reviewed by Fin Keegan

Now that Jean Rouaud has produced the final volume of what has turned out to be a quintet the time seems propitious to reconsider Fields of Glory (Les champs d’honneur, 1990) and its four successors. The author grew up in the rainy département of Loire-Atlantique (precipitation features heavily in his books). At the age of twelve he lost his father, aunt, and grand-father, all within a year of each other. Rouaud’s work, which is profoundly autobiographical, has been written out of this pain. As Proust, presiding ghost over this work of memory, pointed out: we learn only through suffering. To judge by the reaction of a teacher, in the third volume of the series, to the young narrator’s account of visiting his father’s grave–he grades him bottom of the class, a judgement delivered with sadistic ritualism before the other boys–Rouaud was not especially mollycoddled in the aftermath.
But Rouaud is not buttonholing us to lament his ill-treatment by Fate. Far from it. Over time, one infers, his experiences have sensitized him to Provincial France’s–and Provincial Europe’s–great and curiously unacknowledged devastation by war and the programme of “Modernization” which succeeded the most recent conflict. In Fields of Glory, by working back through the deaths of grandfather and aunt (the third loss is skilfully skirted, as are the characters of the mother and the narrator himself, for later exploration) Rouaud picks his way carefully to the still smarting scar of the Great War, that ghastly bloodletting sandwiched between the Franco-Prussian and Second World Wars, a catastrophe which still marks the landscape of the north and altered the lives of families throughout the country.

Jean Rouaud  

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His method is purely and intensely literary: a burrowing in to life through anecdote and observation (life at Random, his imaginary town, is reminiscent of domestic life at Combray, and of the farming family of the German film Heimat). Painstaking in his approach, he takes entire paragraphs to nail down such everyday talismans as the family 2 CV, but always in a highly readable and never programmatic manner, a favourite device being the recounting of domestic embroglios in a mock-epic style, a rhetorical dilation which can easily accomodate the treatment of war and death that come in their train. Rouaud is never afraid to give a subject, no matter how small, its due: so we get a lengthy and amusing chapter on the rain of Loire-Atlantique: but don’t be misled; this approach finds echoes that say, the geeky accretions of Nicholson Baker or the playful memoranda of Oulipo cannot. Like W.G. Sebald, Jean Rouaud understands that the great events of Twentieth Century history, all but forgotten now by the culture except as fodder for kitsch historians and venting (a)moralists, are still echoing on in the interior life of individuals in ways that have nothing to do with the ideological battles of academics and politicians.
The second book in the cycle, Of Illustrious Men (Des hommes illustres, 1993), is largely a loving portrait of his father, a resourceful and courageous man,  Resistance fighter turned travelling salesman, and an individual of whom anecdotes abound: it turns out he has the Breton rain to thank for having escaped a forced labour train bound for the Reich. With a tenacity and delicacy equal to the first book, his prematurely arrested life is traced, leading back by degrees to the Occupation and the pounding of Nantes from the air.

These first two being as remarkable as they were it was asking a lot that the third book of the series, The World More or Less (Le monde à peu près, 1996), match its predecessors. Too much, as it turns out. The book recounts the unhappy adolescence of our narrator, now revealed as “Jean” (the first book, told in the first person plural, does not betray his gender, out-Prousting Marcel in the reclusive narrator stakes). The style and method are there, their rhythm and tenacity undiminished, but Rouaud’s grief being now the subject matter rather than the prism through which his greater themes (love, family, the trauma of civilians and civilian-soldiers) are viewed, the intensity of regard seems dangerously unjustified. This occurs most pointedly in an interminable chapter detailing the myopic Jean’s misadventures on the football pitch. This may well have been hysterical in French but, in the hands of a translator who seems to know next to nothing about football, it is not at all funny (and Rouaud can be very funny). But Rouaud is not being sorry for himself, at least no more than most of us, since his alter ego’s sensitivity is depicted with the same warmly ironic perspective as family members, friends and neighbours. All this not to damn the book, its place in the cycle is assured and will be savoured by fans: its uses Jean’s myopia and near-comic level of sensitivity with symbolic dexterity.
The fourth and fifth books are as yet untranslated, so English-language readers at least shall have to wait and see if Rouaud finds his form again. My feeling is that he will since, to go by French reports, the focus of the narrative moves from the young Jean on to the figure of his mother. We are counting the days. 

Fin Keegan

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