Review 1424: Little

Best of Ten!
Often I don’t read reviews attentively or more often I don’t remind myself what a book is about before reading it, so I didn’t realize for some time that Little is a fictional biography of Madame Tussaud. It is an idiosyncratic one, to be sure.

Marie, often called Little for her small stature, is familiar with loss. In 1760, when she is five, her father dies. Her mother never recovers from it, and shortly after she and her mother take up residence with Doctor Curtius, for whom her mother is employed as a servant, her mother commits suicide.

Doctor Curtius is one of many peculiar characters, Marie not excepted, who occupy the novel’s pages. He is a very odd creature, unused to others, who models body parts in wax to be studied by anatomists. Marie is not dismayed by his peculiarities and is entranced by his wonderful collection of body parts. So, he begins teaching her to draw and model objects in wax.

At Little’s suggestion, they model the entire head of some subjects. Soon, they have a business of selling heads of themselves to customers. Dr. Curtius is mistreated by the hospital, so when a traveling Frenchman, Louis-Sébastian Mercier, suggests they move to Paris from Switzerland to model great men, they do.

Shortly after they arrive in Paris, Doctor Curtius falls under the influence of their landlady, the Widow Picot, who soon has Little working for the entire family, not just Doctor Curtius, even though Little has never been paid. Madame Picot makes no secret that she would like to get rid of her. In the meantime, she and Doctor Curtius begin by modelling the heads of famous criminals. By now, the French Revolution threatens.

Little is narrated in a sprightly, whimsical fashion even when it relates things that are not so pleasant. That, and the pervading personality of its main character, are two of its charms, even as it becomes darker. This is a strange and wonderful novel.

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A Tale of Two Cities

Day 528: A Tale of Two Cities

Cover for A Tale of Two CitiesIt has been a long time since I read A Tale of Two Cities, and I did not remember anything except its broadest outlines. The novel is unusual for Dickens in two respects. It is his only historical novel, and it is probably the grimmest. Although he handles some weighty subjects in other novels—the poor laws, the civil justice system, mistreatment of children, abusive schools—this novel about the French revolution shows little of his celebrated sense of humor.

The novel centers around a much smaller cast of characters than usual for Dickens. It begins with Dr. Alexandre Manette, long a resident in a French prison for reasons we do not learn until the end of the novel. When the book begins, he is free but severely disturbed from trauma. His daughter Lucie travels with his banker Jarvis Lorry from England to bring him back to London.

Five years later, he is living contentedly with his daughter in England. Their friend French émigré Charles Darnay is tried for treason on bogus charges, but he is released when his defense proves that the principal witness cannot tell him apart from Sidney Carton, a barrister. These characters will soon become well acquainted.

When the novel returns to France, it shows us the extreme poverty of the poor as well as grim depictions of their mistreatment by aristocrats. Darnay returns to France to meet his uncle, the Marquis St. Evrémonde, and renounce his inheritance. St. Evrémonde’s careless slaughter of a young child when he runs over him in his carriage and his disdainful treatment of his nephew are all we see of him before his murder.

Secretly, a revolutionary society is growing and taking note of atrocities such as those committed by Evrémonde. Wine shop owners Monsieur and Madame Defarge are involved, and at first we have sympathy with their cause.

Charles Darnay marries Lucie Manette in London, but Sidney Carton has fallen in love with her as well. Although he considers himself unworthy of her, he pledges to do anything he can for her or for anyone she loves.

Meanwhile, France falls into revolution and brutal chaos. It becomes a place where revenge is more important than justice.

The fates of the main characters reach a climax when Charles returns to Paris to help an old retainer and is denounced by the revolution. Although he has committed no crime, his relationship to St. Evrémonde puts him in peril. Dr. Manette’s sanity is also threatened when he, Lucie, and Jarvis Lorry travel to Paris to try to help Charles.

The novel is a little more melodramatic than I prefer, unleavened as it is by Dickens’ usual antics. Only a couple of major characters provide momentary relief, and Madame Defarge is like a heavy dark cloud hovering over everything. The novel is also a bit disjointed through moving back and forth between the two cities. Still, Dickens always manages to bring tears to my eyes.

Day 484: The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo

Cover for The Black CountTom Reiss, previously the author of the fascinating biography The Orientalist, seems to be drawn to unusual figures who were famous in their own time but have become virtually unknown. Such is the case with Thomas-Alexandre Dumas—the father of the famous author of The Count of Monte Cristo, among other classics—who reached the heights of his fame as a great soldier and general of revolutionary France.

Dumas, who went by Alex rather than Alexandre or Thomas, had a colorful past. He was born on the island of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), the son of a black slave and a French marquis, Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie. His father was a wastrel and a scoundrel who, although he apparently did not raise his son in slavery, sold him in order to raise the passage money for his own return to France after his family had thought him dead for years. After claiming his right to his title and property (which his relatives had been maintaining and improving for years at their own expense), Pailleterie redeemed his teenage son and brought him up in privilege.

However, shortly after entering manhood, Alex broke with his father, took his mother’s name, and proceeded to make his own way as a soldier. He was the first person of color to become a general-in-chief of the French army and was the highest ranking black officer in the western world of his time.

This book is an account of Dumas’ fascinating life, in which his physical courage, ability, and principled behavior won him acclaim. Unfortunately, he was not as gifted politically and inadvertently made an enemy of Napoleon Bonaparte, who perceived him as a rival and really comes off here as a jealous and power-hungry opportunist. Bonaparte’s resentment, in combination with an abrupt change in policy of the French government to remove the rights previously granted subjects of color, ended in the loss of his career and a death in neglect and poverty.

The book is written in an energetic and informal style for the general public, although it is copiously documented in the back. The Black Count is an engrossing story of an event-filled life.