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Originally published Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"The Only Son": Rousseau's wayward brother

In "The Only Son," conflicting philosophies concerning sex, revolution and human nature itself collide in Stéphane Audeguy's historical novel about two estranged siblings: French philosopher-memoirist Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his "dissolute" brother François.

Seattle Times book critic

"The Only Son"

by Stéphane Audeguy

Harcourt, 246 pp., $25

One of the most beguiling debut novels to come my way in the last several years was French writer Stéphane Audeguy's "The Theory of Clouds" — a novel in the same sense that Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities" or W.G. Sebald's "Austerlitz" are novels.

Half textbook, half fantasia, "Theory" offered up shards of cloud-obsessed narrative that interlocked at unexpected angles while following unpredictable tangents. Plot was almost beside the point. What mattered more was twist-and-turn of mind.

In his venturesome if slightly erratic new novel, Audeguy engages in more straightforward storytelling while still infusing his pages with a startling, brutish, erotic sensibility, as he views much of French 18th-century history through the eyes of novelist-philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's brother François.

François rates only minimal mention in Rousseau's famous "Confessions." But what's there is attention-grabbing: "He fell into dissolute ways even before the age at which one can, properly speaking, be considered dissolute." And a few lines later: "My brother went from bad to worse and in the end ran off and disappeared forever. ... No more was ever heard of him; and so it was that I became an only son."

In Audeguy's novel, octogenarian François — "inveterate debauchee" and "veteran of the Bastille" — addresses his tale to the long-dead Jean-Jacques, whose career he has followed from a distance all his life. François, unlike Jean-Jacques, has lived through the French Revolution and the Terror and has seen how his younger brother's utopian notions of a society freed of the perverting influence of repressive rule have taken a turn for the bloody and horrific.

"Would you have recognized this revolution as your work? I am certain you would not," he says. "But I was there, and I tell you plainly: They were right to invoke your name."

François, by contrast, has looked human nature in the eye all his life. He denigrates filial ties ("Families are odious little dramas"), and he's a champion, or at least an indulgent onlooker, of every sort of sexual foible. Although heterosexual, he takes his preadolescent trysts with an older mentor in stride and is grateful for the education the man provided him. Key to that education was a clear assessment of "the lowest instincts of that abject menagerie known as human society."

Following the death of his patron, François heads for Paris, where he eventually finds work as an odd-job man in a high-class brothel, and then as apprentice to a sex-toy artisan. The brothel's madame impresses him with her pragmatic approach to desire (including his for her). A second female figure — fighting for women's suffrage during the Revolution — has just as powerful an influence on him. In the interim, the Marquis de Sade, François' fellow prisoner in the Bastille, makes a big impression.

"The Only Son" is couched in an elegant pastiche of 18th-century prose, masterfully rendered into English by John Cullen. It's filled with provocative thought about "the human machine" and the blindness of "moralists" regarding carnal matters. It's as much a comedy as a horror-show, as François sees his world in the most unvarnished terms (Audeguy is unsparing in his depictions of public executions, prison conditions and disease-ravaged street prostitutes), yet somehow finds the strength to live in it.

Still, Audeguy makes some odd moves in the book. Everything that's on the page is near flawless — but there are some odd elisions in the narrative. Two whole decades in François' life — his 30s and 40s — are more or less skipped over. And for someone who's a self-described "debauchee," his existence is oddly sexless for long times at a stretch ... unless one counts building elaborate erotic implements as a "sex life."

It's difficult, too, to feel François' losses the way he says he feels them. Maybe it takes a French reader who has lore about the Revolution practically stamped into his DNA to appreciate the full effect of the novel. But for this reader, "The Only Son," for all its color and bite, was an oddly arid journey.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@ seattletimes.com. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998, and has also published four novels.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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