21 MARCH 1992, Page 31


Odds and endings

Hilary Mantel

A CASE OF CURIOSITIES by Allen Kurzweil Hamish Hamilton, £14.99, pp. 358 Alien Kurzweil's first book comes to the reviewer with a three-page publicity handout, well-intentioned but peculiar. The novel, already published in the USA, 'has drawn superlative quotes from ... ' (here follows a list of luminaries) and 'has inspired comparison with . . .' (here follows a second list of luminaries, more senior because some of them are dead.) Then, seized by a zeal for quantification, the pub- licist appends 'The American Critics' Influence List,' which gives the number of comparisons to each big name, and which is drawn up in tabular form. Some talk of Fowles, some talk of Barth; some say he's more like Borges. The influence list should, one feels, be intoned, like the Saturday evening football results. Charles Dickens 1, Henry Fielding 3. Patrick Suskind 2, Voltaire 1. A. S. Byatt 1, Benjamin Franklin (slight pause) ONE.

The effect is to suggest that the author has not simply played the sedulous ape, but turned into the whole monkey-house. It is slow death by flattery. Every writer wants to be his own man, or to be seen as such. And the reviewer, intimidated by the procession of heavyweights, hesitates to open the book. Do I dare, and do I dare? Still, there's plenty of reading yet in the press release. The author, who is 31 years old and a visiting lecturer at Yale, 'has lived in over 30 different apartments'. His manuscript was stolen three times. (Did he wrap it in dollar bills?) He 'speaks four different languages' (as distinct, of course, from four all the same). He is married to 'an anthropoligist [sic], Francois [sic] Dussart'. The reader now turns to the text, seeking relief from the psychopathology of everyday life. And why not? The publishers claim that it's 'boardy [sic], bizarre and brilliantly written'.

The happy reader who picks up Kurzweil in a bookshop and begins to read without the benefit of press release will probably be delighted by the opening pages. The novel begins with a description of a Paris auction room, its display cases 'scratched to opacity by the diamond rings of greedy men and women'. It is in this salesroom that, in 1983, the narrator acquires 'Lot 67, Box of Curiosities. 45 cm. x 63 cm. Origins unknown. 19th Cent.' He buys it for a song, but immediately afterwards is approached by an Italian, an art historian, who offers him many times what he has paid. Though he refuses to sell, the Italian explains to him something of the case's importance. The objects in it relate to the life of one Claude Page, a brilliant inventor, whose discoveries led to 'a death as tragic as that of Marie Antoinette, and one that was much more bizarre.'

For six years the narrator devotes him- self to uncovering the history of the objects in the case of curiosities. They are ordi- nary, in themselves — a shell, a button, some unidentifiable vegetable matter. But the narrator is 'obsessed' — and he uses the word in its old sense. The state of `obsession' precedes that of satanic posses- sion. It is not so much that he owns the case of curiosities — the case owns him. His discoveries about Claude Page form the subsequent narrative.

Claude's story begins in his provincial home, where having suffered the amputa- tion of his middle finger by a Genevan surgeon, who wants it for his collection of medical curios, he is taken on as a kind of apprentice by the local landowner, a fiercely anti-clerical abbe. Claude, a mechanical and artistic genius, becomes an expert in 'the specialised field of erotic enamelling'. His productions pay for the abbe's wilder experiments; groans and screams issue from behind locked doors. Four years later he flees the abbe's house, having apparently witnessed a murder, and takes the road to Paris.

After adventures on the road he arrives in the pre-revolutionary city well chronicled, in its own time, in the pages of Restif's semi-autobiographical novels, and in Louis-Sebastien Mercier's Tableau de Paris. Kurzweil's research has been exten- sive, and of course if an author invents for himself a detail-mad protagonist, he is at liberty to use whatever he has discovered, and entertain his reader with it. Claude ends up living in a garret, his neighbour a wet-nurse, his boon companions a coach- man and a hack writer. He wants to pursue watch-making, the trade at which his dead father excelled, but poverty and the guild regulations conspire to make him the servant of a mean-minded vendor of pornographic books. He finds and loses a mistress, takes in his own daughter from a foundling hospital, and is in the course of time reunited with the abbe, who spurs him on to his greatest and strangest discovery — the one which will fall foul of the Revolutionary Tribunal.

Throughout his allusive, beguiling narrative, the author keeps up chit-chat and mild banter with the reader; it is very pleasant; and apart from this he performs no critic-pleasing tricks. His book is in fact straightforward, and simply enjoyable the publicity may encourage you to expect

something intellectually exhausting. Kurzweil's style is mannered, quirky, know- ing and discursive; when he does remind you of other writers, it's clear obeisance, not sneak thieving. At his worst, he is Dickens at his most laboured and facetious. At his best, he is emollient, humorous, full of information. His pace is leisurely — by 20th-century standards, that is. (By 18th- century standards it would be frenetic). He will appeal to readers who enjoyed Charles Palliser's The Quincunx, though Kurzweil's models are different; to those seduced by the extraordinary first novel which appeared last year, Lawrence Norfolk's Lempriere's Dictionary; perhaps also to fans of Stephen Marlowe, who wrote The Memoirs of Christopher Columbus though Kurzweil is more substantial and less jokey. These are useful comparisons, I hope, that will not offend the author nor intimidate the reader. There is no mileage in suggesting Kurzweil is another Eco, another Calvino. Why do we need another? He may not have Eco's ambition or Calvino's vivacity. What he has done is to

produce a perfectly good novel of his own — self-conscious in the best sense, engaged with ideas, and written — line by line with deftness and wit.

Kurzweil's real problem is in living up to the promise of his first chapter. The reader does tend to guess what marvels will be produced by Claude's inventive hands, before they are presented on the page. There are set-pieces, like the account of an impotence trial, which suffice to make us marvel at the strangeness of the 18th century, but which do not advance the plot; again, there are intriguing references that lead nowhere, possibilities not pursued. Still, as Kurzweil points out with many a pretty quibble, a book is not a machine, however hard its creator tries to make it run smoothly.

Again, an author with similar materials and intentions could — without the need to exaggerate — produce a far more frighten- ing, complex picture of Paris in the late 18th century. With the exception of the pornographer, most of the people Claude encounters are genial, far from the 'ruined men, misanthropes, alchemists and maniacs' that Mercier found in only one district he visited. What befalls Claude in his garret is tame, by real-life standards. (The sober and factual biographies of some Revolutionary figures — not even the oddities like Marat, but the staider ones like Brissot — are quite as crowded with incident as the life of Claude Page.) Again, it seems perverse of the author to take his story to the brink of the Revolution and then shuffle his characters off to England, as if he were avoiding the possibility of too much excitement for the reader. The book's closing pages seem hurried, as if after having prepared us for a monstrous, memorable pay-off — the author's courage or technique had failed.

All the same, these criticisms are mildly intended, for this is a sympathetic, always interesting novel; a reader's book, you might say, rather than a critic's or a marketing man's book. It is a picture of a world that delighted in everything novel and Newtonian: in magnets and electrical devices, in intricate and ludic mechanisms, in strange zoological forms and strange theories of disease. Kurzweil is acute in pinning down the era's mechanical pre- occupations; Louis XVI liked to tinker with locks to avoid thinking about affairs of state. But Kurzweil is writing of an era which also sought and valued the true and the natural, the simple and the antique, the nostalgic and the sentimental. Perhaps it is impossible to represent this aspect of the age in fiction without the danger of emotional excess. Allen Kurzweil has not run the risk: Voltaire 1, Rousseau 0. It would be good to think that in his next book his characters might develop the complexity of his machines. And on a personal level, of course, one hopes that he will become of fixed abode, and put in a burglar alarm.