Audeguy’s inventive novel profiles the older, smarter brother of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Witnessing the 1794 relocation of his younger brother’s remains to the Panthéon, the aging François Rousseau resolves to write his own memoir as a counterweight to Jean-Jacques’ Confessions. This episodic novel, Audeguy’s second (The Theory of Clouds, 2007), chronicles François’ 90-year lifespan, beginning with his rejection by the father who coddled his younger brother, his mentorship in literature and licentiousness by the Comte de Saint-Fonds, his apprenticeship to a watchmaker, his further training in debauchery (his chosen métier) and his arrival in Paris to become the factotum of a genteel bordello. His watchmaking skills land him a lucrative job manufacturing erotic accessories, including a sex machine dubbed Hercules. François does time in the Bastille—contrary to Revolutionary propaganda, he insists, it was the cushiest prison in Paris. There, he meets the Marquis de Sade and helps Sade hide the manuscript of the Marquis’ notorious The 120 days of Sodom. Released during the storming of the Bastille, the now aged François has outlived his retirement funds. As the Terror approaches, he’s employed by embattled feminist Sophie to manage a Paris public bath. The fact that François and Jean-Jacques never met as adults is historically correct (Audeguy’s title is taken from Rousseau’s assertion in Confessions that after his older brother disappeared, he became the fils unique: only son.) But dramatic tension might have been better served had the liberties allowed by historical fiction been exploited to stage a confrontation between these two unequally treated siblings. However, Audeguy’s primary objective is a prolonged meditation, through the eyes of a perversely virtuous protagonist, on the limitless permutations of human depravity and hypocrisy. The French critics have praised the novel’s 18th-century-esque diction. Cullen’s English translation expertly delivers the equivalent.
François’ apologia is less a sour-grapes critique of his brother’s theories than a cynical deconstruction of the revolutionary ideals they presaged.