The Queen’s Lover

Not everyone can meet the high expectations Hilary Mantel raised for historical novels. In Francine du Plessix Gray’s fictionalized history of Marie Antoinette’s Swedish lover, Count Axel von Fersen – The Queen’s Lover – the history outshines the fiction.

Although historians cannot agree on the extent of intimacy in the relationship between the Swedish aristocrat and the famous French Queen, the rumors could provide the basis for the possibilities that Gray creates. The Count is historically famous for fighting in the American Revolution and for his escape plan for the imprisoned French royals, which fails. Gray uses letters written by the Count and by Marie Antoinette that have been recently recovered, and the letters are sometimes more compelling than the fictional prose. Despite the drama of the beheading, Marie Antoinette’s final letter is the focal point.

As an education into the details of the French Revolution and the backstory of royal intrigues, the book offers a tedious accounting, and the connection between the imagined and the real never quite connected for me. I think I’ve been spoiled by Hilary Mantel.

Review of Mantel’s: Bring Up the Bodies

Bastille Day – Read Something French

To celebrate Bastille Day, a restaurant in Washington, D.C. is having a baguette relay race.  I remember a traditional waiter’s race in Annapolis – the waiters speed walk holding a tray of drinks (wine?); I wonder if they still do.  I’ll be looking for some crepes today, to eat while re-reading some of my favorite French books (not in French, of course).

Some ideas:

  • Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard
  • The Paris Wife by Paula McClain
  • Chasing Cezanne by Peter Mayle
  • Chocolat by Joanne Harris
  • Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnick
  • My Life in France by Julia Child
And a new one I’m looking forward to –
David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris

Parrot and Olivier in America

If you somehow – mercifully – missed reading the two volumes of Democracy in America in SOC 201, Booker Prize winning author, Peter Carey offers a painless way to catch up with Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic.   Parrot and Olivier in America retells and refurbishes Toqueville’s examination of American democracy in the 1830s with imaginative embellishments.

If you are a Francophile, the first 100 pages will gleefully take you through the French Revolution through the House of Bourbon (that’s the king, not the whiskey), as Carey documents Olivier and Parrot’s young lives. The chapters alternate from noble-bred Olivier to the more plebian Parrot. The two do not meet until they are adults.

Olivier de Garmont is a nobleman, born in 1805, and modeled on Tocqueville; both had aristocratic grandfathers who were beheaded. Olivier’s parents’ sympathies were with the Revolutionists and were able to escape to the French countryside, yet they remained true to the king – not necessarily the right king – his family suffers from both sides:

“ The liberals see you and have no doubt you are a spy. The monarchists see you and know you for a traitor…”

Not much for a mother to do but arrange for her son’s escape to America. With the eventful trip, the story begins to have a purpose. Carey uses Olivier to mirror  Tocqueville’s famous journey across the sea under the illusion that he is to compare the French and American penal system, which inevitably leads to his famous examination of democracy.

Olivier has the same markings of aristocracy as Tocqueville; however, through his flavorful language, Carey offers a person who seems more like the Scarlet Pimpernel – with a different motivation. Imagine Leslie Howard in disguise as the primping young French fusspot Olivier, who grows into a mature bearer of the cause as he works his way through the ideals of a young America, and, of course, falls in love along the way.

Parrot is the foil – the common man with a talent for engraving.   His peasant life is not easy, but he is clever.  Unlike Toqueville’s real collaborator and travel companion to America, Beaumont, Parrot is not an aristocrat.   Carey uses Parrot’s wit and common sense to offset the idiosyncrasies of the aristocratic Olivier as he becomes Olivier’s foil and conduit to freedom.   In America, Parrot comes into his own, and becomes a filter for Olivier’s snobbish sensibilities.

Parrot is in his fifties by the time the two characters meet, and Carey cleverly keeps your attention by slowly revealing his back-story.  As Parrot’s story continues to unravel, creating twists in the plot that affect Olivier’s understanding of democracy, it becomes clear how different Parrot’s life choices could have been – in a democracy, he would have had choices, but it’s not too late. Although the novel begins with the narrative of French aristocrat Olivier de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont, it is John Larrit, aka Parrot, who dominates the story.

The language is elegant and prosaic – a cross between Proust and Oscar Wilde – sometimes overwhelming with descriptors; other times, exciting and funny with action.   Carey pokes fun at Jane Austen (“For what can a society learn from Jane Austen except that it is a very nice thing to be married”), while adopting some of her phrasing.   If you can appreciate and even laugh at the polished verbiage, e.g., as Olivier describes his glass of wine…

“Miraculously, it was free of sediment, and rushed into my glass at that perfect stage of life. In a year it would be a dowager with a faded old corsage, but as it entered my mouth it was vigorous and manly, completely composed, its orchestra all present and correct. Oh heavens, that such small things make a man so happy.”

…then you will find yourself engaged in the story and smiling at the nuances.   You will want to know what Olivier and Parrot do with their new lives and opportunity.   By the end, you might find yourself assuming affectations – like being around a Southerner too long; after a while, you catch the drawl.

Carey admits to being inspired by his own reading of Democracy in America and mimics

Alexis de Tocqueville

Toqueville’s narrative as he touches on a number of his themes – religion, materialism, equality, community, the “sin of slavery.”   In his acknowledgments, Carey admits to quietly being among those “dissenting voices…of Toquevelle,” but as he expertly weaves the personal lives with the social commentary, the novel is a reminder that Toqueville’s observations were made when democracy was still in its childhood.   Although some of Toqueville’s predictions – through Olivier – have come true, the ending of the novel seems to confirm the ongoing struggle of the old world vs the new, established ideas vs the challenge.

If you crave more of the historical background, check out what Peter Carey was reading to feed the muse…