Julius, Paperback Book
3 out of 5 (1 rating)


'His first instinct was to stretch out his hands to the sky.

The white clouds seemed so near to him, surely they were easy to hold and to caress, strange-moving things belonging to the wide blue space of heaven . . . 'Julius Levy grows up in a peasant family in a village on the banks of the Seine. A quick-witted urchin caught up in the Franco-Prussian War, he is soon forced by tragedy to escape to Algeria. Once there, he learns the ease of swindling, the rewards of love affairs and the value of secrecy. Before he's twenty, he is in London, where his empire-building begins in earnest, and he becomes a rich and very ruthless man. Throughout his life, Julius is driven by a hunger for power, his one weakness his daughter, Gabriel . . . A chilling story of ambition, Daphne du Maurier's third novel has lost none of its ability to unsettle and disturb.


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I've read most of DuMaurier's other novels over the years, but this early one had escaped me. It is brilliantly written, beginning to end, and has some things in common with [The Great Gatsby], but it lacks the love story. It is told, not from the perspective of an outsider, but by an omniscient narrator from the title character's point of view. Julius Levy was born to extremely poor parents who operated a produce stall in the market place of a small French village. As their circumstances go from bad to worse, the young boy reveals a talent for finding ways to produce "something for nothing", a phrase he learned from his maternal grandfather, and one that reverberates throughout the novel as Julius moves up and up and up in the world. Julius's rise is not, however, powered by pure greed; work, not money, is his overlord. He must accomplish, acquire, build, improve, save in order to expand, never wasting a moment or a cent. Eventually he spends freely to have impressive homes, to adorn his wife, to acquire valuable art, to indulge his only child in whatever her latest obsession may be---but these "things" are never his goal. He finds his wife more impressive in a single strand of pearls than another handsome woman who drips with diamonds. Power and control are supremely important to him; love and beauty are concepts he cannot get his mind around. He is, in fact, heartless and soulless. The picture is perfectly drawn, but the point of it all is missing. Julius never changes, never gets his come-uppance, never feels the ache of longing or the sting of loss. He suffers no consequences of the cruelties he heedlessly or intentionally inflicts on those he ought to love. It is as though Ebenezer Scrooge carried on without spectral visitations, and arrived at his death bed unrepentant. I must also point out that, for no good literary reason that I can fathom, DuMaurier has made Julius Levy a Jew, although he has no upbringing in the faith, and his mother is not a Jew. (The Torah forbids a Jewish man to marry a Gentile woman, but if he does, his children by that woman will not be considered Jewish.) The author and Julius himself both frequently make a point of his Jewishness, neither in a religious context, nor in any conventionally anti-Semitic fashion. The statement is just there..."I am Julius Levy. A Jew." And then chapter after chapter when Julius Levy could as easily have been named Jacques Marchand. Whatever the author intended us to take from this was lost on me. There was one brief episode in Julius' young life when he stumbled into a synagogue for the first time, and felt something...a connection, a belonging. Almost immediately, however, he found a way to use the Rabbi to teach him something useful, to gain another Something for Nothing by playing on the man's sympathy, and once Julius had taken what he needed, he left the Rabbi and the synagogue, never to return, changed in no way by the experience, except for the knowledge he had gained. Throughout the first half of the novel, I kept waiting for the smoking gun to appear---the phrase or episode that would tell me that Julius was going to embrace his heritage in a meaningful way, or, in the bleak alternative, that the author was going to reveal herself to be an insidious anti-Semite and I would feel obliged to remove all of her books from my house. Neither ever happened. I was as puzzled about her intent when I closed the book for the last time as I was when I began. So how to rate [Julius] overall? I think it suffers from the same lack as its main character---no meaning, no soul. It is, as I said, beautifully written, well structured, yet full of inevitabilities and ironies that ultimately signify nothing. Intellectually an interesting read, but not inspiring in any way. Better than "meh", but not quite "Mmmm".Review written in April, 2015

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