A delectable work of lyric fiction offers an aural snapshot of Paris in the time of Napoleon III, glimpsed through the eternally wandering eyes of mythic trickster Hermes.
While giving short shrift to proper plot, Vansittart (A Safe Conduct, 1996, etc.) inscribes language on these pages with the lush attentiveness of an adoring craftsman. Hermes is a night creature, “favouring darkened pavements, thieves’ kitchens, backwater taverns at crossroads or in the remains of woodlands”; with amused detachment, he watches “the constant procession, cheerful, purposeless, stung into fresh being by the New Year promise.” Properly, Hermes in Paris is a historical, its story strung through the unstable, socially and culturally tumultuous mid-ninth century. Yet the period is less a backdrop to the action than a player in the lives of Vansittart’s characters, though they believe themselves both exempt from, and superior to, their time. The young journalist Charles-Luc de Massonier, pen name “Tacitus,” finds the mediocrity of his cultural hour offensive to his own clear genius; he fusses and fulminates and is ultimately brought low in a duel by powers much greater than his own. Hermes accompanies Etienne and his ten-year-old son, Emile, as they wander through their jobs, amusements, and afternoon fields of grass. As is usual with atmospheric language, the prose here is highly impressionistic, and Hermes’ voice caresses details as if seizing upon any permanency he can find: wine glasses, dinnerware, butler’s vests, and soldier’s breastplates exist as the vivid auras within which these deluded, vague, but touching human souls thrive. The substantial introduction strives but fails to locate the novel in any meaningful historical context.
Vansittart’s alluring gem is an exhilaration, a sigh, a prose poem that resembles a standard novel only in length. Lacking the poised densities of plot and character to ground it, it’s caviar for the happy few.