Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 7, 2014

The Foundling Boy, by Michel Deon, translated by Julian Evans

The Foundling BoyThings are torrid at work at the moment as we hurtle towards the end of the school year, so much as I love a book that challenges me in style and form and content, I just wanted a story to read in bed as I try to wind down at the end of a long day.  The Foundling Boy has been just perfect for that.  First published in 1975 but only recently translated into English, it is a beautiful coming-of-age story set between the wars in France, thought-provoking enough to be interesting, but easy reading.

As it happened, there was a rare instance of a newborn being abandoned by its mother here in Australia in the same week that I read this book.  I can’t comment on it because matters are in the hands of the courts and social services, and quite rightly, the privacy of this tragic act is being respected.  There is an assumption that with support and care the mother and child will be reunited, and if not there will be an adoption process to find a loving family for the child.   But the fact that the courts and social services are involved contrasts markedly with the situation in the Michel Déon’s novel.  A baby is found mewling on the doorstep of childless Albert and Jeanne Arnaud – and they simply keep the foundling, with the blessing of the local abbé Le Couec and their wealthy employers the de Courseau family.  There is some rivalry for possession of the child from Madame Marie-Thérèse  du Courseau, but there is no question of any official intervention at all.

So Jean grows up in Grangeville, Normandy, enjoying the love and devotion of his adoptive parents and a close relationship with the family at La Sauveté where there are three children, Antoinette, Geneviève and Michel.  Playing with the reader’s suspicions about the paternity of the child, because Monsieur Antoine de Courseau is an incorrigible womaniser and it’s possible that he might be the father of Jean, Michel Déon portrays Michel as a hostile rival to Jean, and Jean’s would-be amorous relationship with the girls before he discovers his uncertain identity seems more than problematic.  The France that Déon depicts is relaxed about sexual liaisons but presumably not about incest, and the small town setting where this might unintentionally occur brings the matter into focus.  The abbé knows who Jean’s parent is, but he’s bound by the confessional, and the secret can’t be revealed by him.

The discovery that his parents are not his biological family unsettles Jean as he enters adolescence and his promising academic future is derailed.  He leaves the security of Grangeville to adventure in London, and to cycle through Italy with a young German who spouts Nazi doctrine at him without spoiling the friendship because Jean is so convinced that France is well-defended.  Along the way we see his naiveté, but also his remarkable good luck.  He has a number of carefree liaisons with young women, and becomes involved with a likeable rogue called Palfy.  The growing threat of war is not only foreshadowed by allusions to contemporary events, but also by the occasional intrusion of the narrator who foreshadows explicitly what will happen in the sequel, The Foundling’s War, which is waiting on my TBR as well.  I became quite fond of this narrator asserting his right to control the novel as he sees fit:

Have I said anything yet about the physical appearance in which Madame du Courseau, née Marie-Thérèse de Mangepin, offered herself? No, because it seems that it goes without saying, but a person reading over my shoulder is worrying me somewhat by describing her as in her forties, ugly, simultaneously authoritarian and sickly-sweet, dressed like those ladies of good works who seem constantly to be watching out for the sins of others.  Let us not allow free rein to anyone else’s imagination, apart from my own.  At the time this story begins, Marie-Thérèse de Courseau is thirty-eight years old.  In three years time she will cut her hair short, which will save her from too harsh a transition to her forties.  She drives herself to mass in her own trap, swims in the Channel during the three summer months, cooks very admirably when necessary, teaches the Gospels to the children of the village and, as we have seen, presides over her workroom at Dieppe.  Dressed by Lanvin there is no trace of the provincial lady in her Sunday best.  (p. 22)

Deon is a man of his time: he writes a lot about Antoine’s sports cars, notably a Bugatti, and is sympathetic not only to his serial adulteries but also to the cavalier way he behaves when the family fortunes take a plunge because of the depression. His representation of women and girls, and the role that they play in the novel is old-fashioned, but this is an old-fashioned novel.  Its charm lies in the depiction of French life and customs, and the way that domestic politics influenced attitudes.  Albert, who lost a leg in WW1 is a diehard communist pacifist whose one wish is that Jean should never go to war while Ernst – who loves Goethe as Jean loves Stendhal – has already absorbed the anti-Semitic attitudes of the Hitler youth.   The abbé is relaxed about Albert’s atheism and anticlericalism, refusing to side with Marie-Thérèse:

‘Madame,’ the abbé said, ‘to state the matter briefly, God knows how to identify those among his lost or straying sheep who have Christian virtues and sometimes a charity greatly superior to those who go to mass regularly.  Evan as a freemason who subscribes to L’oeuvre, Albert is an example to many. (p.20)

I hope that the little foundling from Sydney finds as much love as Jean did in this story…

Author: Michel Déon
Title: The Foundling’s War
Translated from the French by Julian Evans
Publisher: Gallic Books, London, 2013 (first published as Le jeune home vert in 1975)
ISBN: 9781908313560
Source: Review copy courtesy of Gallic Books

Availability
Fishpond: The Foundling Boy;


Responses

  1. I enjoyed this coming-of-age read too and am looking forward to The Foundling’s War which it looks like you are also reading.

    An old fashioned view of women and girls is a polite way of putting it, I admit I was wondering where the ordinary women were!

    • Oh well, LOL there’s no point in being indignant about it now, when it was written so long ago.

      • When it occurred to me in reading, I wondered if it was a cultural portrayal, but even in England the fantasies prevail :)

        If you are right, will we see more of the same in the follow up or will he be changed by war I wonder? Are you reading them back to back?

        • No, not back to back Stu from Winston’s Dad and I are reading the DSC shortlist between us so I’ve started the Kamila Shamsie now. But soon…

  2. I have a copy of this book in my TBR so it’s good to know you enjoyed it. Sometimes you just need great storytelling in a book – nothing flashy, just a ‘traditional’, intelligent read.

  3. I’ve never heard of this and now I’m more than curious. I’ll have a look at it.

  4. I don’t know about this one, Lisa. I see the word “foundling” and I baulk, probably cos it doesn’t sound like a terribly new idea and I’ve perhaps read too many novels about abandoned babies. But glad you enjoyed this one.

    • Actually, I think you’d like this, because it’s so good at rendering the period. But yes, it’s an old-fashioned word, and it probably has been over-used a bit in the service of books about finding an identity.


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