The Janeites by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"[...] there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place. Gawd bless ’er, whoever she was."
(Rudyard Kipling, The Janeites)
The Village Book
(2002) is the last work of Nicolas Freeling, it is a non-fiction entry - along with
The Kitchen Book
- The Janeites is his thirty-seventh and last novel. Written in 2000 and published in 2002 it completes the magnificent collection of fiction by one of my most favorite writers, and certainly the one I love the most among the so-called popular writers. One needs the "so-called" qualifier here because even if Mr. Freeling indeed wrote a few books that gained wide popularity, won major literary awards, and converted millions of readers into faithful followers, calling him a popular writer is a misrepresentation. Throughout most of his career he did not care about popularity as evidenced by strictly avoiding all kinds of crime novel patterns and clichés that please the readers and make money for the author, focusing not on the plot development but rather on most sophisticated, erudite, and idiosyncratic prose full of often obscure literary references as well as sociological, psychological, and historical observations (I am enclosing a representative snippet of such prose at the end of this review), and - perhaps most spectacularly - by killing off in mid-case his main detective, Commissaire Van der Valk. Many later novels by Mr. Freeling are at least somewhat enigmatic, and tend to challenge the reader: one does not read this author to be easily entertained: one has to work hard to earn the rich payoff.
The Janeites is perhaps the strangest of all thirty-seven novels by Mr. Freeling. It is not as disturbingly enigmatic as
Some Day Tomorrow
(#36) and not as full of sadness about the life past as
One More River
(#35). In fact, this short novel is quite readable - for Freeling's standards, of course; one still has to focus on the reading as the author is not too fond of saying things straight - and is rather upbeat and optimistic. The premise is based on the idea from Rudyard Kipling's short story, also titled The Janeites, about a group of soldiers in the trenches of World War I, who find solace and comfort that helps them hold on to life in reading works by Jane Austen, "extraordinary books [in which] she discards everything bar the moral essentials [...]".
William, a retired security chief, who in his time used to provide protection for dignitaries on the highest level of French government, has cancer, and Raymond, a Jesuit doctor, and a medical researcher suggests reading books by Jane Austen as a form of therapy. Raymond's romance with a high-class call girl annoys another of her clients, a powerful official who demands exclusivity. So when Raymond is assaulted to scare the woman away from him, William - drawing on his expertise in security business - tries to track down the assailant. Meanwhile Raymond meets Josephine, William's about-to-be-ex-wife, and they fall in love with each other. Thus we have a triangle "the husband, the wife, and the lover". Of course, this being a Freeling's novel, no one should expect any clichés. So we also have "We're three friends. Got to rely on each other." They may all be Janeites, after all. The plot quickens toward the end - a bomb and guns are used - but soon it winds down in a somewhat unexpected, fell-good denouement.
The sheer audacity of the novel's premise - reading Jane Austen's works as a cure for cancer - is stunning: one needs to read the book to believe it; no summary can reflect the quirkiness and strangeness. As usual in Freeling's books we have a colorful panorama of characters, extraordinarily erudite prose, several sophisticated dialogues (they could be called "sparkling", if not for their depth). The Janeites is not Mr. Freeling's best book, and it is definitely not recommended for a novice trying to get acquainted with the author. This strange and strangely charming book is a must read for anyone who likes their literature well outside the usual bounds.
Three and a quarter stars.
This is my forty-first review of Nicolas Freeling's book: I have reviewed them all here, on Goodreads. I have had enormous fun reading and reviewing - one the most fun experiences in my life. Some day tomorrow - to borrow the author's wonderful title - I will try to write an essay about Mr. Freeling's literary output. Some day tomorrow...
To end my adventure with Nicolas Freeling's writings, here's my favorite snippet of his prose - and, in fact, of any prose I have ever read - coming from his novel
"English is a language where intonation counts above almost anything. Such a phrase as 'I, um, don't feel quite convinced' is meaningless on paper, is viva voce worth a page of prose, and a prosy page at that. The American language is quite dissimilar. It will produce a single word like 'candyass' worth in itself a paragraph, embedded within volumes of such polysyllabic hermeticism, such thick, black, deathly-boring opacity as to make Henry James kneel and beat his pure marble brow howling against the dirty deck whence all but he had fled. The French, than whom - it's a very than-whom people all round - none can be more vacuously orotund, are (the same ones) obligingly terse. On occasion."
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