HISTORICAL fiction, far from being a lazy form -- plucking events and characters ready-made from real life -- presents some unique challenges to the writer. How to write dialogue that sounds neither costumey nor too modern? How do you re-imagine what has already been described? If you don't feature an invented protagonist, where is the suspense?
In his first novel, Dominic Smith creates secondary characters, but the main story follows the real life and accomplishments of Louis Daguerre, one of the inventors of photography. He handicaps himself further by presenting Daguerre at the end of his career, already famous and decorated. There's no forward movement.
It is April 1847, and Daguerre is awaiting the end of the world. Before the heavenly armies descend, he wants to take some final emblematic pictures, including images of the moon, a naked woman, galloping horses, the perfect Paris boulevard and Isobel Le Fournier, his boyhood passion. He embarks on his quest with seemingly lucid determination, although the author later tells us that Daguerre's visions of Apocalypse are the result of mercury poisoning.
His search for photographic subjects alternates with chapters that recount his life from childhood to the present. We follow him from the country estate where his father is head clerk, to Paris where he apprentices himself as a scenic painter. Eventually, he becomes the foremost designer of stage sets in Paris.
Smith writes beautifully of Daguerre's fascination with light. After imitating it in oils, he began experimenting with it directly. His first breakthrough was the diorama, a succession of enormous paintings "rendered on transparent lawn or calico, and lit from various angles...." The viewer beheld "a seamless rendition of nature" migrating through the changing light of a single day, morning to evening, sun to rain or snow. Daguerre speculated that "nature could sketch herself using nothing but sunlight; that, given the right cavelike aperture ... and the right receptive material, light could emblazon a scene for all time. The secret of light was this: it carried images with it."
Smith captures Daguerre's excitement and wonder in his pursuit of a marvelous new art form. "[L]ight streamed down and traced everything in its path -- the brain-shaped silhouettes of clouds, the Y of midnight birds, domed rooftops, spindle-trunked trees, a man's hand held aloft. It not only painted shadow but rendered -- somewhere, if only we could see it -- a crystalline blueprint of the material world. Find the right receptor and nature would do the drawing for you." But there seemed to be no way to fix the image, until he discovered mercury, either through systematic experimentation or by accident, as Smith prefers.
The novel is vivid and lively when it centers on Daguerre's work. There are scenes full of sensuous delights, as when the 16-year-old Louis sees his first play and is thrilled by the lighting. But the interleaving of past and present saps momentum, resulting in a series of static tableaux.
Another problem is the theme of lost love. Smith invents a boyhood romance with a maid on the estate. When she spurns Daguerre's offer of marriage, the teenage Louis sets out for Paris. We are to suppose that his ambitions all grow from wounded love. Isobel marries and has a child, but Daguerre remains obsessed with her: "[H]e was ... trying to punish the world, and Isobel, with his fame." Whenever Isobel appears, in memory and later in person, the writing grows florid and awkward. "The world had been reduced to the threat and promise of a tannic kiss -- he imagined their mouths brimming and heavy with wine." Reunited in old age, "[t]heir eyes locked for a fraction of a second, in the interval it takes to haul another human being out of the broth of memory."
The last 50 pages, in which Daguerre goes to Isobel when he confuses the revolution of 1848 with Armageddon, feel strained and dutiful. Smith is floundering here, trying to resolve a relationship that never feels genuine. There are disconcerting irruptions of modern slang: I can't envision Daguerre telling Isobel she's not "half bad." Smith gets sloppy with vocabulary too. One character, brooding over a meal, is said to be "idling her potatoes," while Isobel, deflating a criticism by Daguerre, is "trifling Louis's words."
One wishes for more of Louis' times and contemporaries. There are tantalizing references to photographers Nicephore Niepce and William Henry Fox Talbot, who were also on the trail of the fixative holy grail. The great poet Baudelaire appears briefly as a dissolute dandy, his only function to make possible the meeting of Louis with Isobel's daughter. The uprisings in Paris and elsewhere that lead to the resignation of King Louis Philippe sound faintly as noises offstage.
Despite those complaints and the cloying romance plot, Smith refreshes our eyes. In a world awash in photographs, he makes us marvel anew at these efforts to outwit mortality, these "mirrors with a memory." *