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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Only Son

Stéphane Audeguy

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To purchase The Only Son

Title: The Only Son
Author: Stéphane Audeguy
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 246 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Only Son - US
The Only Son - UK
The Only Son - Canada
Fils unique - Canada
Fils unique - France
Das Leben des François Rousseau, von ihm selbst erzählt - Deutschland
  • French title: Fils unique
  • Translated by John Cullen

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Our Assessment:

B : starts off very well, but Audeguy can't see it through

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 9-11/2008 Rivka Galchen
FAZ . 14/1/2008 Niklas Bender
Libération . 21/9/2006 Philippe Sandeel
The NY Times Book Rev. . 2/11/2008 Judith Warner
The New Yorker . 10/11/2008 .
TLS . 17/11/2006 David Coward
Die Welt . 25/8/2007 Carolin Fischer
Die Zeit . 4/10/2007 Joseph Hanimann

  From the Reviews:
  • " So folly and whimsy run high. Clearly, Audeguy wants to distract the reader from the thoughtful relation his narrative bears to Rousseau’s work and the larger dilemmas of eighteenth-century France. He uses his picaresque episodes as a magician uses misdirection, aiming to work, just beyond the audience’s gaze, the legerdemain for his grander tricks, the real heart of his show." - Rivka Galchen, Bookforum

  • "Schließlich entwickelt sich Audeguys Fabulierlust aber zum lauwarmen Selbstläufer. Dabei wäre aus dem Thema mehr zu machen gewesen." - Niklas Bender, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Fils unique est d'abord un agréable pastiche picaresque, écrit à la mode du dix-huitième siècle. (...) Le roman d'Audeguy est également un jeu intertextuel" - Philippe Sandeel, Libération

  • "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." - Judith Warner, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(T)he book strives to be both a critical gloss on the Revolution and a madcap romp, with more success, ultimately, at the latter." - The New Yorker

  • "(A) spry cod biography of Francois Rousseau who, far from being lazy and unreliable, is resilient, quick-witted and venturesome. (...) Audeguy's novel moves along smartly and is told with relish, an engaging wryness of manner and bold picaresque inventiveness. His language has enough sententiousness and imperfect subjunctives to give the narrative an authentic period feel, though swots will find enough errors to score points" - David Coward, Times Literary Supplement

  • "So wird dem Leben des François Rousseau, von ihm selbst erzählt zwar keine so bahnbrechende Rolle innerhalb der Literaturgeschichte zufallen wie den Confessions seines "Bruders", aber vielleicht ist es sogar die vergnüglichere Lektüre." - Carolin Fischer, Die Welt

  • "Gelungen ist an diesem Buch vor allem die Art, wie das Doppelmuster komponiert ist. (...) Man braucht aber Rousseaus Werke nicht unbedingt gelesen zu haben, um die Zusammenhänge erfassen zu können. Stéphane Audeguy liefert alles Nötige mit im Roman. (...) Wohl fehlt der Romanfigur des François Rousseau mitunter die nötige Dichte. Die Fäden der literarischen Konstruktion scheinen durch." - Joseph Hanimann, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       George MacDonald Fraser famously and cleverly spun a whole book series out of a small episode in Tom Brown's School Days, taking the minor character of Flashman and inventing an adventure-filled future for him. Stéphane Audeguy does much the same in The Only Son, except he raises the stakes by imagining not the life of a fictional character, but of a real one, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's older brother.
       Practically nothing is known about the brother, but Audeguy gleefully builds on the brief mention in The Confessions:

My brother, who was seven years older than myself, was brought up to my father's profession. The extraordinary affection they lavished on me might be the reason he was too much neglected: this certainly was a fault which cannot be justified. His education and morals suffered by this neglect, and he acquired the habits of a libertine before he arrived at an age to be really one. My father tried what effect placing him with a master would produce, but he still persisted in the same ill conduct. Though I saw him so seldom that it could hardly be said we were acquainted, I loved him tenderly, and believe he had as strong an affection for me as a youth of his dissipated turn of mind could be supposed capable of. One day, I remember, when my father was correcting him severely, I threw myself between them, embracing my brother, whom I covered with my body, receiving the strokes designed for him; I persisted so obstinately in my protection, that either softened by my cries and tears, or fearing to hurt me most, his anger subsided, and he pardoned his fault. 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.
       It's not much to work with, but as with the Flashman-episode in Tom Brown's School Days holds some promise -- especially that he: "acquired the habits of a libertine before he arrived at an age to be really one"
       Audeguy has the brother, François, outlive Jean-Jacques, and the book begins with him incognito, watching the remains of his famous brother be transferred to the Panthéon. This also immediately gives him a chance to make one of the novel's major points, the disastrous influence Rousseau's thought and writings have had on France, which have now become so very apparent. As François both cruelly and sadly notes:
     Of course no one reads your work anymore. What purpose would be served by doing so ? The Revolution has turned your dreams into reality.
       Working within the framework of Jean-Jacques' brief summary, Audeguy invents an interesting youth and upbringing for François. With his father absent (having fled for Constantinople), young François is raised as the adored little darling in a household full of women, something he enjoys greatly but that, as he amusingly recounts, retarded his development. Dad eventually came back, and then mom died shortly after Jean-Jacques was born, leaving young François the odd man out. Audeguy finds a suitable mentor for him, though to most Maximin de Saint-Fonds would be considered anything but suitable. A free-thinking homosexual, he settled in Geneva because he realised that this closed-minded Calvinist town would provide the best cover for his inappropriate behavior, everyone certain that no one with his proclivities would choose to settle there over, say, Paris .
       Maximin doesn't molest the young lad too badly, and does give him a proper education (including, when the time is right, setting him up with the attractive teenage lass who works on his farm). Meanwhile, Audeguy also offers some alternative readings of some of the episodes from Jean-Jacques' Confessions, most notably the infamous episode of the comb (which, François correctly points out, J-J really blew way out of proportion).
       Once Maximin is killed off and Audeguy stages a reason for François to flee Geneva (and change his name) things begin to go downhill. It's only the 1720s, and Audeguy know he has to stretch things out until the Revolution. He dumps François in Dijon for a few uneventful years, lets him reach the age of twenty-five and, in 1730, finally sends him to the big city, Paris.
       Conveniently François finds employment in a bordello, but unfortunately his mechanical skills -- he is, after all, trained as a watchmaker -- prod Audeguy to have him become yet another character who wants to build life-like machines. Specifically, he is charged with making one that can imitate the human digestive process, as well as one that can engage in sexual intercourse (so realistically that it even ejaculates). That keeps him busy for a while, though he only meets with mixed and dubious success in these endeavours.
       Eventually enough time has passed that Audeguy can shove François off to the Bastille, where he remains imprisoned (more or less) until it is stormed. The descriptions of life there are somewhat entertaining, but, of course, Audeguy has to bring in the Bastille's most famous prisoner of the day, the Marquis de Sade, and he doesn't quite have the chops for dealing with that character.
       Comes the Revolution, comes the aftermath ... it gets to be tough going with a character that's now in his eighties (but, he assures us, doesn't look it). Yes, there are connexions to be made between Rousseau's writings and thoughts and the real-life experience of the Revolution, but it's not great going. Valiantly Audeguy presses on, but the book is (barely) moving on fumes; mercifully, Audeguy doesn't prolong the agony and has kept it at a mere 250 or so pages
       It really does start out very enjoyably, but Audeguy doesn't come close to sustaining it, and the Rousseau-connexion isn't strong enough or done well enough. The Only Son is a readable entertainment, but because it falls off so badly, ultimately quite disappointing.

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The Only Son: Reviews: The Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Other books by Stéphane Audeguy under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Stéphane Audeguy was born in 1964.

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© 2008 the complete review

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