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A Case of Curiosities.

I once had an article returned to me by an editor who said that he'd found it "curiously eighteenth-century." The same might be said of Allen Kurzweil's remarkable first novel, A Case of Curiosities, and I hope he will, as I did, take that as a compliment. Surely he has more reason than I to do so, given that A Case of Curiosities is set in the 1780s and quite consciously (and successfully) intent on evoking a fictional world similar to that inhabited by, say, Tom Jones or Humphry Clinker.

An elegant Kunstlerroman that flirts with yet never crosses the line into Barthian parody (it is, indeed, more staid than its literary ancestors), A Case of Curiosities tells the story of Claude Page, ten years old when the novel begins in 1780 in the small town of Tournay and not much older when the novel ends amid the aftermath of the French Revolution with Claude a teenage celebrity, his fame the result of his genius as an inventor, most particularly of one of the mechanical wonders of the century. The narrative follows Claude through his eccentric apprenticeship to the Count of Tournay, a lapsed Jesuit and typical Enlightenment jack-of-all-trades who teaches Claude an eclectic blend of science and the arts of enameling and watchmaking (the two manufacture pornographic watches for a select clientele). A misunderstanding sends Claude to Paris and into further adventures, including apprenticeship to a bookseller straight out of Dickens and, less vocationally, to a sex-starved woman who patronizes the bookseller's pornography collection. But eventually, Claude returns to mechanics and, with the support of an assortment of odd but entirely likable friends (a taxidermist, a coachman, a wet nurse, and a hack writer), realizes his ingenious dreams.

The foregoing plot summary is vague, I know, but I hesitate to spoil for you Kurzweil's engaging story, which has many attractions beyond its plot: that vivid supporting cast alluded to above, a graceful prose style, and a persuasive range of period detail and eighteenth-century artistic/technological lore. In fact, as a first novel, A Case of Curiosities is perhaps most impressive as a work of sheer imagination, a novel that so successfully conjures the past and deploys with such authority its learning that without a trip to the library I find it impossible to say where fact ends and imagination begins (the tale is ostensibly inspired by the author's having acquired at auction Claude's "momento hominem" - a box of personal effects that symbolically tells his life's story - an acquisition that spurs research into this forgotten inventor's life and times). In short, what the narrator says of Claude might as accurately be said of this novel: both exude "a contagious sense of wonder."
COPYRIGHT 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Horvath, Brooke
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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