So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Wandering Jew. Eugene Sue

Written in 1845, just 3 years before revolutions swept Europe, this 887 page five volume novel is a classic piece of French socialist writing that has been swept under the rug of history. It was originally serialized in a French newspaper and created quite a stir with its strong positions on women's rights, worker communes, and anticlericalism.

I originally started to read this book because I was interested in the legend of the wandering Jew. This is a mythical person cursed to live forever and wander without rest because he refused Jesus a place to rest as he carried his cross to Calvary. Although the wandering Jew and his equally long-lived sister Herodias, who gained her longevity because of her involvement in the death of John the Baptist, make occasional appearances in the book, the story is really about the heirs of Herodias, seven members of the Rennepont family. So if you are seeking a work on the legend of the wandering Jew, I recommend you do not read this book.

The Rennepont family lost their position and most of their wealth during the French persecution of the Protestants. What was left of the Rennepont fortune was entrusted for 150 years to a Jewish banker and his heirs who were loyal to the family. Over the course of time through wise investments, the small inheritance was carefully nurtured into a fortune.

Any surviving members of the Rennepont family were directed to meet at a certain address in Paris in 1832 by bronze medallions cast in 1682 that have been passed down from generation to generation. Those present on the given date will divide the inheritance. This book is the story of the seven members of the family left at this time. They are Jacques Rennepont, a Parisian workman who favors drinking and the wild life; Francis Hardy, an enlightened industrialist who has built communal living quarters for his happy workers; Rose and Blanche Simon, twin teens who travel with an old soldier to Paris from Siberia where their mother has just died; Adrienne de Cardoville, a beautiful and independent-minded woman of means; Abbe Gabriel, an orphan who has been raised by the Jesuits, and Djalma, an Indian prince.

Two Jesuits and a female accomplice have devised a plan to keep the Renneponts from their inheritance and to claim it for the The Society of Jesus. They hope to obtain the fortune to secure their futures and pay for the rehabilitation of the Order.

The story moves from one cliffhanger to another throughout the book as the struggle between the family and the two Jesuits unfolds. The Perils of Pauline and A Series of Unfortunate Events come to mind as contemporary stories with similar plot devices. This structure is a byproduct of the newspaper serialization. However, Eugene Sue is a master of his craft and he develops the various subplots with great skill. Characters are well-developed and scenes are vividly described. It is sad that this book has been out of print for so long. A new edition with a modern translation would be a great literary treat.


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