F is for Farewell, My Only One by Antoine Audouard
Let’s take a walk down foreign author lane for the next A to Z Reading Challenge title, shall we?
I’ve always loved languages, and having studied four different ones in the course of my high school and college career (one was a dead language, so should it count?), I’ve learned a lot about different cultures. I studied French the longest and to the highest level off all four linguistic courses, so I’ve read a bit of literature in it’s original published format. Which is why I can say, that Audouard’s Farewell, My Only One is quintessentially French.
Audouard’s novel is essentially a love story and a love triangle, as only the French can create. The love between the three characters is at times philosophical, carnal, unrequited, destructive, inspiring, and always complex. The fictional story based on real letters and works of a 12th century philosopher follows William, a student of thought, philosophy, and religion. When he meets this philosopher, Peter Abelard, the two become friends and develop a master, student relationship in the quest for knowledge, but at the same time, William also falls in love at first sight with the same woman destined to have a historic romance with his master. Heloise (which must be pronounced in your head with a French accent because, well, doesn’t everything sound better in French?) and Abelard develop what is known in history to be the beginning of courtly love with a tragic, star-crossed lovers facet. Heloise is a student of Abelard and the two have an all-consuming, passionate, and raw love of each other that leads to scandal, a secret marriage, and violence on both sides.
William watches and sometimes abets this fiery obsession between Abelard and Heloise with a voyeuristic detachment that belies his own feelings for Heloise, deep down under his blasé exterior. As the narrator, the reader gets insight into William’s own thoughts and feelings which are both conflicted, with his friendship with Abelard and love of Heloise versus an innate propensity to watch life from afar with a melancholy soul of a loner.
This book was very cerebral, and while there is a plot, I think the meat of the book is really the thoughts and emotions elicited from the reader by the narrator. The story makes one think about all manner of philosophical questions posited by the actual teachings of Abelard that are interwoven with the plot of the novel and by William’s actions and the nature of the love between Abelard and Heloise. There is pensive remoteness to William’s character that gives the book a lugubrious tone that I think is characteristic to French literature (as well as Russian literature, but that’s another story). I can say that I enjoyed Audouard’s writing and the story that he tells, despite needing a gigantic pick-me-up after ending the final chapter.
To say that there is something lost in translation is usually true, but Euan Cameron’s translation is stellar (in my inexpert opinion). Having read French language fiction before, I still get the mood, wording, and structure of writing that typify the French style in this English version of the novel. This book still feels French, which is important when reading foreign translations. That being said, I’d have to warn readers who have never read a foreign book translated into English of the sometimes jarring wording and unusual syntax that exist in translations. This is something that you have to jump into with commitment and an open mind; suspend your American passport for a while, and enjoy the prose before you.
Farewell, My Only One would certainly be a good starting point for those of you who want to dip a toe in the foreign fiction pool because the fact that is is also a historical fiction novel helps; readers are already using their imaginations to submerge themselves in another world, time, and location that is foreign to them. I’d recommend this book not only for it’s beautiful language, but for the mental challenge that the philosophical undertones of the book provide.
So, readers, lisez, et découvrez un nouveau livre!