Sunday, May 13, 2007

Off Topic, Novel: Mercury Visions and the Human Heart

The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre: A Novel, Dominic Smith, 320 pages,
Atria/Washington Square Press, 2006/2007, hardcover/paperback, $24.00/$14.00

This novel peers into the mind and heart of the mid-19th-century French genius who invented the daguerreotype and into the mind and heart of a woman who refuses to be loved. In this story, the celebrated photographer Louis Daguerre suffers from the effects of the mercury process that creates the first photographs. He imagines of the end of the world, and launches on a quest to record a series of 10 images before the apocalypse.

Using an extended flashback, the author describes the intellectual progress, persistent experimentation and the physical hazards that Daguerre must surmount in order to achieve the breakthrough discovery before his competitors do. Smith renders an engaging portrait of Daguerre and his thinking, within a backstory of tumultuous times of political and social revolution.

Near the end of his career and fame, Daguerre enlists the help of bohemian poet Charles Baudelaire to help him find the settings of the portfolio, and together they prowl the underside of Paris in search of several of Daguerre's subjects and settings, including a beautiful naked woman, the perfect Parisian boulevard, and Daguerre's childhood friend and long-lost love, Isobel Le Fournier. As young adults, he held deep affections for her but she refused to be loved by him.

While visiting a Parisian brothel with Baudelaire, Daguerre encounters Isobel's daughter Chloe, who becomes the beautiful naked model in the photographer's portfolio. In addition, Smith details elements of two women's lives. The daughter rejects the mother because of the mother's rejection of romantic love; the mother rejects the unconditional love of a suitor because she does not believe that love is real.

Daguerre does achieve his portofolio before his own personal apocaplyse arrives, brought about by the mercury vapors of the photographic process. Besides being a rewarding experience, for the sake of the history of photography, the novel is also teaches, for this reader, something new about the human heart.

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