The Inheritors (Richesse Oblige), by Hannelore Cayre, translated by Stephanie Smee

I bought this book last year on #LoveYourBookshop Day, courtesy of Readings’ newsletter that occasionally features translated fiction.  You won’t find ‘translations’ in their category list (and rightly so, because they belong with fiction whatever language they were originally written in) so you have to keep an eye on your inbox.  I’m certainly pleased, however, that Readings brought it to my attention and that I didn’t miss The Inheritors.  It’s hard to convey that delicious feeling when you curl into the bedcovers knowing already within a page or two, that you are going to love the book. This is the blurb: She had been dead now for four days and I had become rich. Unimaginably rich. Blanche de Rigny has always considered herself the black sheep of the family. And a black sheep on crutches at that. But it turns out her family tree has branches she didn’t even know existed. And many of them are rotten to the core. As Blanche learns more about the legacy left by her wealthy Parisian ancestors, she decides a little family tree pruning might be in order. But great wealth also brings great responsibility – a form of richesse oblige, perhaps – and Blanche has a plan to use her inheritance to cure the world of its ills. Spanning two centuries, from Paris on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War to the modern day, this unforgettable family saga lays bare the persistent and poisonous injustice of inequality. ‘Family saga’ may give entirely the wrong impression about this book.  It’s not some laboured chunkster; it’s only 231 pages and I romped through it in a couple of days.  (This review would have been written yesterday except that I had a horrible problem with my computer yesterday and it took a few hours to fix it.  By then I was worn out and spent the rest of the day binge-watching a forgettable series on SBS.) The story is told in two narratives.    The present day narrative reveals Blanche de Rigny as an unusual activist for social justice: despite life dishing out some cruel blows she has maintained her sense of self and she is content with what she has.  She is proud to take after her grandmother: From the point of view of temperament, she’s not one to be coy in her opinions to anybody who cares to listen, as she tends to think most people have tickets on themselves and completely lack modesty.  With age and the mathematical absence of future which that implies, her lack of filter makes her borderline unmanageable. They say that I take after her in that respect.  No doubt that’s the reason I have no boyfriend, not just the fact I’m a handicapped single parent.  I’m not what you’d call a stunner, that much is true, but nor am I that ugly: I’m of average height and well-toned because of my crutches, I’ve got a good head of hair that I wear in a chignon, an open face and my mother’s pretty blue eyes.  And when I walk, a sailor once told me that I reminded him of the lazy pitching and rolling of a yacht on a shimmering sunlit sea—which, you’d have to admit, is a pretty cool description. (p.40) But when by chance Blanche overhears a conversation about an intriguing family with the same unusual surname, Blanche sets out on a quest to discover her immediate ancestors, and is not best pleased by what she discovers.  They are rapacious capitalists, and she does not approve.  If she can get her hands on their money she can do good with it, but there’s some branches of the family tree in her way. The narrative of Auguste, who is part of that family tree, is set in Paris beginning in the prelude to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. His wealthy parents, recognising that his sensitive nature and general ineptitude makes him vulnerable if he gets conscripted, set out to buy a substitute.  Bizarrely, people with money could do this if they could find someone desperate enough to risk his life by taking the place of the conscript.  But with the war going badly, willing substitutes are rare and expensive, and Auguste’s brother, who did his service as a soldier isn’t all that keen to help with the search. Auguste’s Aunt Clothilde is cross that Auguste didn’t sidestep the whole problem by marrying which would have provided an exemption, but she’s still keen on marrying him off anyway to enhance the family fortunes. A match with a proper young lady, even an unpromising one, who offers you the means to pursue your passion for…for philosophical reflection, would be of far greater use to you than those good-for-nothings loitering about in your socialist cafés.  You want to devote your existence to pondering the universe? So be it.  A de Rigny may do with his life whatsoever he wishes, but he is forbidden from being poor!’ (p.38) But Auguste isn’t the marrying kind… and his philosophical reflections were radical… The author brings these two narratives together in a stylish and compelling plot which sees a powerless disabled woman who is ignored by society, take on the powerful and win.  Yes, Blanche’s solution to 21st century morally

The Inheritors (Richesse Oblige), by Hannelore Cayre, translated by Stephanie Smee

I bought this book last year on #LoveYourBookshop Day, courtesy of Readings’ newsletter that occasionally features translated fiction.  You won’t find ‘translations’ in their category list (and rightly so, because they belong with fiction whatever language they were originally written in) so you have to keep an eye on your inbox.  I’m certainly pleased, however, that Readings brought it to my attention and that I didn’t miss The Inheritors.  It’s hard to convey that delicious feeling when you curl into the bedcovers knowing already within a page or two, that you are going to love the book.

This is the blurb:

She had been dead now for four days and I had become rich. Unimaginably rich.

Blanche de Rigny has always considered herself the black sheep of the family. And a black sheep on crutches at that. But it turns out her family tree has branches she didn’t even know existed. And many of them are rotten to the core. As Blanche learns more about the legacy left by her wealthy Parisian ancestors, she decides a little family tree pruning might be in order. But great wealth also brings great responsibility – a form of richesse oblige, perhaps – and Blanche has a plan to use her inheritance to cure the world of its ills. Spanning two centuries, from Paris on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War to the modern day, this unforgettable family saga lays bare the persistent and poisonous injustice of inequality.

‘Family saga’ may give entirely the wrong impression about this book.  It’s not some laboured chunkster; it’s only 231 pages and I romped through it in a couple of days.  (This review would have been written yesterday except that I had a horrible problem with my computer yesterday and it took a few hours to fix it.  By then I was worn out and spent the rest of the day binge-watching a forgettable series on SBS.)

The story is told in two narratives.    The present day narrative reveals Blanche de Rigny as an unusual activist for social justice: despite life dishing out some cruel blows she has maintained her sense of self and she is content with what she has.  She is proud to take after her grandmother:

From the point of view of temperament, she’s not one to be coy in her opinions to anybody who cares to listen, as she tends to think most people have tickets on themselves and completely lack modesty.  With age and the mathematical absence of future which that implies, her lack of filter makes her borderline unmanageable.

They say that I take after her in that respect.  No doubt that’s the reason I have no boyfriend, not just the fact I’m a handicapped single parent.  I’m not what you’d call a stunner, that much is true, but nor am I that ugly: I’m of average height and well-toned because of my crutches, I’ve got a good head of hair that I wear in a chignon, an open face and my mother’s pretty blue eyes.  And when I walk, a sailor once told me that I reminded him of the lazy pitching and rolling of a yacht on a shimmering sunlit sea—which, you’d have to admit, is a pretty cool description. (p.40)

But when by chance Blanche overhears a conversation about an intriguing family with the same unusual surname, Blanche sets out on a quest to discover her immediate ancestors, and is not best pleased by what she discovers.  They are rapacious capitalists, and she does not approve.  If she can get her hands on their money she can do good with it, but there’s some branches of the family tree in her way.

The narrative of Auguste, who is part of that family tree, is set in Paris beginning in the prelude to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. His wealthy parents, recognising that his sensitive nature and general ineptitude makes him vulnerable if he gets conscripted, set out to buy a substitute.  Bizarrely, people with money could do this if they could find someone desperate enough to risk his life by taking the place of the conscript.  But with the war going badly, willing substitutes are rare and expensive, and Auguste’s brother, who did his service as a soldier isn’t all that keen to help with the search.

Auguste’s Aunt Clothilde is cross that Auguste didn’t sidestep the whole problem by marrying which would have provided an exemption, but she’s still keen on marrying him off anyway to enhance the family fortunes.

A match with a proper young lady, even an unpromising one, who offers you the means to pursue your passion for…for philosophical reflection, would be of far greater use to you than those good-for-nothings loitering about in your socialist cafés.  You want to devote your existence to pondering the universe? So be it.  A de Rigny may do with his life whatsoever he wishes, but he is forbidden from being poor!’ (p.38)

But Auguste isn’t the marrying kind… and his philosophical reflections were radical…

The author brings these two narratives together in a stylish and compelling plot which sees a powerless disabled woman who is ignored by society, take on the powerful and win.  Yes, Blanche’s solution to 21st century morally questionable social inequality is also morally questionable, but that is the point: The Inheritors is a witty black comedy but readers are meant to think about the ethics of the world we live in.

PS: You don’t need to know any French history to make sense of this novel, but you might remember that I reviewed Zola’s aptly-named La Débâcle—the penultimate novel in his Rougon-Macquart cycle, which brings this unedifying military disaster to life.   It tells the story of how, in Bismarck’s quest to unify a muddle of German states into a united country—and collect a couple of French regions at the same time—he outmanoeuvred the French military and humiliated them in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.  Under his leadership, Germans overran Alsace and Lorraine, besieged Metz, captured Napoleon at Sedan and triggered the fall of the Empire, which led to the brief democractic rule of the Paris Commune in March-May 1871.  This period of history was indeed a debacle for the French, and if you haven’t read Zola’s novel, I recommend that you do.)

The translation by Stephanie Smee is flawless.

Author: Hannelore Cayre
Title: The Inheritors (Richesse Oblige)
Translated from the French by Stephanie Smee
Publisher: Black Inc, 2020
ISBN: 9781760642662, pbk., 231 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $29.99