Monday, October 02, 2006

Pg. 69: "The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre"

Dominic Smith's debut novel The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre reinvents the life of one of photography's founding fathers.

The prologue opens:
When the vision came, he was in the bathtub. After a decade of using mercury vapors to cure his photographic images, Louis Daguerre’s mind had faltered—a pewter plate left too long in the sun. But during his final lucid minutes on this cold evening of 1846, he felt a strange calm. Outside, a light snow was falling and a vaporous blue dusk seemed to be rising out of the Seine. The squatters had set fire to the barrens behind the Left Bank and the air was full of smoke. Louis sat reclined in warm water perfumed with lemon skins, a tonic he believed to be good for his skin and nerves. The wind gusted under the eaves. He placed a hand against the adjacent window and from the bath, perched high in his rooftop belvedere, he felt the night pressing in against him. His head was partially submerged and he heard the metallic click of the tenant’s pipes below. It was a message; he was sure of it. The world was full of messages.
So begins the madness of Louis Daguerre, reads the book jacket:
In 1847, after a decade of using poisonous mercury vapors to cure his daguerreotype images, his mind is plagued by delusions. Believing that 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 evocative novel," writes Ronlyn Domingue, "Louis Daguerre is a poet whose medium is light, a man for whom memory is as penetrating and fixed as his photographs. Dominic Smith's acute detail calls forth visions of a world and a man on the verge of transformation."

I asked Dominic to apply the "page 69 test" to The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre.

Here's what he reported:
I like the idea that any page of a novel is a microcosm of the whole. It should carry the essential mood and tone of the book. Page 69 of my novel The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre carries the beginning of a scene that was one of the last things to be added. In the revisions process I was asked by my editor to flesh out my main character's motivations at this point in his life. Even though now the scene seems almost never made the page 69 litmus test.

The novel is loosely based on the life of Louis Daguerre, the man who, in 1839, invented the world’s first practical form of photography--the daguerreotype. Mercury vapor was the key ingredient in the process and it is widely speculated that Daguerre suffered from mercury poisoning during his lifetime. Although the novel uses Daguerre’s biography as a frame, it invents a great deal. For example, Daguerre’s romantic life and the extent to which his mind was addled by mercury are conveniences of fiction.

Page 69 gives us a snapshot of Daguerre's life as an apprentice in Paris of 1804, many years before he becomes famous.

The teenage Daguerre has just taken an apprenticeship as a scenic painter with a notable theater. He has moved from Orleans and it’s the first time he’s really been alone in the wider world. This is all straight from the real Daguerre’s life. But the details--what he did, where he slept, and his relations with his fellow apprentices--are all invented. The apprentices sleep in a makeshift dormitory that was once a storage room behind the main stage.

“A number of iron cots had been dragged into the room to make a dormitory so that the boys--future prop masters, carpenters, scenic designers, lighting and effects masters--retired beneath Gothic portals, Roman architraves, jagged sections of Parthenon, painted shop facades, carriage wheels, papier-mache busts and statues. Louis slept under a small mullioned window that overlooked a back alley. Marius, the head apprentice, had a bed at the end of the room inside a gold-painted gondola that was suspended from the ceiling by metal ties. He'd cut his mattress to fit the shape of the boat, and there, in his suspended cocoon each bedtime, he enumerated the chores for the next day. He was a big-nosed prop-master-in-training and treated his apprentices like ship hands--calling them by last name only and refusing to eat at the same table. The scenic design apprentices looked down on him, on his sausage fingers and his nails bitten to the quick. He was a tradesman and they were becoming artists; he was from Marseille, the son of a shipbuilder, and they, for the most part, were part of the petit bourgeoisie, a class on the ascent. Louis and the other scenic boys nodded to his commands and called him Pork Chop behind his back."

In above section I wanted to capture the pecking order that existed in Paris theaters of the time. This social order, like the wider fabric of France, is ripe for overturning.

The second part of page 69--the lead-up to the scene that was a late addition--picks up Daguerre on his way to an initiation. The head apprentice has dreamt up a scheme to frighten and belittle Louis. They’re taking him to the city morgue where he will be asked to sketch a nude body--a girl, half-mutilated and just pulled from the river.

"Out in the street, the apprentices fell in behind Marius and he led them through the damp and gloom of Rue du Tourniquet, where the passageway was so narrow that two men could not walk abreast."

Daguerre, heading to an unknown trial, starts to feel the claustrophobia of back-alley Paris. They walk past the dog markets and the gaming houses of the Carousel District.

But when he arrives at the morgue, Louis is unfazed. Instead of being appalled by the sight of the prone body, Louis captures a vision of the girl as if she were still alive. That aspect of his personality--of conjuring concealed beauty--is the key to both his later success and demise.
Many thanks to Dominic for the input.

Max Byrd, in his review for the New York Times, wrote:
Smith writes vividly about the Paris Daguerre sees in his hallucinations: "Then the noise of the street bounded towards him, the clop and clatter of the wagons, the shriek of the vendors' cart horses." He has a talent for descriptive imagery: spilled beads of mercury resemble "tiny planets of glass"; the sun in a daguerreotype "appeared as a ball of pale wax giving off smoke." And he captures nicely Daguerre's passionate interest in sunlight, whose "secret" was that "it carried images with it. Loosed from the helium roil of the sun, light streamed down and traced everything in its path. . . . Find the right receptor and nature would do the drawing for you."
Read more praise for the book here and here.

Click here to read one excerpt from the novel, and here to read another.

To read a conversation with the author, click here.

Click here for Dominic Smith's official website.

Previous "page 69 tests":
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue