style as opposed to Sartre’s intellectual existentialism, but the novel is far too sprawling and long-drawn-out.
The thin plot is dominated by Jean’s infatuation with Claude, a beautiful young married woman with a small child and mysterious absent husband. Portrayed as pure and virtuous, she effectively strings Jean along, accepting his moral support, claiming to love him, even letting him into her bed, but for a long time denying him sexual intercourse. Perhaps fulfilling the male author’s fantasy, Jean “has his cake and eats it” by enjoying in parallel a “no strings attached” physical relationship with film actress Nelly Tristan, transformed in his company from a foul-mouthed, tippling social embarrassment into a sensitive declaimer of sentimental French poetry.
The weak storyline is padded out with lengthy recollections of events from the previous novel or with tedious scenes which often seem quite pointless. Déon’s claim that it is possible to understand this sequel without reading the first book is a little misleading: those taking him at his word are likely to become confused over details of Jean’s parentage and his first loves, like Chantal.
Whereas some interesting characters were developed in the first book, like Jean’s restless grandfather Antoine and the village curate, the sequel is dominated by too many exaggerated and generally unappealing caricatures: Palfy, with his network of louche friends and lack of compunction over fraternising with Nazis; the “ultra-respectable” brothel keeper Madame Michette with her bizarre mix of gullibility and guile, and fantasies of being a spy; Jesus, the Spanish painter with the irritating lisp who is prepared to sell his artistic soul for money and avoid commitment until his sudden falling for “enemy German” Laura, or La Garenne, the crooked dealer in art porn. The lesser characters are mainly bland ciphers. There is little sense of place, like the lure of the South of France for Antoine in his Bugatti (previous novel).
In the first book, Déon sometimes revealed himself as an intrusive narrator, over-anxious to reveal future events. In the sequel, this tendency has run out of control, as he even destroys the tension of the two most dramatic, all too rare, incidents by digressing into what lies in store. He keeps giving us potted histories, often in the form of letters, rather than taking the trouble to develop characters and weave events into the plot. This seems like lazy writing. He consistently “tells” rather than “shows”, bludgeoning us into what we should think, with often heavy-handed philosophising, rather than let us experience events directly and form our own judgements.
Just occasionally, there are flickers of insight, as when the narrator (better still if it could have been a character) observes how the isolation caused by war blunts the impact of a tragic event through the delay in receiving it. At one point, Jean actually reflects on the contrast between the simple, honest couple who are sheltering him, and the “artificial et brilliant” life he has been leading.
Handsome, charming, easy-going Jean has always tended to consort with raffish characters, but it is troubling to see him frittering away his time in the company of wheeler-dealer Nazis and collaborators on the make. Although a contrast to many WW2 novels, perhaps in some ways more realistic to see the Occupation of France from this viewpoint, I felt uneasy about the shallow, cynical gloss over the hardship of those who refused to or could not profit from the Occupation, the suffering and risk taken by members of the Resistance and the mistreatment of French Jews, as at the Vel d’Hiv.
Apart from providing a means of practising my French, the novel often bored me, and since it seems to me have to been still further weakened in translation, I have only given 2 stars for the English version.