The Dream Maker

  • Jean-Christophe Rufin, translated by Alison Anderson
  • Europa Editions
  • 416 pp.

The French monarchy and the reign of Charles VII come to life in this novel by a winner of France’s Prix Goncourt award for fiction.

It’s never a good idea to have debtors who are more powerful than you, as they may seek to cancel rather than repay their debts. It is particularly dangerous when, by offering your wealth to Charles VII of France, you have revealed that you are richer than he, since he has a history of abandoning those who have been helpful to him — most notably, Joan of Arc. This novel tells the story of Jacques Cœur, grandson of a butcher, son of a furrier, who rose to create a vast international trading company and serve as adviser to the king of France. As a child in Bourges, he saw courtiers humiliate his father; as an adult, he had many nobles in his debt.

The book opens with Cœur on the island of Chios, in a remote location, tended by a local woman. The man who once owned castles throughout France and controlled the royal Argenterie is now living in a very modest house. (As the novel describes it, the Argenterie of Charles VII was not merely a warehouse of the king’s treasures, but a sort of PX for the court, supplying tapestries for castles, gems for the king’s mistress and all manner of luxury goods to the nobility.)  Although hiding from assassins, he says he no longer fears death, nor does he desire action. He is writing his memoirs “to discover at last the thread of my life, so that I can understand who, someday, is to cut it.” 

As Cœur narrates, his mood is elegiac; the pace of the first part of the novel is slow. Reflecting on his childhood, he describes the first time he became aware of the world outside of Bourges. He saw a leopard in his father’s workshop, an old animal, whose owner wanted to sell it for its fur as it no longer earned enough money by being shown at fairs. Although his father refused to buy the leopard, young Jacques was intrigued by its exotic quality and especially by the idea of Arabia, where the animal came from,  a sunny land so different from rainy and gloomy Bourges. 

He marries the daughter of a local money-changer and learns: “Money is pure dreams. To contemplate it is to cause the endless procession of the things of this world to parade before one’s eyes.”  He is determined to go to the Levant, remembering the leopard and the attraction of Arabia. His time in Damascus is an eye-opener; here is the center of a world of trade, with goods coming from Europe, Asia and Africa. Upon his return, he sets up in business with two childhood acquaintances and eventually obtains an audience with the king.

One of the best aspects of The Dream Maker is the depiction of Charles VII, who hides his power with the appearance of weakness — real, exaggerated or feigned. Cœur sees him as a “hunter disguised as prey” and fears him, but cannot avoid becoming entangled in his service. Oddly, the king comes to life in this novel more than Cœur himself, perhaps because the author adheres so closely to first-person narration. Seeing the king through Cœur’s eyes makes an indelible impression on both narrator and reader, as in a scene during which the king teases his chained dogs. But the author provides few opportunities for a reader to see Cœur himself through the eyes of others in the first half of the novel.

Cœur is happy to marry his wife, but business takes him away from home most of the time, and he seems neither to have a strong relationship with his children nor to care much about the lack of closeness with his family. In the latter half of the book, Jacques meets the king’s mistress, Agnès Sorel. They spend a lot of time together and their conversations not only give us a better idea of Charles VII and his court but also show a more human side of the narrator. History records that Agnès Sorel designated Jacques Cœur one of her executors; Rufin’s novel shows him in love with her. As the author puts it in an afterword: “The lack of any precise information is great good fortune for the novelist.”

Another oddity of this book is the translation of its title as well as the narrator’s frequent references to his dreams, presumably his visions for his future and the future of France. In spite of the repeated use of the word he does not, however, describe his dreams at any length, and the reader must infer from the results what they might have been. He mentions his desire to go to the Levant, and after that trip he says that he would like to see France at the center of trade “more prosperous, more enviable than Damascus.” He urges the king to make peace since it is necessary for trade, but beyond a few passing remarks, does not set forth a grand vision, nor do we really come to understand the drive that made Coeur the head of an international trading empire, collector of castles throughout France and builder of the palace that today is a major tourist attraction in Bourges. 

He writes more about his disillusionment with the court, with the clergy, with the dying social system. Musing at length on the changes in the world he inhabits, especially the death of a culture in which the nobles protected their people, he notes: “Now it was money that reigned, and there were no more lords.”

The original title of the book is Le Grand Cœur. Although a clever pun on the protagonist’s name, only half of its meaning is more accurate than the English title. Yes, Jacques Cœur was a great personage in his time, but this novel does not show that he possessed a great heart. He displays hardly a glimpse of emotion or generosity of spirit until near the end of the book, in his sympathetic friendship with Agnès and his refusal to ask his partners to bail him out of his troubles with the king.

The author’s own career includes co-founding Doctors Without Borders, serving as France’s ambassador to Senegal and winning the Prix Goncourt for two of his previous seven novels. He grew up in Bourges, near the house where Jacques Cœur presumably was born, and spent his childhood “at the foot of Cœur’s palace.” This book was written “to bring the man back to life,” as Rufin sees himself in debt to the figure who showed him the way from his “harsh, gray childhood … to the existence of an elsewhere full of refinement and sunshine.”

If Jacques Cœur does not quite come alive as the author intended, the novel succeeds in showing France, especially the court, as it changed from a medieval feudal society to one driven by commerce. The book highlights the irrelevance of old customs of chivalry, as in Cœur’s description of Jacques de Lalaing, star of the tournament circuit, as “a perfect idiot”: “His armor rattled like old saucepans and he had to make three attempts to get his leg over his horse’s rump.”

Although the narrator’s musings occasionally slow the action of the book, they provide a thoughtful analysis of the changes in French life and of those factors that strengthened the monarchy of Charles VII. The vivid portraits of Charles VII and Agnès Sorel give readers an intimate glimpse into court intrigue in 15th-century France. The reality of the world in which he lived, rather than the dreams of the protagonist, offers the best reason to read this novel.

Alice Padwe has reviewed fiction, history and memoirs and has edited all kinds of books, from college texts to spy thrillers.

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