What a strange and entertaining book this is. It consists of three intertwined stories, but you only fully find out how they are related at the very end, and in the meantime, all three are funny and clever in their own ways.
First, we meet Mr Mee, an exceedingly innocent old man, so innocent, in fact, that it’s hard to believe he’s not winking at the reader as he po-faced describes the internet porn he is so unknowingly poring over in his quest to track down an obscure work known as Rosier’s Encyclopaedia. The naked women on his new computer screen drives off his housekeeper of many years, and before he knows it (and who could believe that a coincidence of a flat, tyre, a downpour of rain and a visit to a computer store could lead to all this), a young lady has moved into his house and is giving him little pills to help his headaches and practising her life sciences homework on him.
Next, Minard and Ferrand are introduced. Now, these characters are mentioned, in passing, for real in Rousseau’s Confessions (as the third narrative informs us): “he one, tall, smooth-tongued, and sharping, was named Ferrand; the other, short, squat, a sneerer, and punctilious, was a M. Minard…As they thrust themselves into all companies, and wished to intermeddle in everything, Theresa called them the gossips, and by this name they were long known at Montmorency.” Crumey has made up a fictional backstory for the gossips, and they provide the overt, slapstick, odd couple style comedy of the book, as they take on some mysterious copying work which results in a murder and their flight from Paris to Montmorency, where they become the neighbours of newly-renowned Rousseau.
The third narrative is a middle-aged university professor, in the midst of that most trite of literary devices, an infatuation with one of his students (seriously, do a survey – how many male middle-aged literary writers write about middle-aged men having affairs or becoming obsessed with younger women; I know the advice is ‘write what you know’ but come on, it gets dull). However, this one is not going to turn out how you think it might, and in the meantime, we get philosophical musings on Rousseau (very handy for following the other threads if, like me, you know little about the man except that he was French and unpleasant), other French writers, the Encyclopaedia, and the general foolishness of life. Compared to the other strands, this one is the least laugh-out-loud funny, but the most intellectually amusing and ironic.
Each narrative voice is distinct and appealing; the book is well-written, a fascinating blend of real anecdotes and fictional events. Unusually for me, it left me wanting more.