Farewell, My Only One
Nominated for the Goncourt prize in France, Farewell, My Only One is the fictional retelling of the tragic love affair of Abelard and Heloise by Antoine Audouard, former editor and publishing director of Laffront-Fixot. This is the author’s first novel to be translated into English (trans. Euan Cameron).
The story begins in 1116 when William of Oxford, the narrator, sets out to look for a master. As relics are being taken in procession to Notre Dame, William meets Heloise, the beautiful niece of Canon Fulbert, and falls in love with her. Then he attends a lecture by Peter Abelard and is mesmerized by the philosopher’s intellectual power. In no time, William becomes friend and confidant to Abelard and to the woman they both love.
Farewell, My Only One has lovely descriptions of France at the time of the building of the great cathedrals. It offers a remarkable depiction of a medieval society in which everyone has either taken up philosophy, or wants his child to become a doctor of the church. The interesting tapestry of historical figures includes the master sculptor Gislebert; Peter of Monboissier, the great abbot of Cluny; and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the Cistercian monk and mystic who opposed Abelard’s theological views. But you will not recognize the two famous lovers. Although Mr. Audouard remarks that Heloise’s Latin is elegant and that classical images spring effortlessly from her lips, the Heloise of his novel is little more than a pretty puppet in Abelard’s uncaring hands. Her intellect is nowhere to be found. Abelard, on the other hand, is the slave of his own passions, a narcissistic, prodigiously reckless man who can’t keep a secret, and thus brings about the terrifying revenge of his lover’s uncle. It is a voyeuristic tale full of lust and psalms that works if you can put aside the historical characters.