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BEAUMARCHAIS by Maurice Lever Kirkus Star


A Biography

by Maurice Lever and translated by Susan Emanuel

Pub Date: April 21st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-374-11328-5
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The astonishingly productive, creative, dangerous, revolutionary, mercenary, libertine life of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732–1799), author of The Barber of Seville and financier for the American Revolution.

Condensed from the original three volumes published in France between 1999 and 2004, this edition presumably picks the juiciest fruit from a loaded tree. Born the son of a watchmaker, a trade he later followed and mastered, Beaumarchais ended his life in a fierce struggle with the leaders of the French Revolution, who several times nearly condemned him to the tireless national razor. With vast personal resources of energy and eclectic talents, he led a peripatetic life, rendering quite difficult, acknowledges Lever (Sade, 1993, etc.), the task of weaving its many strands into a single linear thread. But the author artfully succeeds from start to finish. During his early years as a watchmaker, Beaumarchais’ created a design that greatly improved the accuracy of timepieces. As a playwright, he composed two classic theater pieces later transformed by others into classic operas: The Barber and The Marriage of Figaro. (His third play about Figaro, the sentimental A Mother’s Guilt, earns only disdain from Lever.) As a businessman and investor, Beaumarchais amassed a great fortune, then saw most of it vanish during the Terror. As a politician, he finessed royalty and revolutionaries alike, miraculously escaping death after a number of official denunciations. He married several times but also maintained some quite athletic extramarital activities. Lever quotes a letter in which Beaumarchais recalls to one mistress, with pure locker-room candor, some of their more adventurous sexual escapades. He helped fund the American Revolution (though his heirs spent many years applying for reimbursement); he was fascinated with the Panama Canal plans; and he tried to sell his mansion to young Napoleon Bonaparte. He seems in all ways a more gifted and assiduous Zelig.

Superbly rendered biography of a most significant man.