REVIEW by Alicia Byrne Keane

NWR Issue 105

The Brethren

by Robert Merle

In The Brethren, an imaginative exploration of France’s past takes on the emotion and freshness of a first-hand account. Robert Merle’s 1977 novel would be the first in a thirteen-book series. Originally written in French, the Fortunes of France books display a dramatic, personal take on sixteenth-century historical fiction.

Translated into English by T Jefferson Kline, The Brethren flows with the confidence and hope suggestive of the first in a long line of adventures. Narrated by Pierre de Siorac, the young son of a family fiercely committed to the Huguenot faith, the novel charts a childhood and coming-of-age in decidedly unstable political terrain. Faced the looming threats of religious wars, famine, and plague, Pierre’s world is palpably tense: seen through the prism of childhood and family life, Merle’s novel offers a sympathetic and highly imaginative view of a fraught time in French history.

That said, most of the historical context of the novel is viewed from behind closed doors. In a series of vivid character portrayals, we become acquainted with Pierre’s family, together with his father Jean de Siorac’s comrades – fellow veterans of the French king’s wars – and the host of servants and nursemaids involved in the running of the De Siorac family household. As one might predict, life inside the castle walls mirrors the greater political landscape: Catholic objects of worship are shamefully hidden, priests are openly known for their corrupt behaviour, illness lurks and strikes. The tension between the warring ideologies of past and present is artfully unraveled.

Robert Merle’s prose is an interesting hybrid. While seemingly wishing to portray historical context with a degree of precision, he does not revert completely to the blissful ignorance of the child’s perspective. Merle makes a consistent and subtle effort to merge the grit of political context with the whimsy and oblivion of the protagonist’s childhood world. This contrast is carried off seamlessly. A particular instance at the beginning of Chapter 3 comes to mind, in which a young Pierre enquires about the names of various weapons on the eve of his father’s departure for war, impressed at the sophistication and power of the artillery. However, his father’s army comrade preaches with resignation that ‘the enemy’s got the same ones.’ Instances such as this one, in which a young boy’s fascination with weaponry is juxtaposed with the fundamental futility of battle, strike an apt and affecting balance between child and adult perspectives.

Merle’s prose infuses the aforementioned historical precision with touches of a more accessible tone: at times a playful wit, at times a profound empathy. While his portrayals are on occasions caricatured – glum, world-weary soldiers uttering prophecies of doom; superstitious, hyperbolic maidservants; and some winkingly bawdy descriptions of buxom women – something about this slightly exaggerated humour strikes the reader as authentically medieval, a Chaucerian comedy that fits with Merle’s remarkably consistent evocation of the historical era.

Considering that Merle’s original work was written in the archaic French of the time, one would imagine that a translation into English would be difficult. T Jefferson Kline’s rendering captures the charm of medieval language, adapting easily to English idiom. While elements of the prose style remain essentially quite French – the lyrical, sometimes convoluted flow of the sentences, for instance – the translation never appears stilted or discordant.

In an interview with the French literary review, Merle stated his reluctance to join the tradition of writers such as Victor Hugo or Alexandre Dumas: their approach, in his eyes, lacked historical value. Instead, he identified more with Flaubert in his prose style. Indeed, throughout The Brethren, Flaubert’s perfectionism, his meticulous rendering of detail, is echoed in this well-researched historical drama.

For those already interested in French medieval history, this novel offers a fresh perspective, filled with originality, humanity, and insight. For those heretofore unfamiliar with the historical period, Merle’s storylines, by turns tragic and lighthearted, certainly sustain the attention.

Alicia Byrne Keane is an Irish student of English Literature and French, currently resident in Oxford.


previous review: So Many Moving Parts
next review: Bloomsbury and the Poets & Life of a Counterfeiter


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