“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.
Review by Nan Hawthorne (crossposted from “That’s All She Read“)
A friend of mine once told me when I told her I was planning to write historical fiction that if she wants to know about an event, she just reads a history book about it. I was so startled by the inconsideration of the comment that I had nothing to say. This novel is an example of why historical fiction, when it is well done and the writer is insightful and a careful researcher, can be so much better than a dry, impersonal, history. No matter how much the historian tries to address the immediate experience of an event, s/he simply doesn’t have the liberty to speculate on the inner motivations and reactions of the people who lived through it. That is why I value historical fiction so much, and one reason why I loved this book.
Imagine what it must have been like to live through the period in France from just before the Revolution of 1789 through Napoleon, two more revolutions and the continuous change in political systems and government and their impact on average people. I mean, have you ever wondered how you would have known from your middle class or lower neighborhood in Paris in 1789 that people were rioting in the streets and that the Bastille had been taken? I can tell you that this happened at this place as a result of this action, but wouldn’t you rather know what you may have seen out your kitchen window as early one morning you dragged yourself out of bed and went out to the courtyard well to draw water to make coffee, noticing odd sounds outside and seeing one of your neighbors running out of his front door with a musket?
Gérard Vreilhac experienced it all, either right in his face or as a victim of the consequences. He is the gardener’s son at a country estate of a nobleman. He is about as far from the focus of the revolutionary action as he can be, but not for long. He and the younger son of the household, already boyhood friends, become lovers, Gérard finding the first love of his life. Julian, the son, must leave to join the military, and Gérard is left to puzzle out his sexuality. He is in Paris when the proverbial Revolutionary trumpets sound and manages to get a job that introduces him to the leaders of the rebellion. As a result of impressing Robespierre, he becomes the clerk for the infamous trials of the Reign of Terror, finally finding himself convicted of crimes against the revolution and facing a guillotine that has already taken the lives of the many, both strangers and friends. He rots in prison, and miraculously is still there when Robespierre himself is taken down.
It is in prison that he meets Laurent, a sensitive and mild person who nonetheless joins the army of Napoleon the same time Gérard does and turns out to love fighting. They have an initially rocky relationship that settles into something no different from a marriage as they grow older and more mature. While in the army in Cairo with Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, Gérard takes in a servant, Akhmoud, who proves to be a willing and inventive bed partner. The scene when Gérard leaves Cairo, having given Akhmoud his house and furnishings, and Akhmoud’s face is streaming with tears watching him go was heart breaking. Still Gérard knows he could not have stayed, could not have fit into the society, and their relative class would have prevented anything truly deep from happening between them. Gérard knows, for it was Julian and himself in reverse. Back in France Gérard and Laurent return to their intense if peripatetic romance, until Laurent goes missing at Waterloo.
The rest of the novel sees Gérard trying to find a place in his new world without Laurent. An older wealthy friend acts as an excellent advisor and helps him find his way into salon society. He must marry to maintain that lifestyle and makes an old friend, also a former servant in Julian’s family estate, his wife. Other married men have mistresses, it is just that Gérard’s is a man, Anatole, a male prostitute, whom he sets up in an apartment. When Gérard is reaching the end of his life, prompted to write this memoir, Anatole is still there, his longtime companion and friend.
The most consistently present character in this book besides Gérard is France. Viz captures the idealism of youth that can become so violent so quickly, then the rollercoaster of idealism, realism, cynicism. One year they seek a republic, the next they want the King back, then they want workhouses, then they want war. Against this backdrop Gérard’s relationships reflect his changing role in his own frenetic society. He is Julian’s servant, Laurent’s working class lover, Akhmoud’s master, Anatole’s client and then Anatole’s companion and beloved. The novel is rich in erotic scenes, detailed and at the same time romantic. I would like to tell every heterosexual woman I know to read gay male erotica if you want to learn things you never knew a man likes in bed. I happen to believe that sex in a novel is an important way to develop the subtler aspects of a characterization, strive for that in my writing, and have a masterful example to follow in Viz’s novel. There is nothing cold or impersonal in Gérard’s accounts of bed sport, but rather are part of a vital and intelligent man’s self reflection and self determination.
In sum, I found this novel intelligent, insightful, quite well written, both sexy and romantic, and quite moving. Viz handles first person narrative appropriately in what is, after all, a memoir. For me, this novel was most of all about the importance of people in your life and how much friends of all types mean in the successful life of any person. There are so many fine characters in this novel, and each is distinct, important, and not just to the story but as well to each other.
I bought the book as a download at Dream spinner Press LLC’s web site and read it on my Kindle 2 – which, incidentally, was miserable with the French names!