Sunday, August 20, 2006

A New Novel About Marie Antoinette

Having last blogged about two recent historical novels, I’m going to do myself one better today and blog about one that hasn’t been released yet: Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Sena Jeter Naslund. It’s to be released in October, so naturally, I’m looking at an advance reader’s edition.

Abundance is told in the first person by Marie Antoinette, and though it doesn’t purport to be a journal, it’s told in a journal-like fashion, with the events unfolding as the queen experiences them rather than in retrospect. From what I can tell (it’s not my period by any means), it’s well researched, and it’s sympathetic toward Marie Antoinette without minimizing her weaknesses. The other members of the royal family are rendered nicely too, especially Louis XVI. (For those who are wondering, Axel von Fersen is very much a presence here, though the queen’s relationship with him is a chaste one.)

In many historical novels about well-known figures, authors tend to jump from one Big Event to another, serving history while at the same time slighting character. Naslund tends to move in the opposite direction. While she covers all of the usual set pieces of Marie Antoinette’s life—her husband’s difficulty in consummating their marriage, her reluctance to acknowledge the Comtesse du Barry, her public childbirth, the Affair of the Necklace—Naslund tends to focus more closely on her more everyday, mundane interactions with her family and friends, at least until the revolution overtakes all normalcy. I especially liked the queen’s reminiscences about the hippotamus and rhinoceros in her childhood home, the scene where the royal family witnesses the launch of a hot air balloon, and the later scene where the queen is served “fruit” that turns out to be small balloons. (Through a later scene where another balloon launch ends in tragedy, Naslund neatly inserts a sense of impending disaster for the royal court as well.)

Once fate overtakes the royal family, Naslund conveys the increasing terror of their lives powerfully. Though she doesn’t give us an eyewitness view of the horror of the massacre of the Swiss Guard, the laconic way in which the queen recounts the event is chillingly effective in its very brevity: “It required only two carriages to carry away those of us who remained alive of the court of Louis XVI.”

I did find some things bothersome here. The dialogue is sometimes stilted to the point of being comical: “'Those red spots on your fair cheeks suggest measles,'” Marie Antoinette’s dear friend the Comte de Polignac tells her at one point. This may be to show the artificiality of court life, but if it is, it’s not done consistently; the same friend speaks to Marie Antoinette quite naturally at other times.

More problematic for me was this passage in the first chapter of Abundance, at which point the book nearly became airborne:

While my ladies flutter like bright butterflies around me, I glance at my naked body, a slender worm. Louis Auguste and I must be much the same, as all humans are really much the same, except for the difference of sex. We all have two legs—mine are slender—supporting a torso; two arms sprout on either side of a bodily cabinet, which contains the guts and bladder in the lower compartment and the heaving lungs and heart in the upper section. In between, for women, is the chamber called the womb. From the trunk, a neck rises up like a small lookout tower whose finial is the head.


I’m sure there must be some reason for this paragraph—which all but screams, “Look, Ma, I’m writing literary fiction!”—but I'll be blessed if I can see it; all I could think of was that clear child’s educational toy called “The Human Body” and then that old song “Dry Bones” (“The knee bone connected to the thigh bone!”). Fortunately, creative-writing-class passages such as this are relatively few and far between, especially in the latter part of the novel. I'm quoting this paragraph, in fact, only because it almost made me stop reading this book, and I'm glad I persevered.

In short, this is a book the merits of which far outweigh its flaws. Give it a try.

3 comments:

Carla said...

I like that 'only two carriages' line. Reminds me of a similar comment in a chronicle that Harald Hardrada's invasion force arrived in 100+ ships but after the Battle of Stamford Bridge it needed only three to carry the survivors away.

Kailana said...

hm, this book looks interesting. I might have to look into buying it when it comes out. :)

Gabriele C. said...

The French Revolution is one epoch school managed to spoil for me (the other is Hitler). Our teacher kept drooling on about the great achievments of that revolution where I only saw a bunch of people driven by as much lust for power as the king before, and started pitying the nobility. Not that I deny the French Revolution, in the long outlook, has changed some things for the better, but reading about it still reminds me too much of those lessons. That book will get a pass, I'm afraid.

*listens to bank account heaving a sigh of relief* :)