Summary Review: A genuine tour de force. Anel Viz has managed at one and the same time to create a brilliant and literary (in the best sense of the word) historical novel and a piece of erotic fiction worthy to share the shelf with the classics of the genre.
“When I think of the things that happened and the things I did, it is as though I were living them … My hands feel what I touched, and the smells that surrounded me fill my nostrils … Old joys swell my heart, old sorrows clutch at my throat … I remember every face, every name, every street …”
So Gérard Vreilhac begins the story of his life from his boyhood as a gardener at the Château d’Airelles before the French Revolution through six decades of upheaval and social change to the eve of Napoleon III’s coup d’état. It is a story of heroism and devotion, of political intrigue, of the great battles fought in Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, and of unprecedented upward mobility. Most of all it is the story of the men he loved: Julien, the aristocrat; the jealous and possessive Laurent; his Egyptian houseboy, Akmoud; Anatole, a male prostitute… And every time he fell in love with a man, it was forever.
Of all the literary genres and subgenres, historical fiction is probably the most difficult for the writer to negotiate successfully. From beginning to end, the writer walks a tightrope. One must, of course, provide enough detail that the period invoked comes to life for the reader and he can feel as if he is there, wherever “there” is. Too much detail, however, can all too easily lead to pedantry, and there are unfortunately those works so weighted down with historical fact that characters and story become secondary, and the result is an ersatz kind of history book rather than a novel, and tiresome indeed.
Anel Viz negotiates the crevasse nimbly, providing the kind of background that brings his chosen era vividly to life, without ever burdening the book or the reader—all the more remarkable because the novel is set in the time of the French Revolution, when the details of day to day living were changing nearly every hour. Though I am no expert, the research strikes me as utterly convincing and I was not surprised to learn that the author has taught French language and civilization for many years at the university level. It shows.
The story begins shortly before the Revolution, when Gérard, whose memoirs these are, is fifteen, a gardener in the service of the Count d’Airelles His friendship with the Count’s second son, Julien, develops into a sexual liaison – Gérard’s first, although Julien has had some experience with the Jesuits. From these early and inexpert fumblings develops, at least in Gérard’s heart, a lifelong love that he will carry within him throughout the rest of his life.
The Revolution intervenes, however. Gérard falls in with the Jacobins and in time finds himself working for the Tribunal as a court recorder, where he must witness among many others the execution of his former master, the Count, and most of his family. Julien, however, has managed to elude arrest. Gérard helps Julien to escape to England with his brother’s baby by disguising Julien as his wife. Decades will pass before the lovers meet again.
His success in helping Julien and the baby out of the country soon bring suspicion down on Gérard’s head, and he finds himself in the prison at Saint-Lazare and condemned to the guillotine.
I don’t want to spoil the plot by telling too much of it, and in any case it is a convoluted one—as how could it not be, in such a turbulent era, when one can be sure of no one and lives always under a dark cloud of suspicion? We follow the ups and downs of Gérard’s fortunes over the next many years, through the Directorate, the Empire, Napoleon’s exile and return, through the Revolution of 1830 and up to the Revolution of 1848. Gérard becomes a soldier, first in the army of the Directorate and eventually in Napoleon’s Grande Armée. He serves in Italy, in Austria and, memorably, in Egypt, where he enjoys a relationship with his Egyptian servant, Akmoud. He lives for many years with his lover Laurent, whom he comes to regard as his wife, but he shares relationships with others as well, both women and, increasingly, men.
The cast of characters is large and brilliantly drawn, each of them unique and psychologically convincing so that we get to know them as people, not just as fictional inventions. Laurent and Julien, of course, and Gérard’s lifelong friend Adrienne and her husband Thibaud and the wealthy Stéphane, among others, but even the minor characters are well limned—some of them, with tongue firmly in cheek, are borrowed piecemeal from other sources. Old Madelon and her grandson, from opera’s Andrea Chenier, pops up, and there are others for the sharp-eyed reader to discover. Nor are the famous of the day neglected—Victor Hugo comes off a bit of an opportunist (which might have been a good recipe for surviving at the time) and though he remains “off stage” as it were, Napoleon is as real to the reader as he is to Gérard.
The author offers wonderfully vivid word pictures throughout—a pseudo country wedding staged by the Count for his daughter, which captures perfectly the sense of pretension, no different today from what it was then; the mob’s gory reaction to the beheading of Louis XVI; scenes of battle, luxury and deprivation. There is suspense, plenty of wit, and some occasions for tears.
My criticisms are few, and have mostly to do with some very long stretches of narrative writing that would have come to life more memorably if punctuated with bits of dialogue—but the writing is so excellent that one hardly notices the lapse.
All in all, this is a feast for the lover of first rate historical fiction and as well for those who savor erotic fiction, mostly of the male on male sort. Be forewarned, however, it is not for those looking for fluff, nor for the sexually timid.