A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
We have a new BookFox, Colin Fisher, whose reviews have graced our pages for several years. In his first review as a full member of the Vulpes Libris den, he emerges from a binge of French historical novels in translation.
Maurice Druon (1918 – 2009) was in his long life a French cavalry officer, escapee from Nazi-occupied France, co-translator of a resistance anthem, prize-winning author, French academician and politician. He was also the author of a series of seven entertaining and thrilling historical novels published between 1955 and 1977 which throw light on the troubled years of the French monarchy in the fourteenth century. To read them is to see how much our destinies hang on the fragile egos of our rulers and, as I did, to thank the gods that we need never find ourselves in the company of those who are prepared to stab, strangle, maim, torture, humiliate, poison and blackmail to achieve what they see as their right: absolute power.
The six novels in the series (you need not trouble yourself with the seventh, a monologue in the voice of a French cardinal) may not reach the literary level of Mary Renault, but they are filled with their own riches. Druon had a gift for swift characterisation. Here he is writing about the French king Philip the Fair – ‘The King remained silent, his chin cupped in his hand, staring straight before him. He never blinked, and it was this peculiarity that gave his gaze a strangeness which frightened everyone.’ It may not be great literature but it makes it very clear that this is a man you would not wish to defy.
It is an irony therefore (an irony of which I am sure Druon was only too aware) that it is Philip the Fair, a strong and able king who had brought peace and prosperity to France, who sets in motion the events that will lead to the end of three hundred years of the Capetian dynasty. Fearing the growing strength of the Knights Templar, he had already proscribed the order and seized their wealth. The question of what to do with the leaders of the order is answered on an island in the Seine, where they are burnt alive before the gaze of the people of Paris and Philip’s sons, whom he has brought along to watch his statecraft in action. The Grand Master is the last to die and as the flames roar around him he calls out, ‘… King Philip, I summon you to the Tribunal of Heaven before the year is out, to receive your just punishment! Accursed! Accursed! You shall be accursed until the thirteenth generation of your lines!’ Within weeks of the executions, Philip discovers the lies and deceits that lie at the heart of his own family.
On the other hand, the misfortunes that fall on his family seem as much to do with the failings of his successors than anything supernatural. Philip the Fair’s eldest son, Louis X, is an emotionally unstable boy in the body of a man. His brother Philippe who follows him is as able as his father but haunted by the knowledge that he gained the throne through the murder of a child. Charles IV, their younger brother, fails embarrassingly to quell peasant uprisings with his armoured knights and his cousin Philip of Valois is too much in debt to Robert, Count of Artois, a diabolical giant of a man, to govern solely in the interests of the nation. Druon’s message is clear: they fail because they love themselves before they love France. As a follower of de Gaulle during and after the Second World War, it is perhaps not surprising that Druon believed that France had needed strong leaders in the past and would need them in the future too.
Despite being a dynastic history, Druon wrote these novels in a personal register. That is to say, we follow the story through the interactions between the characters rather than against the backdrops of sieges, battles and burning cities. The opening scenes of the first novel in the series, The Iron King, take place in the private apartments of Isabella, Philip the Fair’s daughter, who is married to Edward II of England. In a conversation with her cousin, Robert of Artois, where her own desires as a woman slighted by her husband are never far from the surface, the trap is set in which to catch the infidelities of her sisters-in-law. The consequences of this conversation in a room overlooking a courtyard in the Palace of Westminster will reverberate throughout all the novels. Druon is never far from the action either. Like a medieval chronicler he pops up frequently to comment on the vanities, the presumptions and suffering of the characters. Louis X, he reminds us, had fate not been unkind to him, had just enough in him to be a mediocre king.
The list of characters, major and minor, is long and it is easy to forget which one has murdered or married his or her cousin. But Druon holds it all together with an admirable control of light and shade. Townspeople jostle for a better view of an execution and like a Greek chorus pass comment on the condemned and their crimes. At the other end of the social, political and religious spectra the seventy-two year old Jacques Duèze, Cardinal-Bishop of Porto-Santa Rufina, for whom the word ‘wily’ may have been invented, feigns a fatal illness to be elected pope. Spinelli Tolomei, a Sienese banker whose good eye opens when he is telling the truth, is the money lender whose loans allow the Capetians, the Burgundians, the Navarrese, the English and the Artoises to massacre each other. However, it is for the grotesque Mahaut, Countess of Artois, that Druon reserves his full range of descriptive powers. With an intimate knowledge of poisons, and the assistance of her lady-in-waiting Beatrice, she disposes of enemies with little regard for age or sex. ‘Murder’ as Druon reminds us, ‘was her favourite method of bending fate to her own advantage …’ She is the embodiment of that thirst for more power that attacks only the already powerful.
You will not find these novels mentioned in Maurice Druon’s obituary in The Daily Telegraph; nor will you find them described in any detail in Druon’s biography in the Academie Francaise. They have suffered, perhaps, from having sold too successfully or from being perceived as middlebrow. That is their strength, being able to entertain and educate in equal measure; and done with a careful eye on that necessary balance between the demands of the plot and the rigours of academic study. In the age of TV series binge-watching, this is a series worth spending time on.
Maurice Druon: The Iron King (Harper, 2013), translated by Humphrey Hare. ISBN 9780007491261. RRP £7.99.
Maurice Druon: The Strangled Queen (Harper, 2013), translated by Humphrey Hare. ISBN 9780007491285. RRP £8.99.
Maurice Druon: The Poisoned Crown (Harper, 2014), translated by Humphrey Hare. ISBN 9780007491292. RRP £8.99.
Maurice Druon: The Royal Succession (Harper, 2014), translated by Humphrey Hare. ISBN 9780007491322. RRP £8.83.
Maurice Druon: The She Wolf (Harper, 2014), translated by Humphrey Hare. ISBN 9780007491346. RRP £8.99.
Maurice Druon: The Lily and the Lion (Harper, 2014), translated by Humphrey Hare. ISBN 9780007491360. RRP £8.99.
Maurice Druon: The King Without a Kingdom (Harper, 2015), translated by Andrew Simpkin. ISBN 9780007491384. RRP £8.99.
Colin is an English teacher in Spain, and has just completed his second novel. His first, A Republic of Wolves, A City of Ghosts, was reviewed on VL here.