Madness in old Paris
FICTION: Adam GouldBy Julia O’Faolain Telegram, 377pp. £7.99
When the Eiffel Tower was built, in 1889, it immediately divided the citizens of Paris into those who adored the new landmark and those who loathed it. In the latter camp was the writer Guy de Maupassant, who took to dining in the Tower’s restaurant every day because, as he explained, it was the only place in the city from which one could not actually see the abhorrent structure. Perhaps his rage against Eiffel’s monstrosity helped fuel his subsequent decline into a paranoid psychosis: three years later, in 1892, Maupassant was taken to a private maison de santérun by the distinguished neurologist Dr Emile Blanche, at Passy, on the outskirts of Paris. Here, deranged and suicidal, he was to die within 12 months.
Julia O’Faolain’s account of this episode in her historical novel Adam Gouldsets Maupassant’s last days in the context of a French nation caught between the secularising grip of the Third Republic and the rumblings of anarchist plotters in the capital. In the Passy asylum the great writer shares his celebrity status with another famous patient, Monseigneur de Belcastel, a reactionary Catholic prelate who, though completely sane, has been incarcerated in the hospital for his alleged involvement with a secret society bent on overthrowing the Republic and reinstating the monarchy. And now through Belcastel’s schemes, the contours of Parisian ecclesiastical intrigue are being silently redrawn, linking the city’s alienated Catholic hierarchy to a labyrinthine religious association stretched throughout France and Belgium, and tied to the rapacious exploits of the overseas mission in the Congo, Europe’s savage shadowland.
With nicely underplayed irony, the novel’s colonial sub-plot in Africa connects in turn to Ireland, represented in the figure of the young Adam Gould. The illegitimate and recently estranged son of a turncoat Catholic landowner, Gould has come to Paris to seek a position at Dr Blanche’s asylum, where his conversations with both Maupassant and Belcastel spark memories of the territory left behind, the familiar novelistic landscape of the encumbered Irish estate with its bad debts, incestuous relations and stock Big House retainers. A hybrid, as he sees himself, trapped between classes and cultures, Gould provides O’Faolain with one of her favoured narrative conceits – the Irish déracinéloosed upon a landscape of continental excess and led by the nose towards various occasions of sin.
Though it portrays in detail the hinterland of Gould’s Mayo estate, this is not an Irish novel, but very much a French one: O’Faolain scatters the book with allusions to Flaubert and Zola and dwells in the initial chapters on the colourful history of Maupassant – his brilliant career, his legendary sexual exploits and extravagances, and his dizzying suicidal collapse. With such a premise one might expect that this would remain Maupassant’s story; that O’Faolain intended to recover the great writer (as William Boyd recovered Rousseau, for example, in The New Confessions) to stand as an emblem of a society in trouble, pulled in panic and licentiousness towards the modern age. But gradually he fades from view and by the end only his name, with its connotations of unfortunate encounters – mauvais passants– suggests his link to the flurry of events in the asylum and beyond.
What kind of tale this becomes afterMaupassant shifts to its sidelines is an interesting question. On one level it moves towards a fully-fledged ecclesiastical thriller, compounded with financial misdealing and clerical double-crossing, while on another (through Adam Gould’s predictable fall for the married niece of one of Belcastel’s associates), it reads more like a pleasingly old-fashioned bodice-ripper: here are the licentious lady’s maid and scheming valet, there the flurry of love letters and kissing cousins. And despite its rather portentous opening it slowly begins to re-engage, too, O’Faolain’s skill with wry comedy, injecting refreshing touches of irony and levity into its characters’ various theological and cultural confusions. Exactly how does the promise of bodily resurrection on the Last Day apply to the victims of cannibals? What is the correct protocol for an amputee who intends to fight a duel?
The result is a novel notable for its frequent adjustments of tone as the author manoeuvres between clerical intrigue, family saga and fin-de-siècleFrench farce. It takes a while for the reader to relax with these variegations, and to recognise the strands of connection that make each element, including Maupassant and his sad circumstances, intrinsic to the overall progress of the narrative. But in full sail this becomes a vivid and absorbing story, fast-paced and confident of its strong historical flavourings. O’Faolain’s publicity material makes much of the fact that Adam Gouldis her first novel in 17 years, but there isn’t a trace of rustiness in its pages, and the long sabbatical from fiction seems to have done her no harm at all.
Eve Patten lectures in English at Trinity College Dublin. Her latest book is Literatures of War(co-edited with Richard Pine), Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008