British Fiction Stephane Audeguy The Only Son

ISBN 13: 9780151013296

The Only Son

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9780151013296: The Only Son

Jean-Jacques Rousseau mentions his older brother François only two times in his classic Confessions. In The Only Son, Stéphane Audeguy resurrects Rousseau's forgotten brother in a picaresque tale that brings to life the secret world of eighteenth-century Paris.

Instructed at an early age in the philosophy of libertinage by a decadent aristocrat and later apprenticed to a clock maker, François is ultimately disowned by his family and flees to Paris's underworld. There he finds work in a brothel that caters to politicians and clergy and begins his personal study of the varieties of sexual desire—to its most arcane proclivities. Audeguy uses the libertine's progress to explore the interplay between the individual and society, much in the tradition of Jean-Jacques, but with a very different emphasis. Bold, erotic, and historically fascinating, The Only Son is, in many ways, the anti-Confessions—François' own, decidedly different, portrait of human nature.

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About the Author:

STÉPHANE AUDEGUY lives in Paris, where he teaches the history of cinema and arts.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

You speak so falsely of the time of your birth that I am obliged to lead the reader back to the period of my own. I first saw the light of day at dawn on the fifteenth of March in the year seventeen hundred and five, in a fine, cold house in the upper city of Geneva, at number 40 on the Grand-Rue. In memory of our proud French Huguenot forebears, the Christian name chosen for me was François. At the time, Geneva was a republic, but so greatly has the meaning of this word changed that I am compelled to specify that it was a republic in the ancient Spartan or Athenian sense. By this I mean that a handful of aristocrats, a tenth of the city’s population, governed it absolutely, with power over matters of religion, money, and law. The rest of Geneva’s inhabitants formed a great mass of indistinguishable people who had access neither to the good name of citizen nor to the rights that it conferred. None of this prevented the bourgeoisie of the city from striking noble poses and putting on airs of ancient grandeur. Our father, Isaac Rousseau, belonged by birth to the class of Genevan citizens whose degree of citizenship surpassed that of other Genevans; our mother Suzanne, née Bernard, was also a product of this privileged group. Our parents both rejoiced in their lineage, in a manner peculiar to zealots of a reformed religion: They believed themselves to be utterly humble, and the thought made them quiver with pride.

I shall give here but a scant report of my early childhood. The perusal of your Confessions has at least taught me this: One should distrust his memories of his own tenderest years. For families are like people; they lie with every breath. As soon as the children are able to listen, the elders tell the tales which they, the storytellers, find pleasing. To this rule, the Rousseaus were no exception. I have in my memory a thousand anecdotes that reveal what kind of nursling, what kind of child, I was. Should I listen to my heart, I would believe those tales my own; but reason and memory softly murmur, assuring me that all such accounts are based on old stories regularly retold by my grandmother, my mother, and my father. In the end, by dint of repetition, they themselves believed their fables true, much as I suppose priests do: Having so often repeated the fable of creation, they are persuaded that they know the origin of the world. I shall leave unrecorded here my clearest memories, the ones that show traces of the sentimental style so dear to the Rousseau family; indeed, I shall begin with what happened before I was conscious of anything at all, and which seems sufficiently picturesque to deserve my relating it.

I was born, the first of Suzanne Rousseau’s sons, in the month of March in the year seventeen hundred and five. Some few days after the blessed event, my father, Isaac Rousseau, left us without a word. In one and the same movement, he abandoned my mother, Geneva, and Europe. So mighty was his impulse to leave that it propelled him all the way to the suburbs of Constantinople. Why so impetuous a departure? The familial legend was silent on this point, and in after years, our parents showed scarcely any tendency to engage in domestic quarrels. Did Isaac Rousseau himself know the reasons behind his abrupt exile? He never seemed much disposed to self-examination and sometimes almost surprised himself by being so emotional, so brusque in taking certain decisions. Can one ever know the first causes of a man’s private actions? Be that as it may, to this day I love that strange violence in my progenitor’s character, which seems to offer some explanation of my own temperament. In my time, I have myself been prone to sudden bolting and swerving, like a skittish horse. I shall speak of this tendency later, when the occasion presents itself. A penchant for adventure— a rarity, generally speaking, in Genevan blood— seems to have coursed through the veins of several Rousseaus; one of our uncles died, a ruined man, in the province of Louisiana, and neither you nor I have belied that adventurous bent.

But let me return to my birth and my father. At the end of the month of April, seventeen hundred and five, Isaac Rousseau took up residence in Pera, a charming faubourg of Constantinople, far from his wife and son. There was no lack of work for a competent watchmaker, and our father was a meticulous, scrupulous artisan who established himself immediately and easily. Why had he chosen Constantinople among all other great cities? At the time, it abounded in whores of every nationality. I should not be surprised if he visited them most assiduously, for I must have inherited from someone the inclination to debauchery, which has determined my life and which, as nearly as I can judge, my mother did not possess in any measure.

My father left soon after I was born; what would become of me? I scarcely dare imagine, my poor Jean-Jacques, what your trembling, melancholic imagination would have made of that situation, had by chance you and not I been the firstborn of the children of Isaac and Suzanne Rousseau. How many heartrending melodies you would have drawn from that magnificent and mournful violin of yours, and what torrents of tears your readers would have shed throughout the whole of Europe! In my case, however, the truth is that I did not miss Isaac Rousseau at all. Of course, had I been five, or ten, I should have wept for the loss of an adored and feared father. But I was a nursling at my mother’s breast; I missed nothing. I was ignorant of the sweet necessity of paternal authority, and even of the existence of that strange appendage to the couple I formed with my mother: my father. My imagination was limited to the narrow circle of my feeble senses. I loved the person who nursed me, rocked me, swaddled me. How had Isaac and Suzanne Rousseau met, paired, divided? I shall never know. All that remained of her capricious husband was a bawling baby; she would not engage a wet nurse and hardly left my side during the first three years of my life.

Without confessing it, and perhaps even without daring to admit it to herself, Suzanne— who reclaimed her maiden name— discovered that being no longer burdened with a husband suited her quite well, as did to an even greater degree the fact that, as a married woman, she was exempted from finding herself another one. Suzanne’s mother had come to live at her daughter’s side in our tall dwelling, which was built of gray stone. Though not rich, this curious Bernard household was in comfortable circumstances because of the income from some small but high-yielding patches of land. We had an elderly housekeeper, two chambermaids, and a cook. And so I grew up, surrounded by women, in one of those gynaecea to which the inequality of the sexes confines widows and abandoned wives. For several years, I was the prince of this little realm. Each of the women around me practiced virtue without ostentation; none of them associated with men. They did not think of this as something missing from their lives. Chastity is a habit swiftly acquired, provided one gives it no thought, but it is not without consequences. To be quite honest, vapors rose from these ladies’ cunnies to their heads and troubled their judgment; they treated me like a prodigy of Nature and greeted my smallest progress as a miracle effected by the hand of Providence. Under this regime of imbecile idolatry, I was very much at my ease, though more, alas, like a young boar in his wallow than like a future citizen of Geneva. It happened, therefore, that I learned to walk later than other children without anyone’s taking notice of the fact. Other backwardnesses of mine met with even odder treatment: When at seven years of age I still soiled my breeches, the circumstance was found picturesque and droll. On the other hand, as soon as I was capable of recognizing some of the most common words, whose form I merely retained and which I only pretended to read, the household resounded with praise: Never had such a prodigy been seen; to find another example of such precocity, one would have to go back to the illustrious Ancients. If I laughed, I was the most charming creature in Geneva; if I raged, my imperious character foretold an exceptional destiny. In short, I lived like a favorite lover, more caressed, more combed, more rubbed, and more perfumed than a lapdog, exhibiting also, I believe, a lapdog’s stupidity and servility. As I was not corrupt from birth, I was often sensible of how outrageous this conduct was, and secretly troubled by its extravagance; but soon I stretched out upon the soft eiderdown quilt of self-love. My inane Genevan paradise enthralled me like opium. How could I have resisted it? But like every illusory paradise, this one allowed a glimpse of an unhappy end to come. My ladies thought they were providing me with an education by going into ecstasies over everything and nothing; in that cold and insipid happiness, however, I remained in the larval state. It is a good thing, no doubt, to follow one’s inclination; but the path must lead upward.

 

© Éditions GALLIMARD, Paris, 2006

English translation copyright © 2008 by John Cullen

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