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Shall we never see France’s fortunes reversed? Or shall we remain for ever despised and downtrodden?

    -Michel de l’Hospital, epigraph to The Brethren
I was one of those kids who always felt like they have to finish any book they started. But five books thwarted my best (if mistaken) intentions: The Sword in the Stone (which I returned to recently thanks to H is for Hawk); Wizard of Earthsea (which I'm reading now and enjoying); Gormenghast; Shardik by Richard Adams; and Malevil by Robert Merle. I suspect few have ever heard of thast last. If Mr. Merle is recalled in America at all it is for Day of the Dolphin, and likely more for the movie than his novel. So it came as a great surprise to hear that he later Wrote a series of 13 historical novels, Fortunes of France, that are massively popular in his home country and earned him comparisons to Dumas. Pushkin Press is now publishing them in America in a lucid translation by T. Jefferson Kline. Haven't seen hide nor hair of Malevil in forty years, but I did but the first volume in this series, The Brethren, and I get what all the fuss is about.

The story is set in the Perigord region (also the locale for Martin Walker's Bruno books) in the middle decades of the 16th century--when Elizabeth was queen of England and John Calvin was driving reform from Geneva. The Brethren of the title are two ex-soldiers--Jean de Siorac and Jean de Sauveterre--of the French king who retire to the countryside to establish a Huguenot community. they bring with them several fellow soldiers and eventually convert the rest of the household, tenants and other locals, though not without resistance, particularly from Siorac's wife. Merle really comes down hard on the side of Protestantism here, as her Catholicism is purely formulaic and she is particularly dismissive of the idea of actually reading Scriptures herself. Likewise, The Brethren are quite favorably portrayed as proto-capitalists. Not only do they stock their domain with skilled artisans--a stone carver, a cooper, etc.--but cut deals to sell their surplus products. And there's a hilarious bit where one of the converts realizes that he they just lost 50 days off a year where they used to celebrate saints' days.

The action of the novel is limited, mostly devoted to this surge of Protestantism and the building backlash that will come from Henri II. It's presented mainly from the point of view of one of Siorac's young sons, Pierre, and ends when he and his brothers head to Montpellier for schooling. It seems quite intentional stage setting for the rest of the series. The ideas involved more then compensate for the stately pace and if you aren't bothered by the obsessive fascination of the male characters with the spectacle of an amply endowed wet nurse suckling children (like much of the book, a reminder that the notion of privacy is a recent invention) you're in for a real treat. Personally, I feel like I'm kind of off the hook for never finishing Malevil.


Grade: (A+)


Robert Merle Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Robert Merle
    -AUTHOR PAGE: Robert Merle (Pushkin Press)
    -ENTRY: Merle, Robert (Encyclopedia of Science Fiction)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Fortunes of France
    -ETEXT: THe Brethren by Robert Merle (
    -ETEXT: Malevil by Robert Merle (
    -ETEXT: Malevil (e-reading)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Malevil
    -WIKIPEDIA: Day of the Dolphin (book)
    -ENTRY: Ahmed Ben Bella president of Algeria (Robert Merle, Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -OBIT: Robert Merle (Douglas Johnson, 8 Apr 2004, The Guardian)
    -OBIT: Robert Merle, 95; Author’s Book Inspired ‘Day of the Dolphin’ (LA Times, April 1, 2004)
    -OBIT: Robert Merle: English scholar and author of 'Weekend at Zuydcoote' (Independent, 2 April 2004)
    -ARTICLE: Modern-day Dumas finally crosses Channel: Robert Merle has been hailed as the 'Dumas of the 21st century' for his chronicle of French religious wars in the age of the Tudors (Dalya Alberge, 16 Aug 2014, The Observer)
    -ARCHIVES: Robert Merle (View from the Left Bank, Rob Prince's Blog)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: Robert Merle (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of The Brethren: Fortunes of France #1 by Robert Merle (Christobel Kent, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Brethren (Anthony Cummins, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of The Brethren (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of The Brethren (Toby Clements, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of The Brethren (View from the Left Bank, Rob Prince's Blog)
    -REVIEW: of The Brethren (ALAN CASSADY-BISHOP, Historical Novel Society)
    -REVIEW: of The Brethren and City of Wisdom and Blood (Brian Sandberg, H-France)
    -REVIEW: of The Brethren (Mike Peed, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Brethren (Julianne Douglas, Writing the Rennaisance)
    -REVIEW: of The Brethren (Ani Johnson, Book Bag)
    -REVIEW: of The Brethren (She Reads Novels)
    -REVIEW: of The Brethren (Wolfwood's Corner)
    -REVIEW: of The Brethren (The Worm Hole)
    -REVIEW: of The Brethren (The Idle Woman)
    -REVIEW: of City of Wisdom and Blood & Heretic Dawn by Robert Merle (CHARLOTTE WIGHTWICK, Historical Novel Society))
    -REVIEW: of Heretic Dawn: Fortunes of France #3 by Robert Merle (David Mills, Sunday Times [uk])
    -REVIEW: of Vittoria by Robert Merle (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of The Idol by Robert Merle (Rosemary Stoyle, Literary Review)
    -REVIEW: of
-REVIEW: of The Island by Robert Merle (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of The Virility Factor by Robert Merle (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of
-REVIEW: of Malevil by Robert Merle (James Nicoll Reviews)
    -REVIEW: of Malevil (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Malevil (D. Keith Mano, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Malevil (Anne Wattel, ERTA)
    -REVIEW: of The Day of the Dolphin by Robert Merle (Nancy Wilson Ross, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Day of the Dolphin (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Ahmed Ben Bella by Robert Merle (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Week-End at Dunkirk by Robert Merle (Kirkus)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Robert Merle (IMDB)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Day of the Dolphin (1973) (IMDB)
    -ESSAY: From Blubber and Baleen to Buddha of the Deep: The Rise of the Metaphysical Whale (Frank Zelko, Society & Animals)
    -FILM REVIEW: The Day of the Dolphin (Roger Ebert December 21, 1973, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -FILM REVIEW: The Day of the Dolphin (Classic Sci-Fi)
    -FILM REVIEW: The Day of the Dolphin (Retro-Zap)
    -VIDEO FILM REVIEW: The Day of the Dolphin (Welcome to the Basement, Blame Society)
    -FILM REVIEW: The Day of the Dolphin (Mike Clark, Media Play News)
    -FILM REVIEW: The Day of the Dolphin (kevin Lyons, EOFFTV)
    -FILM REVIEW: The Day of the Dolphin (Jonathan Lewis, Mystery File)
    -FILM REVIEW: The Day of the Dolphin (Cult Film Alley)
    -FILM REVIEW: The Day of the Dolphin
    -FILM REVIEW: The Day of the Dolphin (Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant)

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