My rating : 3/5
Jacques Coeur was a rich 15th Century French merchant. He made his wealth by trading with the great cities of the Mediterranean, and amassed such a fortune that he could afford to finance whole wars led by then king Charles VII to reclaim France from English invaders and against rebellious princes. That’s the historical fact part.
In this novel, the author sets out to flesh up Jacques and show the man behind the historical figure, propose a believable substance that could account for the multifarious opinions that France has held about him, at the time and since.
As such, I found it a little hard to swallow.
For one, Jacques is filthy rich, the richest man in France, but presents himself as someone who never cared for money and just saw it as a means to favour exchange with the orient and bring France kicking and screaming into the cultural limelight. To this I call bullshit: I don’t believe for a second that you can get filthy rich without enjoying filthy richness, at least to a point.
Also, his attraction to the Orient is explained by his having once seen a leopard.
I found this a little weak.
He is portrayed as an atheist, which I found to be difficult to accept from a 15th century merchant with little to do with philosophers and much to do with politics.
Then, there’s the matter of Agnès Sorel, the king’s first mistress, who a “close” friend of Jacques. We’re supposed to believe that their friendship went as far as sharing a bed on numerous occasions, all the while remaining chaste and brotherly.
No way. Does not compute.
Jacques’ star rises and eventually falls when his immense wealth sparks the king’s jealousy. He is accused of various acts of treason by scheming merchants and nobles close to the king and winds up brought to justice. Here, he shows himself noble to the end and barely even protests when they start to torture him. He then readily signs his confession and formulates a plan to escape, without bloodshed. It fails, of course, and in his escape he has a guard killed, but this is shown to be coincidental and the guard in question is described as a bad, bad man anyways.
I found the whole portraiture to be contrived. I understand that the author, born and raised in Bourges not far from Jacques Coeur’s palace, felt an innate kinship to the historical figure and wished to show Jacques’ valour and high-mindedness. I think a better approach would have been to accept the failings of the character and show the man blemishes-and-all.
About the writing style: I read the book in French, and the writing is pleasantly (and surprisingly) straightforward for a book written by a member of the French Académie. It’s a pleasant, though sometimes dry and mostly humourless, read.