Saturday, August 30, 2008

Book Review: "The Count of Concord"

Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford (1753-1814) is one of those historical figures whose life just seems to demand a novel - or, rather, one whose biography could just as easily function as one. Spy, turncoat, soldier, reformer, scientist, man-about-Europe ... you name it, Thompson tried it (or, say some, slept with it). In his new book The Count of Concord (Dalkey Archive, 2008), Nicholas Delbanco attempts to capture the man's life in a fictional way, when I think perhaps non-fiction might have proven more effective. Sometimes a man's life is too strange to fashion a story from.

For all the adventures, there is little drama in this book, which vaguely chronicles Thompson's wanderings from court to court, his various loves and losses (the one coming hot on the heels of the other) and his wide-ranging intellectual pursuits. This is decidedly not a page-turner, but since I don't think Delbanco intended it as one, I cannot complain too loudly on that score.

What I must complain about, though, is the dreaded narrative frame, which in this case takes the form of a modern-day Rumford descendant, Sally ... which is also the name of Thompson's first wife and his (only legitimate) daughter. Narrator-Sally jumps in periodically to offer overtly pedantic reflections on her ancestor and trite musings from her own life which do little more than interrupt the (already torpid) flow of the main narrative.

This book made me want to read a biography of Rumford (there are several, I find). But I don't think I'll feel the urge to read it again.