A Case of Curiosities

A Case of Curiosities

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by Allen Kurzweil

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In France, on the eve of the Revolution, a young man named Claude Page sets out to become the most ingenious and daring inventor of his time. In the course of a career filled with violence and passion, Claude learns the arts of enameling and watchmaking from an irascible, defrocked abbé, apprentices himself to a pornographic bookseller, and applies his


In France, on the eve of the Revolution, a young man named Claude Page sets out to become the most ingenious and daring inventor of his time. In the course of a career filled with violence and passion, Claude learns the arts of enameling and watchmaking from an irascible, defrocked abbé, apprentices himself to a pornographic bookseller, and applies his erotic erudition to the seduction of the wife of an impotent wigmaker. But it is Claude's greatest device-a talking mechanical head-that both crowns his career and leads to an execution as tragic as that of Marie Antoinette, and far more bizarre.

Hailed by critics for the shimmering brilliance of its inventions and its uncanny fidelity to the textures of the past, A Case of Curiosities places

Allen Kurzweil securely in the ranks of the finest literary artists of our time.

Editorial Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle
What John Fowles did for the 19th century... and Umberto Eco did for the 14th. . . Kurzweil now does for the late 18th century....
Chicago Tribune
Brilliantly playful . . clever indeed but also riotous, melodramatic and erotic, full of lore and lewdness and crackling with ideas and exhilarated imagination.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
First novelist Kurzweil presents a diverting melange: a portrait of a young mechanical genius in 18th-century France, delivered along with a gallimaufry of odd and intriguing facts and a rich, lusty picture of society in that time and place. (Feb.)

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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5.12(w) x 7.96(h) x 0.66(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Jar
Origins can be difficult to trace. But if we are forced to uncover the origins of Claude Page and his invention, and grant those origins some fine and subtle meaning, we must begin by noting the arrival of the Vengeful Widow on the tenth of September, 1780. Though the Widow can be compared to the easterly of Devon and the mistral of southern France, that doesn't quite do justice to her bite. As winds go, she is drier and nastier than her French and English cousins. Parish records indicate that when she hit in 1741, the Widow pulled the steeple off the Tournay church-a steeple that had been mounted and secured just two months earlier-and deposited it in the sty of a heretical farmer. The event provided Father Gamot, the local priest, with a chance for some spirited sermonizing. Ten years later the Widow struck again, this time thrusting the branch of a birch tree through the stomach of Philippe Rochat's piebald pony. Rochat was a devout Catholic, so on that occasion Father Gamot had to keep quiet. But the devastations of '41 and '51 were only preludes to the attack on the tenth of September, when the Widow grabbed the valley's inhabitants mercilessly and by surprise. She stripped tiles from roofs, needles from pines. She slipped through unlatched shutters, searching for exposed bits of flesh. Then she struck: cramping toes, deadening udders, waking dormant nipples.
On that night, the house of Claude Page was singularly secure from the Widow's invasion. Madame Page had noticed slight changes in her nailed-up twig of sapling fir and in the demeanor of the family milch cow. The agitation of the beast and movements in the homemade hygroscopeforeshadowed the arrival of the unwelcome wind. Madame Page had ordered the family to prepare.
Claude and his younger sister, Evangeline, shuttered shutters and tied down what needed tying down. They repositioned the roof rocks before closing themselves inside the cottage, where an oak fire counteracted the Vengeful Widow. Fid‚lit‚, the eldest of the three Page children, headed a scouting party to cover over cracks in the cottage walls. She toured the periphery of the kitchen, moving her hand up and down. Occasionally she would shout, "A draft!" and dispatch Evangeline to daub the trouble spot with a blend of straw and mud, a recipe of her own mixing. Fid‚lit‚ ordered her sister to push the gravel-filled snake across the threshold and to stuff a length of old lace in the ornate pump lock, thus conjoining two of the trades that made the valley famous-metalwork and lacemaking-in novel fashion.
When the Dragon rug was draped over the window, Madame Page declared, "We're as cozy as a watch in a fat man's vest." She then turned her attention to the pinecones she was roasting for her children. It was a scene that catchpenny printers of the period would have titled, with perhaps a touch of irony, Domestic Peace.
Claude stretched out in the attic, peering occasionally through an unplugged knot. In his hands he held a crude copybook, a saint's day gift that was his most regular companion. The intended purpose of the copybook, as indicated by the solid and dotted lines that marched across the page, was the acquisition of proper handwriting. But Claude had adapted it and a pot of ink to his own purposes, namely drawing.
His nose rubbed against the unvarnished oak as he gazed through the knot and lined up the scene below. This peephole perspective was one of Claude's favorites, and he had filled the copybook with many such views, "as if through Father's telescope."
He found his target quickly: Fid‚lit‚. Though never terribly kind to his elder sister, Claude tried to maintain a peace of sorts. His unspoken frustrations, however, found quick and direct release in the copybook sketches. He discovered the reason for Fid‚lit‚s tyrannous patching expedition. She had decided to build a house of cards, a project vulnerable to drafts. Claude begrudged the pleasure she took in refusing to let Evangeline do anything but watch, wait, and admire the full scope of her talents.
Talents? Hardly. Claude was always more bold in his constructions, putting the face cards outward in raucous confrontation, at least insofar as the cards could confront each other back to back. Fid‚lit‚, on the other hand, lacked inspiration. Her cardhouses, tedious in design, ignored the conjunctions of the kings and knaves who kissed at an apex, or queens flanked by lesser members of the deck. Also, Fid‚lit‚ cheated by lodging the card edges in the knife cuts of the table before bringing the tops together. This suited Claude's mocking illustration. He had the cardboard nobility emerge from its surface existence to do battle with the hapless architect. He allowed the King of Hearts to slice off one of Fid‚lit‚'s ears, which looked like jug handles, and had the Queen of Cups spit in her eye. Then he transformed an andiron into the little black dog nibbling at his sister's foot.
"It is to be the mansion house of the Count," Fid‚lit‚ told her sister.
Claude sniggered. The architecture had taken on pathetically monastic dimensions that suggested none of the mansion house quirkiness. A courtyard, a cloister, and a steeple figured in the plan. Evangeline pestered Fid‚lit‚ for cards and consequently received a smack. "Your hands are too muddy." A full-blown, whispered quarrel ensued. Worried by the possibility of parental intervention, Fid‚lit‚ finally quieted her sister by giving over three cards. The girls returned to their handiwork, and Claude returned to his.
There was a rap at the door, but it was faint. The Vengeful Widow did her best to muffle the sound. Claude's mother, overseeing the pinecones, didn't hear a thing. Fid‚lit‚ heard-how could she not, with those jug-handle ears?-but ignored the summons. It was Claude who announced the arrival of an unexpected guest. Madame Page ordered the door opened. Fid‚lit‚, with much reluctance, slithered away the snake and freed the lock of its costly wadding.
Copyright c
1992 by Allen Kurzweil, published by Harcourt, Inc.
All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

Allen Kurzweil was named a "Best Young American Novelist" by Granta for A Case of Curiosities, his first novel. He has been the recipient of Guggenheim and Fullbright Fellowships, and a 1999 Fellow of the New York Public Library for Scholars and Writers. He has completed his second book, The Grand Complication. His fiction has been honored in the United States, France, Italy, and Ireland. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

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