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In tale of two loves, deep passion for art outshines schmaltzy human romance


The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre

Dominic Smith

Atria / 320 pages / $24

Louis Daguerre, the French artist who is the most well-known among several founders of photography, lived in interesting times: born outside Paris on the cusp of revolution, he died a few years after the uprisings of 1848.

Daguerre's work, like the historical backdrop to his life, is enormously suggestive fodder for a novelist's imagination. His impassioned preoccupation with natural light and its visual and emotional effects formed a natural bridge between art and science, and his career lends itself equally well to explorations of the intuitive, uneven processes of artistic creation and scientific discovery. A short way into his brash debut novel, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, Dominic Smith evocatively posits a formative moment in Daguerre's fascination with light and its yet-untapped powers. At 12, Louis presses his eye to a tear in a curtain:

"The sun was going down behind the grain fields, and as it descended, it shot an orange glow from behind the hedgerows and poplars. Louis held the piece of white linen in front of the small curtain hole and saw, projected on it, the shimmering image of the lone walnut tree that stood by the stone fence. ... The compression of light through the small hole had borne along the image of the walnut tree, projecting it onto the ceiling. Nature could sketch herself."

In Smith's vision of the formation of an artist's imagination, witnessing light's power to fix an image lashes together nature, art and technology in Louis' impressionable mind. And, because in the same scene the boy has fallen for Isobel, the young servant girl tending him, love enters into this web of associations as well - he "fell in love with light and women on the same day."

This too-tidy coincidence makes for a lovely little chapter, but it's also the seedling of the ultimate failure of Smith's nonetheless accomplished and impressive novel.

Louis' failed courtship of Isobel follows, coloring his adolescence. But his love affair with light and image is more compelling, and the story hits its stride when he sets out to pursue a career as a painter in the Paris theater, leaving Isobel behind. In nice episodes based on the real Daguerre's biography, the fictional Louis apprentices himself to the renowned scenic designer Ignace Degotti and eventually develops the distinctive "dioramas" that make him wealthy - vistas painstakingly painted onto translucent linen so as to be illuminated by genuine sunlight and evoke a particular season and hour.

Still, Louis pines for Isobel and keeps a keen eye out for her on the streets of Paris. As he finds and loses her again, what began as a charming enough pastoral childhood romance slowly descends into well-intended, beautifully written, historically scrupulous schmaltz.

I say this with regret, because Smith's gifts as a storyteller and writer are obvious, sometimes overwhelming. But this book, after a strong beginning and middle, gets away from him. Thematic strands proliferate to include not only Louis' romantic fixation, artistic ambition and progress toward the daguerreotype, but more. Louis' ambivalent friendship with Charles Baudelaire is captured here as a fairly uninspired personification of bohemian-flavored decadence. And sporadic dementia afflicts him in his later life, a consequence of his discovery of mercury as an effective fixing agent for his daguerrotypes.

Dangling only a few loose threads, most of these strands coalesce nicely into a compelling portrait of an unmistakably human genius and the motley assortment of motivations propelling him to his achievement. Or they would, if so much weight weren't ultimately accorded to the increasingly bathetic Isobel story, which happens to be the most purely fictional element of the novel. (The real Daguerre married an English-born woman in 1810.)

Or is it more than happenstance? In an author's note, Smith is frank about the primarily fictional status of his quasi-historical novel. But apart from the Isobel story, nearly every strand of The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre has some basis in the biographical record, making the novel as a whole only unevenly fictional. This doesn't necessarily pose a problem; it's easy enough to imagine an enthralling book of this kind.

But most successful examples of what might be called biographical fiction - for instance, Brian Hall's I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company (about Lewis and Clark) and Colm Toibin's The Master (about Henry James) - succeed on the strength of the discretion with which they add to or subtract from the record. Even so, there's no rule dictating that a wholesale importation of a major invented episode into a historical life can't work brilliantly. In this case, however, the invented material is a stale and soggy affair.

Worse, in a novel that asks how one man - susceptible to all the usual human vanities, frailties, and foolishness - can make history, the prominence of Louis' fictional romance ultimately has the effect of reducing the answer, deflatingly, to "true love."

Laura Demanski is a writer living in Chicago. She maintains a blog about books and the arts at www.artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight.

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