When the vision came, he was in the bathtub. So begins the madness of Louis Daguerre. In 1847, after a decade of using poisonous mercury vapors to cure his daguerreotype images, his mind is plagued by delusions. Believing the world will end within one year, Daguerre creates his "Doomsday List" -- ten items he must photograph before the final day. The list includes a portrait of Isobel Le Fournier, a woman he has always loved but not spoken to in half a century.
In this luminous debut novel, Dominic Smith reinvents the life of one of photography's founding fathers. Louis Daguerre's story is set against the backdrop of a Paris prone to bohemian excess and social unrest. Poets and dandies debate art and style in the cafes while students and rebels fill the garrets with revolutionary talk and gun smoke. It is here, amid this strange and beguiling setting, that Louis Daguerre sets off to capture his doomsday subjects.
Louis enlists the help of the womanizing poet Charles Baudelaire, known to the salon set as the "Prince of Clouds," and a jaded but beautiful prostitute named Pigeon. Together they scour the Paris underworld for images worthy of Daguerre's list. But Louis is also confronted by a chance to reunite with the only woman he's ever loved. Half a lifetime ago, Isobel Le Fournier kissed Louis Daguerre in a wine cave outside of Orleans. The result was a proposal, a rejection, and a misunderstanding that outlasted three kings and an emperor. Now, in the countdown to his apocalypse, Louis wants to understand why he has carried the memory of that kiss for so long.
Smith's clever but uneven debut novel peers into the mind of the eccentric 19th-century French genius who invented the daguerreotype. In 1846, the celebrated photographer Louis Daguerre, his brain addled by the mercury process that made him famous, has a vision of the end of the world, which launches him on a quest to record a series of 10 images before the apocalypse. The aged Daguerre enlists the help of bohemian poet Charles Baudelaire, and together they prowl Paris in search of Daguerre's subjects, including "a beautiful naked woman ," "the perfect Paris boulevard," "the king of France" and Daguerre's childhood friend and long-lost love, Isobel Le Fournier, whose affections he seeks to reclaim. When Daguerre encounters Isobel's daughter, Chloe--now working in a Paris brothel under the name Pigeon--he sees a way to bring closure to his unfulfilled romance. In flashback, Smith stages a vivid re-enactment of the intellectual progress and persistent experimentation that led to Daguerre's breakthrough discovery, but he trots out cliches in the service of the sentimental love story between Daguerre and Isobel, most notably her hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold daughter. Despite predictable plot twists, Smith renders a clear-eyed portrait of Daguerre and his thinking, against a backdrop of tumultuous times. (Feb.)
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Washington Square Press
January 08, 2007
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Excerpt from The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre by Dominic Smith
The following spring, in April 1847, Louis Daguerre stopped by the brasserie where he knew Charles Baudelaire took his meals. It was a single long room inset like a cave, wedged between a tobacconist and a haberdasher. The poet sat in the corner, brooding behind a bottle of absinthe and a demitasse of coffee. His hair had been shaved off several weeks earlier in celebration of his new prose poem -- "The Fool and the Venus" -- and his ponderous head seemed to gather the room's light to a focal point. On the table in front of him smoldered a wooden pipe with an amber mouthpiece. Baudelaire looked up as Louis approached and saluted. "Mind your manners, gentlemen, here comes a member of the Legion of Honor." A few of the drunken poets nearby raised their glasses to Louis, then returned to their brandied rants.
Louis sat opposite Baudelaire and took a kerchief from his pocket to wipe his forehead.
"How's the end of the world coming?" asked Baudelaire, eyes scanning his twin drinks.
Louis examined the kerchief -- a bloom of sweat. "Fine. Good of you to ask." So far he'd mentioned his prophecy only to Baudelaire. He needed to be careful; The End was a delicate matter and he didn't want to find himself in a straight waistcoat at one of the meetings of the Institute.
Baudelaire looked up. "I was about to order food. Will you join me?"
"I'd be delighted," said Louis.
"I was thinking about some bouillon and bread for me. But that's hardly your pleasure. We must keep our national dignitaries well fed. The true artists, on the other hand, produce better when they're emaciated."
"I'd be glad of some herring and eggs," said Louis.
Baudelaire picked up his pipe and went to the counter to order. He was dressed in his customary English black, from lacquered shoes to satin cravat.
Louis looked around the brasserie. It was the kind of smoky venue where painters, philosophers, and poets huddled in a din of verbiage, where the dandies and the rag-cloth romantics argued about the sheen of a winter apple, the role of virtue, the beauty of the comma. Men with pipes and chapbooks sat around the scuffed oak tables or reclined on the threadbare rose-print divans. A grave-looking man in a woolen jacket, a fez, and Cossack boots nodded repeatedly and said, "Yes, we all knew him. He was a ladies' poet -- moonlight and taffeta and all the rest of it." Whenever Louis had come in here before, he couldn't help feeling hated. Now he found himself avoiding eye contact with the fieriest of the fellows -- the particularly rabid poets, the sullen painters in Basque berets -- who might attack his bourgeois attitudes, the national pension he'd been awarded for his daguerreotype invention.
Louis watched Baudelaire return from the counter with another demitasse of coffee.
"Voltaire drank seventy-two cups of coffee a day," Baudelaire said. "He must have had to shit between paragraphs. Where would the Enlightenment be without the brown goddess?"
Baudelaire plunked down and said, "And what's Armageddon without a good cup of Costa Rican?"
"I have serious business to transact." Louis took out a piece of paper and placed it on the table. It was a list of all the things he wanted to daguerreotype before the end of the world.
Baudelaire picked it up and scrutinized it as if it were an insurance contract waiting to be signed.
- 1. a beautiful woman (naked)
- 2. the sun
- 3. the moon
- 4. the perfect Paris boulevard
- 5. a pastoral scene
- 6. galloping horses
- 7. a perfect apple
- 8. a flower (type to be determined)
- 9. the king of France
- 10. Isobel Le Fournier
Baudelaire moved his lips as he read the list several times, then placed it back on the table, facedown. He looked appalled. "The end amounts to this?" he said, his nose at the rim of his porcelain cup.