Writing a picaresque novel in 1991 is somewhat like composing a grand opera. Because the author is working in a mode that is not only antique but intentionally artificial, the results are bound to have a somewhat stilted quality, an effect compounded when the work itself is translated from another language. Here, that quaintly elevated tone actually enhances the effect, placing the characters in the merry company of the effect, placing the characters in the merry company of Don Quixote, Gil Blas, Moll Flanders, Tom Jones, and even Huck Finn. "The Lost Ones," which appeared originally in French, deliberately invites the comparisons, recounting the adventures of a pair of young Englishmen who collaborate to create a literary hoax.
Cyril Pumpermaker's partner in victimless crime is the clever orphan Jonathan Varlet, whose origins are mysterious enough for them both. In all other essential respects, the novel is a classic example of the genre, with a full measure of the requisite satire, moralistic digression, deception, and geographical variety to satisfy the most demanding traditionalist.
Though Cyril Pumpermaker is the sole heir of a prosperous solicitor, he too is an orphan, living in solitary splendor while he dabbles in literature.
He has just finished his first novel, a romantic work drawn from his own limited experience of life.
On one of Cyril's aimless trips to London, he encounters Jonathan Varlet, and immediately falls under his spell. Once installed at the Pumpermaker estate, Varlet hatches the scheme that provides plot and structure for the book. Since Cyril is shy and unprepossessing while Varlet is glib and charming, Varlet will pretend to be the author of Cyril's novel "Beelzebub," an arrangement Pumpermaker finds perfectly satisfactory. After gaining an interview at a leading publishing house, Jonathan ensures the success of the plan by seducing the publisher's daughter.
As Gilbert Keith Chesterfield, the pseudonym the conspirators select for their project, Jonathan Varlet becomes an instant celebrity while Cyril grinds away at succeeding novels. Money rolls in from royalties, subsidiary sales, theatrical adaptations and toys. While Cyril tells the story of their adventures in his florid prose, Jonathan lives their adventures, racketing all over the world; relishing his celebrity and the adulation.
Increasingly, he begins to believe in the synthetic persona he's created, becoming a pundit whose every utterance is eagerly accepted not only by his adoring public but by heads of state. On one of his publicity junkets to Germany, Jonathan is genuinely frightened by the burgeoning Nazi movement, and when he is approached by a young woman whose composer father has been one of the first victims of the terror, he rescues the girl and brings her to England.
With the introduction of Sarah, the rollicking tone of "The Lost Ones" darkens. Jonathan Varlet's perorations grow longer and more solemn. Desperately in love with him, Sarah recklessly drives away in a fury; she wrecks the car and is critically injured. Guilty and remorseful, Jonathan marries her while Cyril faithfully chronicles the increasingly melodramatic events.
We eventually learn Jonathan's true identity, though the mystery has long since been superseded by the far more fascinating personality he has invented for himself as Gilbert Keith Chesterfield, fake writer but genuine hero.
Next: Carolyn See reviews "The Tomcat's Wife" by Carol Bly (HarperCollins).