Monday, August 31, 2009

The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P. by Brian O'Doherty

Wildly dull. So much so that I wonder at the awareness of the author. At some point, doesn't a writer step back from his work and think, "my God, this is going to bore people to death"? We all write dull things occasionally; editors help correct that propensity, usually. The wonder is that this got published even with an editor's help.

Not that the book isn't competently assembled, and the sentences grammatical and sometimes artful. The trouble is that the author is trying to tell a story without telling a story. He wants to recreate a real historical incident, about the well-meaning quack doctor Mesmer in 18th century Vienna whose name has entered our language in the term "mesmerize," without actually stooping to any kind of clarity about people, places, or events. The brief tale is told in chapters narrated as memoirs by the handful of main characters -- doctor, patient, patient's father. It seems that one of Mesmer's patients or subjects was a young woman surnamed Paradies, whose father was an official at the court of the Empress Maria Theresa and who was herself an accomplished pianist. She was blind, and at 18 her parents submitted her to Mesmer's care for a cure for this. Mesmer had strange ideas about fluids and "animal magnetism." ("I see it as a luminous sheath of weightless extension which binds the stars and our souls in one glowing substance ....") He believed he could help people suffering any variety of ills by massaging this fluid through their bodies, until they achieved some sort of "crisis," at which point his assistants, hale young men, would bear off the spasming patient to a padded room and close the door on the screams.

This would be terrific stuff in the hands of a good professional women's romance novelist, but O'Doherty, I fear, prefers to be an artiste. Instead of anything that might keep our attention, we get long pages on father Paradies, disappointed in his daughter's cure, wondering how he can pull strings at court to get Mesmer disgraced without seeming petty or scheming himself. Mozart wanders in, because the time frame is right -- although the brief note at the end of the book tells us that in fact Mozart and Mlle. P. actually met, and he wrote a concerto for her (B flat, K. 456). Marie Antoinette lurks on the sidelines, as do the scientists who went to the guillotine during the French Revolution, also because the time is right.

The best chapter is the one told from the point of view of Mlle. P. herself. The problem with Mesmer's cure of her is that it worked. She began to regain her sight, but the overload of new information that this brought her became a worse handicap than the blindness she had learned to cope with. There are very interesting pages here on what it must be like for a person to suddenly face a world in which he is expected to take in knowledge through his eyes. Mlle has no understanding of perspective; objects appear to her as in a Cubist painting, their angles and shadows ever-changing and meaningless. She has no experience associating words with the physical look of objects. To her, a "table" may as well be a "cat" -- she is in the midst of learning a foreign language on several levels, and so her mistakes under quizzing make her look like an imbecile. "To me the Danube looked like a white ribbon that I could reach out and pick up. It had no character of water that I could see."

Her own crisis comes when her new sight ruins her ability to play the piano, which is her meal ticket at the Empress' court and in life. Distracted by the visual chaos of sheet music and by the spectacle of her hands' gyrations, she regresses to such a point that her father removes her from Mesmer's house. Then the story winds down, but ever so slowly. Mesmer leaves Vienna for Paris, and Mlle P. carries on, offstage, playing and earning a living as a teacher. The well meaning quack, at eighty, suffers agonies of guilt for having erotic dreams about her. He massages his fluids.

So there is interesting matter here, but O'Doherty has chosen to spin it out as half a dozen very long winded and overthought diary entries graced by absolutely no conversation nor any other devices to move the reader forward through a story. You'll learn more, more enjoyably, from the jacket flap summary, which has to be about the last thing an author would want to hear about his novel.

Except the jacket flap also says the book is "thriller-like." As the modern vernacular puts it: um, no.

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