'Mysteries of Paris': postmodernism parodied?

March 18, 2001|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,Sun Staff

"Mysteries of Paris: The Quest for Morton Fullerton," by Marion Mainwaring. University Press of New England. 327 pages. $30.

There is an interesting book embedded in Marion Mainwaring's "quest." Unfortunately, she hasn't written it.

It must have seemed a potential blockbuster. Fullerton, a New England minister's son who became Paris correspondent for the Times of London, has been revealed by other scholars as the illicit love of novelist Edith Wharton's glittering, unhappy life.

Fullerton traveled with Henry James, dined with Oscar Wilde, drank with Paul Verlaine, visited with Theodore Roosevelt. He covered the stories that now fill our history books and hobnobbed with the greatest statesmen of his era.

The letters he exchanged with the terribly proper Wharton, James and others hint at enough racy secrets to keep a soap opera going for years: affairs with English and French nobles of both genders, a mysterious ex-wife and stepdaughter, and a shunned paramour who sought revenge through blackmail.

But Mainwaring, who completed Wharton's unfinished novel "The Buccaneers," in 1993, evidently found this book hard slogging. She tells of years spent in a frustrating, circular and maddeningly speculative struggle to pin down the facts of Fullerton's life.

The reader sympathizes, for reading this book is also a frustrating, circular and maddeningly speculative struggle.

Mainwaring's work is not compelling biography. She lays out Fullerton's most obvious characteristics -- self-aggrandizer, mooch and womanizer. But she does not bring his character to life, nor explain why such a cad inspired Wharton's passion and James' enduring loyalty. The book is peopled by the intellectual and economic elite of three nations, from the reign of Queen Victoria to the Nazi occupation of Paris. But it offers few new insights into the class and the era.

This isn't even a genre book about an intrepid scholar-detective and her true-life quarry. It appears to be simply a loose transcription of the notebooks in which the author commingled her research notes and personal diary.

Or perhaps it is a parody of postmodern literary scholarship, so skillfully done that this reader was completely taken in.

Consider this passage, in which Mainwaring concludes that three mysterious figures in Fullerton's life -- his landlady, his mistress and his supposed blackmailer -- are one and the same person, an obscure Parisian singer whose stage name was Mirecourt:

"And she was Adele. Adele was she.

"Dite. 'Known as' Mirecourt. No wonder there is no Mirecourt in Births, Marriages and Deaths.

"'Lessor of a furnished room.'

"Outside the window the Seine slid by oily smooth. Now and then someone breathed."

In the final pages, Mainwaring hints that she grew weary of the whole enterprise. Maybe she ended up too drained to expend much effort on writing the book.

Or maybe she really believes her approach, with its redundancies and coy self-references, is experimental and engaging. It's too bad some competent editor didn't set her straight.

Heather Dewar became The Sun's environment reporter in December 1997. A reporter since 1978, when she graduated from Harvard College with a degree in English literature, she has covered environmental issues since 1989, first for the Miami Herald and then as the national environment correspondent for Knight-Ridder Newspapers.

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