If not for Annie from A Bookish Type, I would not have tried any of Jean Teulé’s books. In France, he has a scandalous reputation for being vulgar and using curse words to shock readers at a cheap price. Literary critics frown at his books but these are bestsellers indeed.
I was also intrigued by the word Hurlyburly which I had to look up in the dictionary, and I couldn’t guess what was the original French title. In fact, the English title and the French title have in common their focus on the woman’s husband. In France, everybody has heard about La Montespan in history class, so it’s a rather surprising twist for the French reader to name the book Le Montespan.
Madame de Montespan was a mistress of King Louis XIV, but of course she was not born so, she had a previous life. She was born Françoise de Rochechouart de Mortemart in 1640. In the novel (and I don’t have any sense of what is real or invented in the book) she married Mr. de Montespan as a true love match, which was rare at the time. Teulé makes no mystery of the couple’s formidable sex life, but as Mr. de Montespan was only a small nobility, they could not keep up with the court’s lavish lifestyle (and Françoise’ love for expensive things) and they soon fell into financial difficulties. But then, the all-powerful king Louis took a shine to Françoise, because she was beautiful and witty and charming, and he made her into the most powerful woman of the kingdom for more than 12 years, more powerful than the queen herself.
But the book is not about her, it’s about him, Louis-Henri de Pardaillan, Marquis de Montespan, the abandoned, cuckold husband whose rival is the most powerful man in the country, a rival who can throw him into prison or out of the country. The painful thing is that Louis-Henri sincerely loves his wife, is blind to her flaws, and still wants her back! Less enamored men and more ambitious ones would have turned this affair into a fortune, because the king was ready to pay off Louis-Henri. But he’s both passionate, stubborn and a bit of a rebel (a Gascon cliché) and he will pay it dearly.
The book is a tragicomic farce. There is sex and bawdy anecdotes, dirty jokes and risqué situations. The pace is swift and the language colorful. We laugh but we cannot help but feel sorry for the unhappy Marquis. Sometimes it veers towards the caricature, but sometimes it gives a surprisingly realistic (oh, the disgusting details on hygiene!) and larger-than-life portrait of the court society, where people were ready to do anything for the king’s favors.
I’m glad I tried Teulé and I understand better why so many people love his books. I’m not quite a convert, but I’ll certainly try another one!