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A Novel Idea

December 27th, 2003 · No Comments

While home for the holidays, Dad handed me a copy of a book inscribed to him by one of his former medical students: The Muse Asylum by David Czuchlewski. I started and finished it that same evening: An engaging, deftly written first novel that—being about people recently out of college finding their footing—I (unsurprisingly) found resonant. Though looking at the synopsis of his sophomore effort, I see he’s got something for the “recent Princeton grad who can’t quite get over his college girlfriend” theme.

Anyway, when I finished, it occured to me that this guy must’ve been no more than a year or two older than I am now when he wrote it and that, moreover, it was a highly satisfying first novel that he’d managed to produce while worrying about a med school courseload. I’ve toyed for years with various ideas for novels, or at least short stories—for a long time, I expected to be writing fiction when I “grew up.” But it was just that: Toying with the idea. Now I’m thinking I may want to give it a serious shot.

Despite my sci-fi sympathies, I think I may try my hand at a historical novel. I’ve always wanted to write something about the Mesmer commissions: a fictional premise that would be considered too contrived and outlandish if it hadn’t actually happened.

The story in a nutshell is: Franz Anton Mesmer, the inventor (or, as he claimed, “discoveror”) of “animal magentism” from whose name we get “mesmerism,” was making a splash in French society during the years between the American and French revolutions. Louis XVI is skeptical and appoints a pair of scientific commissions to discover whether Mesmer is a miracle worker or a charlatan. The commissions include eminent scientists, including ironically, both the great chemist Lavoisier and Doctor Joseph Guillotin, inventor of a new “humanitarian” execution device. The commissions were chaired by the new ambassador from the recently-founded United States, one Benjamin Franklin. The cast of characters would also include Mozart, a disciple of Mesmer’s who included a reference to Mesmer in Cosi fan Tutte.

It’s hard to imagine a better fictive setting within which to play off against each other the Dionysian and Apollonian impulses, or the constructivist and critical forms of rationalism associated with the very different revolutions in France and the US. Do I actually have time to give this a serious shot? I have no idea. But I’m going to order some of the books I’d need to begin doing research. Worst case scenario, I’ll learn something useless and fascinating.

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