The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre

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"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 debut novel, Dominic Smith reinvents the life of one of photography's
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Overview

"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 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.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Smith's compassionate and thought-provoking novel reinvents a famous life with delicacy and precision. At the age of 12, Louis Daguerre fell in love with women and light on the same day. Several decades later, the founder of modern photography invented a process that ignited 19th-century Paris and secured his wealth and fame. But the years following find him delusional and ill, racked with terrible fevers. Slowly dying from repeated exposure to mercury, the very means by which he was able to capture image and light, Daguerre is now convinced the world will soon end. Fashioning a "Doomsday List" of ten photographs he must take before "The End," perhaps none is more urgent that that of Isobel Le Fournier, the object of a youthful crush, lost to Daguerre years ago.

Navigating the Paris streets with his friend Charles Baudelaire and a mysterious prostitute named Pigeon, Daguerre encounters a city awash in excess, cafés charged with the talk of revolution, and a countryside blanketed by the smell of gunpowder. As the search for his doomsday subjects intensifies and his health grows more precarious, Daguerre learns, quite improbably, that he may actually have one last chance at love.

In The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, Smith has fashioned a novel as beguiling as it is strange; an intoxicating blend of history and imagination. (Summer 2006 Selection)
Publishers Weekly
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 clich s 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 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Most of Smith's promising if flawed debut novel takes place when the great inventor is already crippled by old age and prolonged mercury exposure, convinced that the world is about to end. Like a daguerreotype itself, his memories come in and out of view as he sets out to find the final images to photograph before Armageddon: a perfect apple, galloping horses, a beautiful nude. Historical conflicts of 19th-century Paris serve as nothing more than backdrop for the main characters, which include Daguerre; his lifelong, thwarted love, Isobel; and her estranged daughter, Chloe. The novel is strongest when its lovers are apart. Thankfully, this is most of Daguerre's life after his childhood (where he falls in love with Isobel, his nurse), during his theater apprenticeship and steady development of the daguerreotype in Paris. (A wild fete thrown by the poet Charles Baudelaire, where Daguerre first meets Chloe, is particularly memorable.) When Daguerre finally reunites with a dying Isobel, the prose's brisk tension deflates into overwrought confession, leaving the last quarter of the novel overexposed. Recommended as an entertaining, if predictable, read.-Prudence Peiffer, Cambridge, MA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Smith's beautifully written debut uses the life of photography's inventor as the framework for a touching tale of youthful love regained in maturity. In the spring of 1847, 58-year-old Louis Daguerre is wealthy and famous, thanks to his discovery of the process by which visual images can be given physical reality: "[H]ere was time stolen, wafered, and pressed onto silvered copper; here were nature's blueprints, transcripts of light . . . replicated in nuance, shadow, and substance." Mortally ill from exposure to the toxic chemicals used in that process, he's convinced by one of his "mercury visions" that the world is about to end. Daguerre asks his friend Charles Baudelaire to help him find a woman willing to pose naked for a daguerreotype; it's one of the images he wants to immortalize before the apocalypse. He's also trying to find Isobel Le Fournier, the family maid he fell in love with when he was 12, on the same day he first was mesmerized by the magical qualities of sunlight. Isobel slipped out of his life the year he went to Paris as apprentice to a scene painter, but Louis remained haunted by his lost love as he pursued his goal of capturing the world around him with a realism beyond painting. Skillfully interweaving Daguerre's memories with the present-day action, the author joins the two narrative strands when Louis learns that his nude model, Chloe, is Isobel's daughter (a wild coincidence that passes muster in the novel's dreamlike atmosphere). Violence, which has shadowed Daguerre's life since his birth during the French Revolution, once again marks him during the disturbances of 1848, when Louis is shot and Chloe takes him to her mother to be healed. In the countryside, thebitter older woman and her chastened but still-ardent suitor finally come to terms with their past and steal a few weeks of happiness they both know cannot last. A compelling psychological study, a thoughtful tracing of the birth of a new art form and an atmospheric portrait of 19th-century France: impressive on all three counts.
From the Publisher
"In its evocation of the artist as lover thwarted by time and death, it captures some of the sweetness of feeling of La Bohème. By the time it reaches its final pages, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre has become a genuinely moving experience."

— Anthony Giardina, author of Recent History

"In The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, Dominic Smith writes with an authority very few first-time novelists possess. He wonderfully evokes nineteenth- century Paris through a chemically addled consciousness — a formidable achievement that he manages with humor and grace. A remarkable debut."

— Mark Jude Poirier, author of Modern Ranch Living: A Novel

"An endlessly thought-provoking story about a man driven to capture and preserve everything that is fleeting and evanescent. It is a book as haunting as a daguerreotype: true in its details, but pesteringly strange; and as beautiful as if it were written not in words but in light."

— Stephen Harrigan, author of The Gates of the Alamo

"A lyrical journey into the world of a man lost to nostalgia and undone by beauty. Dominic Smith has generously rendered an artist in desperate pursuit of the sublime."

— Paul Jaskunas, author of Hidden

"In this evocative novel, 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."

— Ronlyn Domingue, author of The Mercy of Thin Air

"A splendid novel. You don't often see such a graceful command of historical detail in a first book. Or such striking and elegant prose. Dazzling and wondrous."

— John Dalton, author of Heaven Lake

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743271141
  • Publisher: Atria Books
  • Publication date: 2/7/2006
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.12 (d)

Meet the Author

Dominic Smith grew up in Sydney, Australia and now lives in Austin, Texas. He holds an MFA in writing from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly.

His awards include the Dobie Paisano Fellowship from the Texas Institute of Letters, the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Prize, and the Gulf Coast Fiction Prize. In 2006, his debut novel The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre received the Steven Turner Prize for First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters.

Dominic serves on the fiction faculty in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and has taught recently at the University of Texas at Austin and Southern Methodist University. Find out more at www.dominicsmith.net.

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Read an Excerpt

The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre

A Novel
By Dominic Smith

Atria

Copyright © 2006 Dominic Smith
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0743271149

Chapter One

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?"

"Indeed."

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.

"I'd like to find a woman to pose naked for a daguerreotype. Can you help me find one?" It was not easy to find nude models, though Louis had heard that artists in the studios around the Luxembourg Gardens were convincing street waifs to pose for a bowl of soup and a pinch of snuff. But he needed something more than the bared frame of a rag-and-match seller; he needed a high-blown frailty, something worthy of oblivion.

Baudelaire relit his pipe and puffed on it meditatively. It was this posture and his ethereal poetry that had earned him the nickname the Prince of Clouds. He removed a speck of tobacco from his tongue and prepared to speak with some gravity. He believed in Louis Daguerre's apocalypse as an invention of the artistic mind, no different than a belief in God or Beauty or Piety. He enjoyed watching Louis, the pensioned scientist and artist, hatch and unfold inside this epic delusion, seeing his mind clamor at the fidget wheels of madness.

Baudelaire said, "You know how I feel about this photography. Let the tourists use it to ogle the pyramids or the Louvre, let the geologists capture fossils, the excrement of the ancients; but don't touch art. Leave that to the painters."

Louis said, "I won't have this argument again. I'm willing to pay you a finder's fee. A hundred francs if you find me the right woman."

Baudelaire looked down at the list, then chased a sip of coffee with a swig of absinthe. He said, "Have you established some criteria? The world's last naked woman captured with a camera -- that's quite momentous."

"Yes, I'm aware." Louis ran his hands along the edge of the table.

The young counter-girl arrived with a plate of hard-boiled eggs and herring, and a bowl of bouillon. They watched her as she laid out cutlery, a wisp of tawny hair hanging down from her bonnet.

"What is it you want in a nude?" Baudelaire said loudly. The counter-girl smiled, then blushed and wiped her hands down her apron. She fled to a nearby table. "She's new here," Baudelaire added.

Louis cracked an egg on the side of the plate and began to unpeel it. "She must have grace and youth."

"Yes."

"The curvature of the neck must be gentle, perhaps a slight sway in her back."

"I concur."

"A vitality in her cheeks."

"You've done some work in this area," Baudelaire said, suddenly delighted.

"Neither too noble nor too common-looking. She must carry herself between airs and humility."

"A shopgirl with fiery green eyes."

"Full and crimson lips."

"I don't think I can eat." Baudelaire clasped his hands together and rested his chin for a moment on his fingertips. He looked out the window into the street, where a group of mourners was walking home from a funeral. "I would reconsider the apple on your list," he said.

"How so?"

"The apple is not exotic enough. Apple is plain, like the English. The Frenchman wants something darker and juicier. The end of the world, it seems to me, is a peculiarly French idea."

Louis looked down at the list and tapped his lip with his index finger. "What would you think of a pear?"

"You know I am a poet," Baudelaire said, "and having said that, I should say that my sensibility is one of integration. I seek coherence in the cockerel cries and the street dung. I would choose your fruit the same way you choose your woman. Clearly, the queen of the fruit empire is the greengage plum -- strange, juicy, sinister."

"But the apple represents the original sin, the fall from grace."

"Yes, and the plum represents seduction and lust," said Baudelaire.

"I knew you were the right person to consult."

"I have opinions about flowers, too."

"Tell me."

"'Aroused flowers burn with the desire to outdo the sky's azure by the energy of their colors, and the heat, turning scents visible, seems to make them rise to the stars like smoke.'"

"Very nice."

"My point is, there needs to be some symmetry among your flower, your woman, and your fruit. I suggest wild roses. There it is, the divine trinity: wild roses, greengage plums, and green-eyed shopgirls."

A brief silence settled over the table.

"The sun and moon were not my ideas," Louis said. "François Arago, a friend at the observatory, has asked me to make some plates of them." The fact that an esteemed man of science such as Arago wanted the sun and moon to be cataloged further suggested to Louis that human enterprise was winding down.

"Seems fine. Everyone likes the sun and the moon." Baudelaire took several mouthfuls of his bouillon. "And who is this Isobel Le Fournier?"

"A woman from the past."

"Lost love and all that -- how tiresome."

Louis took a bite of his egg and refused Baudelaire the eye contact he wanted. Isobel Le Fournier was his first and only substantial love; she had occupied his thoughts and longings for forty-four years, six months, and eleven days -- ever since that day she had kissed him in a wine cave outside of Orléans.

Baudelaire said, "Don't look so glum. After we eat, we'll go walking in the Latin Quarter in search of our Madonna. We'll trawl the streets. And I'll think of some names as well. I must know some nudes."

People stared at Baudelaire as he tapped out with a Malacca cane, his bald head tilted, shouldering into a headwind. Wooden barrels belched tar smoke, men shoveled horse manure into potholes, flanks of meat hung marbled and sinister in the darkened doorways of butcher shops. But what Louis noticed was a cabaret festooned in yellow paper lanterns and bunting, an outdoor bookstall towering with hundreds of green and vermilion clothbound volumes. The mercury poisoning was beginning to filter out the unsightly. He was growing blind to the squalor of the dying days of King Louis-Philippe's reign. He didn't see the plank-board alleys in the Carousel District, the dark rows of bird-seller shacks, the mud-daub shanties of the tooth pullers and the dog clippers. He saw only the markets full of honey and tulle, ladies in poplin sitting for open-air concerts under a Nile-blue sky. The world, it seemed to Louis Daguerre, was drowning in plenty.

As they walked through the serpentine streets of Montmartre, Louis mentally auditioned the women as nudes -- maidens in two-wheeled charabancs, ladies in bonnets and cashmere shawls, wives and daughters displaying the subtle inflections of the body beneath calico and merino.

Baudelaire said, "See anything you like? How about that Botticelli in the blue brougham?"

Louis reeled and looked at the compact carriage. Sitting high was a woman with pinned raven hair and the raised chin of nobility. She looked as if she were being borne aloft, floating above the hubbub of the street.

"A little haughty," said Louis.

Baudelaire stopped beside a fruit and vegetable cart. "Do you have any plums?" he asked the vendor.

"No plums yet this year," replied the man. "But I have some oranges from Spain."

Baudelaire's face filled with infinite regret. Louis looked down the street and noticed a woman stepping across the flagstone pavement in front of a restaurant. She was wearing a merino dress and carrying an apple-green parasol at her side. She sat on a wooden bench in front of a fountain, impatiently waiting for her driver to fetch her.

"Why are there so many queens in the Latin Quarter today?" Louis asked.

"The charm of the uncivilized," said Baudelaire. He took Louis's arm and led him towards the bench. "Good day, mademoiselle, may we impinge upon you for a moment? You see, my friend and I -- surely you know him -- the esteemed inventor of photography, Monsieur Louis Daguerre, well, he has been commissioned by the king to find a lady of refinement to pose for a new series of daguerreotypes."

"How splendid," the lady said, her eyes darting over the approaching traffic for her man and carriage.

"May we sit awhile?" Baudelaire asked.

Louis bowed and said, "Madame, you must forgive my colleague's conduct, he is a little brash in these matters. I'm sorry if we've troubled you." The woman smiled curtly, then stood and walked down the street. Her green parasol flashed open and shielded the back of her neck. Louis watched her disappear into the throng of people, her parasol floating through the multitudes like an apple bobbing downstream.

"Friendly," said Baudelaire.

"You lack all manners."

They sat on the bench and Baudelaire took out his pipe and lit it. He stared into the bowl of the pipe, at the pulsing orange eye of the tobacco plug. "Did you smell our mademoiselle?"

"I certainly did not."

"A woodland herbage, I assure you."

"God help our country," said Louis. He dusted his sleeves. "Come, we're going to execute the science of this. We'll walk the grid, down to Palais Bourbon and east to the Pont Neuf."

"Yes," said Baudelaire, raising his malacca cane like a sword, "we will map the city in the name of nudity."

Louis stood and clicked his heels together in a sudden display of officiousness. There was something regimental about him -- the groomed mustache, the pomade-heavy wedge of gray hair, the Napoleonic jacket with epaulets. At fifty-nine he looked and dressed like a retired admiral. But he had a painter's eyes: Antwerp blue and prone to fits of moisture and reflection.

They walked up a small hill, Baudelaire now in front, his amber-tipped pipe clenched between his teeth. He waved at a passerby and called, "We are on a mission of the apocalypse."

Louis caught his reflection in a bakery shopwindow and noticed that his mouth was ajar, as if in profound thirst. He pursed his lips, then settled his mouth as his figure floated across the aqueous frontage of glass. But the seizure was already coming. The sun flared and whitened. Rivulets of sweat formed along his spine. His cravat and neck cloth restricted his breathing, and the mercury cough ascended from his groin, producing silver flashes in his peripheral vision. The taste of green copper in his mouth. He leaned against the brickwork of a building and was aware of Baudelaire standing beside him. Then the noise of the street bounded towards him, the clop and clatter of the wagons, the shriek of the vendors' cart horses. He doubled over, hands in spasm, and fell to the street. He felt the dankness of the macadam against his cheek. A small crowd ringed him in and he could see their glaucous faces, their eyes narrowed. In the midst of the seizure, a woman stood preening her gloves. He was aware of everything -- his own pulse, his blood breaking its banks, the kettledrum of the street, this lady's chamois gloves. He could feel his head banging against the pavement, then Baudelaire's hand and then the slowing, the release of pressure in his jaw and rib cage, his teeth coming apart, air being drawn back into his lungs. He lay there for some time, panting. The crowd dispersed.

"Are you all right?" asked Baudelaire.

"Yes," said Louis, sitting up.

A deep calm always followed the seizures. He felt hollowed out, capable of great insight. He took in the street again, became aware of the light. It was now dusk and the objects of the afternoon were slipping away; one would position the camera obscura from a loft window to catch the diffusion of day. Nearby, a woman's face floated inside a window. Her skin a smoky pearl, jade-green eyes, lips that curved with the grace of violin hips. Louis stood in front of the deserted wineshop and looked within -- a cavernous interior of empty shelves. A dusty crate stood in the middle of a floor covered with editions of La Gazette de France.

"I saw her," Louis said.

"Where? In here?"

Louis nodded. He placed a hand against the windowpane and became aware of his own reflection looking back at him. The entire shopfront was a photographic plate, and here was his own specter trapped inside the waterfilm of glass.

"I don't feel very well," Louis said.

"Let's get a cab. I'll take you home."

"She's out there somewhere," Louis said. "The woman I once loved."

"Every woman we once loved is out there alongside the women we are yet to love. They exchange tips about how to ruin us." Baudelaire stepped into the street and flagged down a cab. As he did so, he composed the first line of a new poem: "Twilight agitates madmen."

As they rode through the Paris dusk, Louis leaned his head against the leather seat back. Baudelaire was talking to the driver about socialist causes and the rumblings of insurrection in the garrets. The air was cut with the smell of paraffin and rotting oysters. Several times Louis had to cough and spit in the road, and he prayed that nobody would recognize him. When the cab pulled up in front of Louis's apartment, Baudelaire told the driver to wait, and he helped his friend down from the carriage. Together they climbed the long flight of stairs that led to Louis's rooftop studio. Louis gripped the railing, careful not to stumble. At the landing, he handed Baudelaire the key from his waistcoat and they went inside.

"Let's put you to bed," Baudelaire said as they moved through the darkened interior. The main room was cluttered -- tripods, zinc cameras, copper plates, tall glass jars filled with briny-looking solutions, salts heaped into earthenware bowls. Baudelaire found the air decidedly pickled. He helped Louis into the bedroom, where the walls were covered in daguerreotypes, portraits and landscapes framed under glass. Baudelaire set Louis back on the cotton mattress and removed his shoes. "We're having a party at my house in a few weeks. It's going to be very elaborate," Baudelaire said. "There will be schools of minnow."

"What does that mean?" asked Louis, his eyes closed.

"Women fluttering by the curtains. I've thought of some nudes for your project."

"Excellent."

Baudelaire patted Louis on the shoulder. "Should I pour you some brandy?"

"No, thank you. I'll be asleep by the time you get to the bottom of the stairs."

"The nervous attacks are getting worse," Baudelaire said. "You should see a doctor."

"With their invoice pads and leeches -- no, thank you."

"Take care of yourself," said Baudelaire, turning to leave.

Louis heard the door close at the bottom of the stairs. His chest was on fire, a tightness that made him pinch-eyed. He reached for the brandy decanter and drank a small swig straight from the glass lip, spilling some on his bedsheet. It loosened his breathing enough that he could relax and wait for sleep to settle over him. The bedroom window was open and he heard the noises of the street below -- the submerged sounds of Paris descending into night, the shrill bell that announced showtime to the actors at a nearby theater, the street mongers calling their wares out against the brickwork alleys. Louis felt more of the deep calm. He took off his clothes and got under the swansdown quilt. He looked up at his daguerreotypes and saw that they were more eerie than beautiful. Portraits of bankers with waxed mustaches, their faces grim, old brasserie maids with henna cheeks, a sea merchant with sad tea-brown eyes, a riverside picnic where a wooden boat rippled in a wave of amber and the sun appeared as a pale ball of wax. The portraits appeared to him now as images of the dead -- the shipwrecked, the drowned, the hangdog.

Copyright © 2006 by Dominic Smith



Continues...


Excerpted from The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre by Dominic Smith Copyright © 2006 by Dominic Smith. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide

The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre by Dominic Smith

INTRODUCTION

Paris, 1847. Louis Daguerre has achieved the height of fame for his invention of the daguerreotype, but his legacy has come at a great cost. He is falling deeper and deeper into delusions caused by repeated exposure to mercury, the key ingredient in capturing photographic images. Daguerre believes the world will end within a year and creates a "Doomsday List," ten things he must photograph before the final day — including a portrait of Isobel Le Fournier, the woman he loved and lost nearly a half century ago. With the aid of colorful poet Charles Baudelaire and a beautiful prostitute named Pigeon, Daguerre sets out to locate his subjects and fulfill his quest.

The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre weaves together the strands of Daguerre's life: his youth in rural France, the ruined love that gave rise to artistic achievement, and the eventual unraveling of a prodigious mind. As Daguerre counts down the days to his apocalypse, he is caught between memory and reality. Ultimately, he must confront his haunting past if he is to finally win the heart of the only woman he has ever loved.

QUESTIONS & TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION

1. Item number 10 on Louis Daguerre's "Doomsday List" of images to photograph is Isobel Le Fournier. Why is it so important to Louis that he find Isobel before (as he believes will happen) the world expires? Why does Louis confide in the poet Charles Baudelaire about his doomsday prophecy? What about the other items on the list? What do they reveal about Daguerre?

2. As a rapin at the theater, Louis is subjected to an "initiation" by his fellow apprentices, who attempt to frighten him by taking him to a morgue and having him sketch a portrait of a dead woman. Louis, however, stays inside the morgue for hours, long after he is free to leave. Why does Louis put so much time and effort into his drawing of the corpse? What does this incident reveal about Louis? What does Degotti mean when he later tells Louis, "You drew what you wanted to see" (78)?

3. Under Degotti's tutelage, Louis serves as the master paint mixer and brush washer at the theater for more than a year. What makes him finally stand up to Degotti and demand that he be allowed to paint a set? Is it a coincidence that Louis takes a stand on the same day he has his first sexual encounter with Madame Treadwell? Why or why not?

4. In what ways do the instances of civil unrest in France mirror Louis's states of mind, including the burning of the mansion in Orléans, the rioting taking place in Paris the first time he has a vision, and the uprising on the day his "apocalypse" arrives?

5. Why does Louis develop such an intense fascination with quicksilver, to the point where he "carried a phial of mercury around his neck at all times....He was, in a sense, in love again"? What does the quicksilver represent to him?

6. On the night Louis and Isobel kiss on the Pont Neuf in the shadow of Notre Dame, Isobel says to him, "Life is more complicated than you know." Louis replies, "Life is more mysterious than you know" (99). What do these statements reveal about Louis and Isobel's respective attitudes about life in general, as well as about their relationship?

7. On that same evening in Paris, Isobel tells Louis that someday he will be famous. "Louis knew this to be true; he saw it sometimes in the shop-windows when his reflection passed, the glimmer of who he was becoming" (100). Why is Louis so certain that he will achieve renown? Particularly when his discovery of the daguerreotype, as even he admits, is primarily accidental?

8. Describe the way Louis looks at the world both before and after the onset of his mercury-induced visions. What similarities, if any, are there? How did Louis's experiences as a boy, particularly his fascination with light and his youthful love for Isobel, shape his artistic viewpoint?

9. In a letter to Isobel (which he never gives her), Louis writes, "That day on Pont Neuf, you with child, began the rise of my career. I have often thought it ironic that losing you was what led me to fame" (184). What validity is there in Louis's belief that his losing Isobel is what led him to become famous? In what ways are his shifting feelings for Isobel reflected in his art and the arc of his career?

10. Why is Louis compelled to help Pigeon and save her from a life of prostitution? Is it merely because she is Isobel's daughter? Why does he not tell Pigeon about his connection to her mother? Does Pigeon even want to be "rescued" by Louis, or is she content with the life she has chosen?

11. Louis stores his portraits in the catacombs beneath the Paris Observatory before fleeing the city, but he decides to take one with him: the portrait of Pigeon on the rooftop of Baudelaire's mansion. Why does Louis choose to keep this particular image? What does it represent to him?

12. On the morning he awakens in Isobel's cottage, Louis realizes that "he did not want to die" (229). Why does he have a change of heart, particularly when he had been preparing for the apocalypse with determination and even a sense of detachment?

13. What is your overall opinion of Isobel? Why do you suppose she turned down Louis's marriage proposal? One evening at her cottage, Isobel asks Louis to kiss her. After nearly half a century, why does Isobel finally acknowledge her feelings for Louis?

14. When Isobel knows that she is about to take her last breath, she asks Louis to leave the room and make her a cup of tea. Why does Isobel send him away? And why does Louis, knowing what she is doing, agree to her request?

15. Discuss the impact of Louis's invention of the daguerreotype on France and on the world. Why were some people quick to embrace this new medium while others denounced it? Is it possible for us to fully understand the impact that such an invention would have had at the time? Why or why not?

ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB

Enliven your get-together — and your taste buds — by meeting at a local café or bistro. Or serve up your own French-inspired fare with recipes from www.epicurious.com. There are more than 800 delectable choices in the French Cuisine section. Bon appétit!

Learn more about Louis Daguerre, the daguerreian process, and how it was received in America by visiting www.daguerre.org, the official website of the Daguerreian Society.

In a nod to Louis Daguerre's famous invention, appoint one or two members as "official photographers" for the evening. Then have each member select one or two photographs and compile them into an album to commemorate your group's discussion of The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre.

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 2, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    A Piece of History

    While this isn't a great book, as a fictional biography it's an interesting look into the man who invented photography and presents a peek at Paris in the mid-19th century. Recommended for readers of historical fiction or those interested in the early days of photography.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 18, 2007

    A beautiful and romantic period piece

    Smith's novel is a romance in the truest meaning of the word. It is the story of a brilliant artist and scientist whose passions remain deep and true even as his life draws near its end. The evocations of life in Paris in the post-revolutionary period are beautifully rendered.

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  • Posted February 2, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A MASTERFUL NOVEL SUPERBLY READ

    While French artist and scientist Louis Daguerre is recognized for his invention of the daguerreotype photographic process, his life was the stuff of great drama. He was, indeed, a founding father of photography yet his battle for that honor was hard won, as he had to fight to protect his patent. However, that struggle was a small price compared to the physical effects of the pursuit of his passion. Daguerre exposed himself to mercury vapors, a necessity to engrave the images on a plate. The danger was that he could not avoid some exposure to mercury poisoning, which was eventually his downfall. The great man became delusional, convinced that the end of the world was near - as soon as a year. We hear: ''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 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. ' Then, he made a list of what needed to be photographed before it was too late. His choices were a beautiful nude woman, the sun, the moon, the perfect Paris boulevard, a pastoral scene, galloping horses, a perfect apple, a flower, the king of France, and Isobel Le Fournier. (A woman Daguerre loved) Smith is masterful as he traces Daguerre's descent into madness. This is a bravura debut novel, outstanding not only for the history of photography but for its psychological aspects and picture of mid nineteenth century Paris. Although born in New England actor Stephen Hoye spent much of his professional life in London. Many will remember him for his Audie winning narration of Rich Dad, Poor Dad. He really comes to the fore with this story, imbuing it with a stage trained actor's resonant voice and skillfully persuasive phrasing. Highly recommended. - Gail Cooke

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2008

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    Posted July 18, 2010

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