Davis' Versailles: flashing meditation

August 04, 2002|By Charles Nicol | By Charles Nicol,Special to the Sun

Versailles: A Novel, by Kathryn Davis. Houghton Mifflin. 224 pages. $21.

Stunning. Stunningly written, lively, amusing and unpredictable.

Describing this as historical fiction, a liberally retouched biography of Marie Antoinette from marriage to the last Louis at age 14 to decapitation, would utterly miss the point. This novel views through a keyhole its main character's reflection in her own white-and-gilt-trimmed hand-mirror. The facts shimmer in a haze.

Usually Marie tells her own story, often eloquently, although the author occasionally interrupts to comment. But these chapters are interrupted by brief scenes in dramatic form, stylized as though they were from a play by Beaumarchais -- or a Mozart opera from a play by Beaumarchais. The most outrageous of these scenes is a dialogue between one rather daffy princess and her dogs; the dogs impart the important information that the dauphin has become seriously ill.

That's not the only time that Kathryn Davis gives out information obliquely, in vivid snippets. A single sentence can capture two different features of Versailles at one time: "I liked to watch the little silver ball in the roulette wheel leap from number to number like a flea." The French court were probably much more familiar with fleas than with roulette wheels.

The early problems of the royal pair were comic. They were mutually innocent and unable to produce the required heir to the throne until Louis finally agreed to a circumcision. (This is probably the first novel with a chapter titled "The King's Penis.") Louis himself was loving but dull, a royal lapdog. Marie sat endless hours for immense, preposterous, itchy hairdos.

But France began to fall apart: a bitter winter, a failed harvest, an economic crisis (brought on partly by generous aid for the American Revolution, a concern not mentioned here) and assorted scandals. As an Austrian, Marie Antoinette became a scapegoat. The Queen's Necklace Affair, to which she was an innocent party, was complex enough that Davis is forced to tell it in straightforward fashion. (The affair may have been the inspiration for a wildly imaginative version involving the Three Musketeers).

By this time Marie Antoinette had matured, but there is scarcely a glimpse of her growing political sophistication in this novel. Meanwhile, the French Revolution started on its apocalyptic course, and eventually a mob marched the 11 miles from Paris to Versailles. That march provides the climax here.

As its title suggests, this is as much a meditation on the architecture and history of Versailles as on Marie Antoinette, who apparently loved the place; the novel ebbs to a halt soon after she and Louis XVI are removed to the Tuileries. A grand and ludicrous escape in 1791, arranged by Marie's one probable lover, Axel Fersen, managed to bring an immense carriage stuffed with the king, queen, children and servants a whole day's journey from Paris before they were apprehended. Kathryn Davis shrugs this off in two gray pages, apparently not wishing to interrupt her downward spiral; the king's execution and then the queen's follow a few understated pages later.

Short enough for one vacation plane ride, this can always be reread on the return flight.

Charles Nicol, professor of English and humanities at Indiana State University, is co-author of two books on Vladimir Nabokov and has written for a wide variety of mainstream and scholarly journals. He happily interrupted his own vacation to write this.

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