"THE WORLD, MORE OR LESS" by Jean Rouaud

"THE WORLD, MORE OR LESS"

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KIRKUS REVIEW

An excess of navel-gazing weakens this otherwise highly appealing portrait of the artist through boyhood and adolescence, which completes an autobiographical trilogy (begun with the Prix Goncourt--winning Fields of Glory, 1992, and continued in Of Illustrious Men, 1994). Rouaud's previous novels celebrated his grandfather's and father's lives respectively, and a strong sense of the claims of family likewise hovers about the edges of this appropriately more buoyant story (narrated by its unnamed protagonist) of school days, first love, and a dawning awareness of its hero's vocation. It unwisely begins, though, with an extremely attenuated impressionistic account of (for convenience, let's say) Rouaud's awkward participation in team sports and unhappy tenure at Sainte-Cosmes, a Catholic boarding school (amusingly labelled a ""Cassock-clad menagerie""). The lyrical and introspective style (beautifully translated) strikes many exquisite chords, but every particular of this preternaturally observant boy's environment is scrutinized so relentlessly that the novel moves at an escargot's pace. Its narrative logic does provide helpful structuring: An essay assignment stimulates Rouaud's memories of his family's cemetery visits to honor its numerous dead; his attempts to play the guitar lead into a moving meditation on his grandmother's memories of her late husband's musical talents. There are charming characterizations of an older friend ""Gyi"" (Georges-Yves), the school's chief iconoclast and lord of misrule as well as a relentlessly avant-garde filmmaker; and of Theo, a moody beauty who gives the young narrator his first experience of romantic confusion, ecstasy, and heartbreak. Rouaud is disarmingly forthright about his own naive idealism, and he skillfully solicits our empathy for ""the little guy with the asymmetrical glasses"" who matures--quite convincingly--before our eyes. It's both Rouaud's strength and limitation that his exclusive subject (identified here as his ""myopia"") appears to be his family and himself. The so-called trilogy may be completed, but one expects the story to continue.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1998
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Arcade