First published in 1975, this fine novel has waited a long time for its deserved translation into English, and tribute must be paid to Julian Evans for the flexible touch he has applied to capturing not only the quality of the prose but also the intercessionary voice of its creator.
Deon himself is an active if occasional presence in an intriguing tale of a young man born to unknown parents in a French village between the First and Second World Wars.
He is taken in by foster parents and by the affinities of the Normandy countryside and the traditions of pastoral allegiances. He is involved as well with the minor nobility of his immediate neighbourhood. If this story can be described as picaresque, and it can, the travelling begins not with the boy Jean himself but with Antoine, his father’s employer, a war-weary landlord who relieves his disenchantment with life by driving ever-faster cars and finally falling in love with the deep south. The roads of the Midi, the scents and shores of Provence and the existence he creates there for himself are described with the gentle passion typical of Deon.
He makes escape seem both rational and idyllic, a choice which also confronts Jean who tears headlong through his boyhood while his admired patron lingers helplessly among the inns and inn-keepers of the Midi.
It isn’t all larks, though. Deon weaves an intricate series of relationships responding to the events of a particular period in France, and when Jean himself gets going at the age of 13 his innocence is slowly sharpened into awareness and sympathy.
Leaving the village, his parents, his girl-friends — actual and possible — and the priest who is both wise and compassionate, Jean is bent on following his own particular if somewhat unidentifiable star and sets out into the world armed only with innocence, aspiration and literature.
We leave him at the point at which Europe fractures. It is too bad; Jean’s sentimental education is a wonderful adventure for the reader and even though Deon promises throughout that we will hear more of this character or that someone already introduced has now made a final appearance, we know we must wait for them until Julian Evans gets to work on the sequel Les Vingt Ans du Jeune Homme Vert. The sooner the better.