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Books: Souffle with a Sail

3 minute read

THE HONOR OF GASTON LE TORCH (276 pp.)—Jacques Ferret—Norton ($3.50).

No man likes to find a stain on his family’s honor, least of all an old French infantryman who has given the 30 best years of his life to his country. Gaston Le Torch had suffered enough wounds to rate a decent pension, was married to a sensible, loving wife who honored him for a missing eye and a severed thumb, and had philosophically tucked his handful of medals into an old cigar box. With nothing else to occupy him after World War I, Gaston began, like many another retired hero, to run down his family’s history. Thus he discovered his family’s dishonor: on a day in October 1697, Captain Eugéne Le Torch, commanding the frigate La Douce, 32 guns, had run from an English vessel that carried only 24.

Another man might have kept his shame to himself. Not Gaston. He not only told his wife and family; he insisted that something be done to offset his ancestor’s shame—perhaps outfit a boat and attack an English yacht in sight of a Riviera crowd. His relatives were understanding but unmoved. Perhaps, said Gaston’s brother, he could arrange to have his small son lick a British youngster his own age. Poor Gaston went to his favorite café and, with the help of his favorite muscatel, began morosely to imagine every detail of his historic disgrace. From there on. Novelist Ferret and Hero Gaston have the time of their lives, swashbuckling through the most amusing piece of Gallic whimsy to cross the Atlantic in a long while. Coming aboard the imaginary La Douce as an officer, Gaston is welcomed by his kinsman, and performs such deeds of valor in combat with the Spaniards as would shame a Walter Mitty. Far from being a coward, Captain Eugéne is a great commander and gentleman. In a fine, frenzied finale, the English warship is indeed met and run from, but for reasons that give both Gaston and the reader plenty of chance for reflection about the various nature of honor and man’s view of her. Moral: black and white are the most deceiving colors. Says the ship’s priest: “I have seen so many edifying scoundrels and so many hangdog Christians that I can no longer recognize the mark of grace at first sight.”

Coming out of his reveries at the café, Gaston ponders his experiences aboard La Douce, sips a little hot wine, and wonders if he can now get an extra disability allowance. Author Ferret has turned his escapist tale with wit and grace. No dish for the literal-minded, it is, in the words of one enthusiastic English reviewer, “a soufflé with sail on.”

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