- How did the ideas for this unusual novel and its central character come to you?
Did you simply want to write about the 18th century or were you formulating a response to Rousseau, or playing with literary conventions by creating an imaginary autobiography?
To paraphrase Alfred Jarry, I may say I think the need for an autobiography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s brother was increasingly widely felt. Moreover, the fact that one of the most brilliant contributors to the invention of the modern individual should, in his own Confessions, show himself so blind to the existence of his own brother – this sparked off my imagination. My novel, Fils unique, was conceived in these imaginings. Incidentally, I have the greatest admiration for Rousseau (for his acute sense of comedy, for one thing) but also several reservations with regard to a particular kind of rousseauist attitude. I freely admit that my book plays something of a ‘game’ with literary conventions and with plenty of other things too; this is not, however, purely gratuitous.
- Fils unique could appear to be a response or even a negative of Rousseau’s Confessions; at any rate it does seem to attack rousseauists and the direction that Rousseau’s revolutionary heirs took his teaching.
Does your novel privilege the libertine's view of the 18th century over that of an18th century of sentimental effusion? Is this opposition what determines your view of the revolutionary period?
Heirs and disciples can be terrible, vindictive little creatures. That the work of inspired inventors - such as Jesus and Rousseau - can be both brought to its apogee and utterly wiped out, simultaneously, by followers who are very different from them - to my mind if not inferior, they are at any rate very different kinds of people– such as Paul and Robespierre – fascinates and disturbs me. The value of their creations is in no way diminished by this process, but that assumes that other inventors will take up their questions and lead us towards new solutions, towards new styles of living and writing. (The Sartre who wrote Les Mots, for example, is a worthy successor to Rousseau, and he of course is not a rousseauist!) As for revolution and democracy, I see these as inseparable from a movement, a plan for a revolutionary and democratic future. Therefore I am particularly struck with the fact that women and children have been sidelined in our Revolution (we had to wait until 1968 for any advance in this sector). For me the French Revolution is not over; or more accurately, it is precisely our acting as if it were over that betrays the revolution (of course I don’t mean to defend the idea of permanent revolution – a concept which turns the revolution into a being, an essence). And if the 18th century’s intellectual libertinage had become the ideology of French democracy (although strictly that is quite impossible), I would just as happily have celebrated sentimental outpourings and even, perhaps, a mass to the greater glory of the Supreme Being.
- Your intentionally antiquated style seems to demonstrate something more than the simple aims of authenticity, of reinstating the language of a particular era. Was it a particular pleasure for you to write in 18th-century French?
I don’t believe I was actually trying to create an "authentic reproduction". It was more of an attempt to bring this language, which I find so beautiful, up to date; that’s to say, I wanted to show that some of its attributes may still be useful in the here and now (and this, naturally, completely independent of the immense admiration one may have for the Enlightenment style in itself).
- In writing about the 18th century, are you also aiming to treat the contemporary issues that are important to you? Is there a personal, private element in your choice and handling of the character of François, and of François in opposition to Jean-Jacques?
There you come to the heart of my project. Fils unique is not an historical novel, it’s a genealogical one. I wanted to bring out aspects of the revolutionary period which aren’t necessarily well known, but which resonate strangely in our present moment. One example out of a number: the description of the ‘treatment’ of syphilis (and of prostitution) at the Salpêtrière makes sense, to my mind, when related to the problem of Aids (it’s common knowledge that one of the Aids treatment centres, which is also frequented by prostitutes of both sexes, can be found today at the Salpêtrière). This kind of resonance is not meant to imply that the two situations are identical, but it invites us to assess our own era through the evocation of a past one. In this way, I hope I have written a novel that is contemporary, and so also political.
As for the character of François: I constructed him through Rousseau, not against him. And if I had to identify with something in the novel, it would be the whole work and not any particular character (I like to think that Flaubert never said "I am Madame Bovary", but "I am Madame Bovary). The rest is not literature.
- There are two strong, independent women in your fictional memoir. Were they crucial to your conception of the novel? How do you perceive their significance?
I am very glad that you bring up the importance of these two female characters. I see them as essential, in their symmetry especially, and as free as women could be in their position. One of them is really a product of the ancien régime, the other of the new order (to be brief). And here again, the question of women’s independence is not entirely old hat, is it? Ultimately, I simply wanted to pay homage to the pragmatism and courage of these women, and to their heroism too. Of course, I don’t see these virtues as arising out of the women’s fundamental composition; they are products of an historical situation (and liable, therefore, to change both for the better and the worse).
- Only Son contains elements of the picaresque novel, particularly in the first section, "Childhoods". Could you describe your literary influences? Do they include English novelists such as Henry Fielding or Daniel Defoe, for example?
Less than by the English tradition you suggest, and which I do admire (I would add Hogarth to your list, though he’s part of a different domain), I’ve been strongly influenced by a Spanish masterpiece, Lazarillo de Tormes, by the Diderot who wrote Jacques le Fataliste, by the French comic novels of the 17th century and ultimately, I repeat, by Rousseau himself. Rousseau indeed is not picaresque, but gains by a reading that is neither too literal nor too sentimental, above all now, with the theories of all these bleating runts, these unwitting rousseauists, filling our tv screens, our bookshops and using so many gigabytes in the blogosphere; tiny people all convinced that they too are unique on the simple grounds that they are individuals.)
London, July 2006
About the author
Stéphane Audeguy was born in Tours in 1965. He studied English for a few years before turning to literature. After a few years in the USA, he now lives and works in Paris where he teaches cinema and literature history.
Stéphane Audeguy was awarded the Prix Maurice Genevoix de l’Académie française for his first novel La Théorie des nuages.
La Théorie des nuages, Gallimard, 2005 ( Harcourt, to be published 2006)