Bernard Prou: Alexis Vassilkov ou la vie tumultueuse du fils de Maupassant [Alexis Vassilkov or the Tumultuous Life of the Son of Maupassant]
Bernard Prou submitted the manuscript of this novel to numerous publishers and was turned down by them all, so he published it himself. It had considerable success and was subsequently published in paperback by Livre de Poche.
Guy de Maupassant was a highly successful 19th century writer, particularly though certainly not only of short stories. However, he had severe health issues, both physical and mental. He suffered badly from migraines and had had syphilis in his youth. Moreover, he was a great lover of solitude and never married. His mental health got worse and, in January 1892, he tried to kill himself. First, he tried shooting himself but his valet, François Tassart, had removed the bullets from his gun. Then he tried to cut his throat but made a hash of it. He was taken to a Paris hospital. He survived for eighteen months, finally dying of general paralysis of the insane.
However, in this book, his final days take on a different tone. The highly fictitious Lioubov Andreïevna Vassilkova is the daughter of a famous opera singer, Galina Vishnevskaya. (Interestingly enough, there was a famous Soviet opera singer of this name, but as she was born some forty-five years after the death of Maupassant, she clearly is not the same one.) Mother and daughter had come to Paris, so that the mother could perform at l’Opéra. and had stayed in France.
Lioubov had become something of a character in Paris. She had modelled for various artists, Renoir in particular. Indeed, one day, when he had arrived late for a session, she had done a small drawing and he has been very impressed with her talent. She had also upset conservative Paris by dressing as a man, like George Sand, even though it was illegal to do so. She had also written to Maupassant and they had exchanged letters for two years without meeting.
Finally, she decides to go and see him and turns up unannounced. She is staying at his house when he attempts suicide. It is she who got the valet to remove the bullets and she who discovers him when he tries to cut this throat. When he is transferred to the hospital, she stays in his flat. She visits him regularly and, one day, tells him that she is pregnant. She has a son called Alexis, as the title of the book tells us. Mauspassant is happy about being a father, but never meets the boy, dying soon after his birth. However, he does make provision in his will for both mother and son. Lioubov will not tell her son who his father is till much later.
Initially, the pair stay in France but then Svetlana, a left-wing Russian friend, persuades her to move to St Petersburg, to help with the fight against the Tsar. Alexis becomes very much involved with the revolution. He has become a psychiatrist and Stalin selects him as his doctor and confidant. By this time, he realises that the revolution has failed and expects to be arrested , which he is.
En route to the prison camp, he meets a French man and they become firm friends and Alexis learns the real reason for his arrest. He becomes close friends with this man, Simon Brunswick.
Life is naturally hard at the camp, with brutal guards, an indifferent commandant and sub-zero temperatures. We gradually learn that its function is as a diamond mine, first discovered by a US prospector (whose full story we get). Life becomes easier for Alexis as he is appointed camp doctor with Simon as his assistant. We follow his life in the camp, which involves joining a masonic lodge, becoming friendly with the commandant, who has an extensive library, essentially taken from former inmates and finding a girlfriend, one of the locals.
The second major event is that Ayami becomes pregnant and has a son. He is determined to escape with his wife and son, which he does and which, of course, is a huge adventure. Unfortunately, he arrives in Paris, two days before the Germans invade in World War II.
His next contact with a historical person is with the French minister, Laurent-Eynac (Prou himself has a site on Laurent-Eynac, in French and had written a book on him). It is Laurent-Eynac who helps the three of them to flee Paris and hide in the French countryside.
Alexis, of course, joins the Resistance and, again, he has various adventures, some quite unpleasant and one of which, in particular, comes to haunt him well after the war. We also see the disputes between the various political factions within the Resistance. The story follows Alexis and his family up to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Again, not all is smooth.
The book is not particularly well written but it makes up for that to a considerable degree. Firstly, it is quite exciting with Alexis and his mother having lots of adventures, some of which are, to say the least, quite unpleasant. Secondly, Prou messes around with history. We have Maupassant fathering a child, Tsar Alexander proved to be alive and a wandering monk, well after he was dead, Lenin as a freemason, Stalin friends with his doctor as well as various minor events. In many cases he gives detailed but clearly fictitious sources and references for his claims. Various historical characters put in an appearance and it is (deliberately) not always clear who is historical and who is not. Clearly, Prou has done his research and has a fairly fertile imagination.
First published 2014 by Brouette
No English translation