A Case of Curiosities

by Allen Kurzweil
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1998

Eighteenth century deists compared the world to a watch, an analogy well suited to this historical novel, in which the main character creates ingenious mechanisms, including timepieces. The book thus reflects the age in which it is set; it is also very much a postmodern text, as concerned with its own composition as with the story it has to tell. This duality pervades the work, which emerges as at once art and artifice. Like the devices that Claude Page creates, the novel delights in two ways. On the surface, one can enjoy the movement of the figures, the characters’ actions, but one can also take pleasure in the elaborate construction, in a mechanism that produces life, or at least its simulacrum.

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The twin aspects of the book expose themselves in the opening pages, in which the narrator describes his acquiring a case of curiosities at a Paris auction in 1983. In one sense, this case refers to a box in which a person places a collection of objects, often commonplace, that relate to important events in the individual’s life. This case of objects inoculates the narrator with a case—in a medical sense—of curiosity, so that he spends the next six years studying the life of the young man who had assembled these items. The account that results, a history presented in “a novel manner,” as Sebastian Plumeaux will punningly say late in the story, is itself about a character whose curiosity leads him into a curious life between the ages of ten and twenty.

The tale that follows unfolds in ten units. The decade of divisions corresponds to the number of years that elapse; it also reflects the decimalization that the French Revolution imposed on all facets of life, including time, which it sought to measure in ten-day weeks, ten-hour days, and hundred-minute hours. Numerology, especially relating to time, affects other aspects of the work as well. The book contains sixty chapters and 360 pages, though the last two are blank because Claude’s story is unfinished. Kurzweil appears to have stolen a (blank) page from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), doubled it, and converted it to a representation of Page’s blank. The story completes a circle of 360 degrees because in the last numbered chapter—there is an unnumbered postscript—Claude assembles the case of curiosities that the narrator buys in the preface. Claude completes his masterpiece, a talking head, in the year 1789; of its 2,199 parts, 1,789 are responsible for speech.

Each of the major divisions receives its title from one of the objects that occupy the box acquired at the Paris auction. The first item is a jar, which, like many other objects that Claude includes in the case, is object, metaphor, and pun. As the first, it represents the container holding the middle finger of Claude’s right hand, which is embellished with a mole that resembles the head of Louis XVI. Believing that the mole causes Claude pain, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre-Robert Auget, the local count, summons Adolphe Staemphli, a Geneva surgeon, to remove it. Unhappily for Claude, Staemphli, too, is creating a case of curiosities and wishes to improve his collection with this blemish. To ensure its preservation, he removes the entire finger. The amputation foreshadows the fate of the real head of the king and of Claude’s later curiosity, a head of another sort. More immediately, it jars Claude’s life, resulting in his leaving home to live with the count. As Kurzweil writes in one of his many examples of word play, “Amputation had brought about attachment,” the patronage of the abbé.

The title of the second unit, “The Nautilus,” once more assumes multiple meanings. The abbé loves the helix: His staircases, gates, and pillars spiral; he even peels his fruit helically. His house has a chambered conception with increasingly secret compartments, and he sees his life as “a series of hidden chambers. There is always one more waiting to be entered.” As Claude penetrates these physical and biographical compartments, he, too, grows, so that the nautilus serves as a metaphor for his life as well as the abbé’s. The nautilus represents not only development but also shyness: it “recoils in moments of terror and delight.” Claude and the abbé exhibit this characteristic, retreating rather than exposing their fears and hopes; this mutual concealment leads to misunderstanding and separation.

While Claude lives under the abbé’s tutelage, he learns much about watchmaking, his great passion. To raise money, the abbé must produce mechanisms more in demand than mere timepieces, “Hours of Love” with erotic scenes. “Nautilus” may pun on the “naughty lass” these pictures include. Among the commissions is a request for a bawdy scene incorporating the face of a young woman painted on an ivory cameo. Claude falls in love with the image, which he encounters in the third unit, “The Morel.” Morels move, appearing in different places each year, and the mushroom occupying the third compartment represents Claude’s leaving the abbé’s employment. In the most secret part of his house, the abbé is reported to harbor a mistress who is also his music student. Claude believes that he witnesses her murder when she refuses to play, and he flees Tournay. Actually, this Madame Dubois is, as her name indicates, a thing of wood, an imperfect automaton. Had Claude not reacted as a nautilus, he might have stayed to learn the truth and so not acted as a morel.

Instead, he finds himself in Paris without money or employment. Poverty compels him to work for Lucien Livre, a bookseller and pornographer who believes that name is fate. With his name he could do no other than sell books, and he had long believed that Page, too, belonged in a bookstore. A wooden mannequin stolen on the journey to the French capital marks Claude’s migration and supplies the name for the fourth unit—the figure is also “du bois”; a “pearl,” as Livre calls each of his written instructions, and fills the fifth compartment of the case. While working for the un- pleasant Lucien—Claude could regard himself as a pearl cast to a swine—he meets Alexandre Hugon, the woman whose face had enchanted him in Tournay, and she seduces him. She cares nothing for his research into mechanics and sound, but she supplies him with money and buys his freedom from Livre by paying the bookseller for the services of his apprentice.

Although Claude recognizes Alexandre’s indifference to his projects, he creates an elaborate mechanical tribute to her. It includes several birds, including a linnet nesting in a bed lined with Claude’s own hair. Each bird sings its peculiar note. Claude invites Alexandre to his garret to observe his creation. She comes, and they make love; but she then dismisses him. Her marriage has been annulled because of her husband’s impotence, and she wants to wed a rich widower. Claude loses his mistress and his freedom from Livre, but he blackmails the bookseller by threatening to expose the illicit trade in pornography unless Livre cancels the apprenticeship. At the age of sixteen, in the midst of the sixth unit, marked by the linnet freed or severed from its mechanism, Claude is free. He now prospers by selling mechanical toys.

When he hears of a fatal fire in Tournay, Claude returns home to find his mother and sisters dead, the abbé living but aged and impoverished. Claude also learns of his mistake about Madame Dubois, discovering that she was an artifact, a “kurzweil” or pastime (a play on the author’s name). Claude is reunited with the watch that his father had left him, and that object will occupy the case’s seventh compartment. “The Watch” represents not only this timepiece but also Claude’s waiting to create his masterpiece and to secure revenge on Staemphli. In return for a manufactured container secretly filled with grubs that will destroy the surgeon’s curiosities, the abbé and Claude secure for their project such necessities as reindeer tendons and the vocal cords of a monkey. Then they move to Paris, where Claude learns of Alexandre’s death in childbirth. Her daughter—and Claude’s—has survived, and the infant has inherited the bell that Claude had given Alexandre and that she had rung when feeling especially amorous. Claude takes the child home; her bell enters the case.

Her nursemaid, Marguerite, loves not only the girl but also the father. In a passionate moment she bites off the last button holding Claude’s pants, and shortly afterward they marry. The button is the last object that Claude places in his box, and that ninth compartment represents the year of his greatest achievement. For a moment he is the very button on Fortune’s cap. Happily married, he produces a talking automaton, the Miraculatorium, which says, “Vive le roi.” The mechanism enjoys great popularity. Claude embarks on an international tour, and Sebastian Plumeaux, a hack writer whose name appears to be his fate, produces an account of the creation. His book has ten major divisions, each with a name that carries multiple meanings, and should run to 360 pages; but the printer’s concern for paper reduces the number to 358. Plumeaux, who is “partial to narratives based on contrived structures,” thus writes a book very much like the one that tells of his writing it; like a nautilus, A Case of Curiosities makes yet another self-reflexive turn.

The French Revolution creates a revolution in Claude’s fortunes. Because of the talking head’s royalist sentiments, it is sentenced to beheading. The tenth compartment remains empty as a sign of an unfinished life. Like the two blank pages, emptiness emphasizes the silence imposed on Claude’s masterpiece and so on its creator. At the same time, it leaves space for expansion. Claude remains alive and may speak again; his story may allow a sequel.

A Case of Curiosities is a delightful kurzweil, an entertaining story ingeniously told. As a historical novel it offers much detail about late eighteenth century life. The abbé, for example, exemplifies anticlerical Enlightenment attitudes and pursues scientific research. He is a philosopher who corresponds with his counterparts in England and America and on the European continent. Claude’s mother, an herbalist, reflects the simpler beliefs of the peasantry. Her talk is filled with proverbs and biblical quotations, and her chief scientific instrument is a fir-tree branch that serves as a barometer. Alexandre’s cosmetics are made from bacon grease and vegetable puree. Generally the novel wears such learning lightly, but the details of M. Hugon’s impotency trial, though a comic tour de force, add nothing to plot or characterization.

Because the novel is so immersed in its period, anachronisms are troubling. Among Livre’s proofs that “name is fate” is William Battie’sTreatise on Madness (1758). The book is real, but the joke is modern. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “batty” did not acquire its link to madness until 1903. The abbé owns a book with steel engravings, which did not become popular until the nineteenth century; copper would have been more in keeping with the time.

Such slips are, however, few. Kurzweil has captured the sights, sounds, and tastes (in all senses of the word) of the age that produced the first novels. Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne would appreciate the variations that Kurzweil plays on the form as he returns to the eighteenth century for his setting and many of his techniques.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVIII, October 15, 1991, p. 401.

Chicago Tribune. January 12, 1992, XIV, p. 7.

Literary Review. CLXVII, May, 1992, p. 41.

London Review of Books. XIV, May 28, 1992, p. 22.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 19, 1992, p. 3.

New Statesman and Society. V, March 27, 1992, p. 41.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIX, April 9, 1992, p. 35.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, January 26, 1992, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXVIII, March 23, 1992, p. 99.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, October 4, 1991, p. 80.

The Times Literary Supplement. March 20, 1992, p. 21.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, January 12, 1992, p. 9.

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