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Saturday, February 19, 2011

LibraryThing Early (Late) Review

A Man in Uniform
by Kate Taylor

I enjoyed Taylor's first book, Madame Proust and the Kosher Kitchen, and looked forward to reading A Man in Uniform, but it had to wait until I returned from vacation, and actually waited until it is no longer an early review. Oh well.

The book is set in a charming place and period of history, one that Taylor also mined for her previous book, Mme. Proust and the Kosher Kitchen, Paris in the late 19th C. There is no shortage of delightful material written about the period by authors actually of the period, and those writers avoid the trap of the anachronism, which possibly no contemporary writer can.

I once had a professor who remarked that as citizens of the post-Freudian world, we simply cannot get out of our minds the Freudian paradigm and imagine Hamlet, say, without Freudian overtones. Similarly, conversations written by writers of our time set in other times, often sound either too modern or stilted, and I found this to be the case here. As well, and related, the editorial decisions about when to insert French words and titles seemed quite irregular and puzzling. No help for it, really, and I know it makes me kind of an old pedant to notice and care. Oh well to that, too.

On the other hand, how interesting to read a story about the Dreyfus affair that had LITERALLY NOTHING TO DO WITH THE STORY OF THE DREYFUS AFFAIR! It was about the personal journey of some characters who were tangential to the main issue. I have to say that, in itself, this is an appealing and contemporary approach, one that would never have been considered by writers of that time.

I do not imagine that my criticisms are of things that would stop if from appearing on many bedside tables, as the Globe and Mail's blurb on the book has it. I can see it being a very pleasant and easy glimpse into the period, as enjoyable as having a postcard of Monet's water lilies on your bulletin board at work, and as much an actual piece of art.

As a true LibraryThing devotee though, I have to make some recommendations: Of course it is better to read Proust on his period than some Canadian woman of the 21st C writing about his time. Less forbiddingly, if only for its length, one of my all-time favourite books happens to be In the Land of Pain by Alphonse Daudet. He was a writer, a contemporary and friend of Proust and the Impressionists. He kept a journal while he sickened and died of syphilis. It is a small beautiful volume and describes the daily routine of the haute-bourgeois, with the big lunch at home prepared by a cook, and the afternoon visits to a mistress, by one who lived it. (In fact, I wonder if Taylor has read it and used it to inform her writing.) In addition the expressiveness of Daudet as he worries, and sickens, and wonders, and despairs, is indescribable.

In other words, go ahead and read A Man in Uniform if it comes to you, but if you are seeking out books, you can do better.

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