California Literary Review

The Count of Concord by Nicholas Delbanco

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August 18th, 2008 at 10:07 am

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The Count of Concord by Nicholas Delbanco
The Count of Concord
by Nicholas Delbanco
Dalkey Archive Press, 480 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Elusive Count Rumford

In accordance with every stereotype you’ve ever heard, novels are hard things to write.

After all, how many of us daily combine our molten poetic souls with iron discipline – and then put the result on display? We may each hold an inexhaustible supply of character and myth, but these do not an artist make. A writer is the one who steels these into a unique creation.

Still it is not enough. For readers also demand a novel provide a thing so ephemeral, so nebulous, that it is a wonder authors the world over do not rise up and smite us in unison. We want flow.

Flow, if one can abuse the metaphor, is the underlying current of a novel. Be it a slow lazy river or a raging torrent, flow pulls us along, deep and strong, to the end.

Don’t let the name fool you, though. Flow doesn’t always need to flow. A style may chop and change, challenge us, ask for our time and patience, but, if it’s good, we will eventually feel ourselves carried along.

The difficulty lies in achieving it. It is questionable, for instance, whether you can teach flow. Some may argue that decades spent reading great works will do the trick, but the quality of most academic articles suggests otherwise.

Nor is flow predictable. Some authors will have flow and nothing else – pasteboard characters, hammy dialogue, the works. Some authors will have it in one book and lose it completely in another. And some, like Nicholas Delbanco is his book, The Count of Concord, will have all the elements assembled but still never drag us completely into his story.

Still, what a subject to choose! Sir Benjamin Thompson, a.k.a. Count Rumford, is probably most familiar to modern ears as the inventor of the Rumford Fireplace. Yet that honorarium does not begin to cover the career – tinkerer, teacher, soldier, and spy – of this poster child of the Enlightenment.

Born in Massachusetts in 1753, young Benjamin grew up playing with fire. A friend of the engineer Loammi Baldwin, a budding scientist and a failed medical student, Rumford had a keen mind riddled with Machiavellian motives. After marrying a wealthy widow, he became an informer to the British during the lead-up to the Revolutionary War. Unsurprisingly, this did little to endear him to his countrymen, and he spent the rest of his life kicking around Europe, enlivening proceedings. Along with his many experiments into the properties of heat, he founded the Royal Institution of Great Britain and created a welfare system in Munich that was the envy of the world.

For any writer, fictionalizing this Proteus’s life would be a challenge and Delbanco tackles him with a time-honored trick – an equally fictional narrator. The voice that we hear is Sally’s. A modern-day descendant of Rumford and former author and teacher, Sally spends her retirement musing on the various exploits of her ancestor. Both framer and commentator, she decides how we will view the past:

So that’s what this story is, really (romance: a will-you, won’t-you join the Morris dance?), though it’s full of high-toned sentences: the flashing eyes, the prancing horse, the tale of nature’s nobleman who furnished my last name.

More intriguingly, she also explains how Rumford’s reinvention of his character is a phenomenon not confined to the 18th century. We all like to make fictions of our lives:

For Thompson was his own invented creature, after all: a self-made man. An ab-original. A true American in this regard, even if a traitor…

This holds true for Sally herself:

So what he remembers while writing is what I imagine while writing it down; what he composes disrupts my own rest…These nights I know the answer: I am being written, reader, at least as much as he.

Aye, but here’s the rub. What with Sally creating Rumford and Rumford creating his image and Delbanco creating all of it, the book seems to lose itself in its own digressions. Chronologically it’s fairly straightforward, but stylistically it’s all over the place.

Thus we can go from a vivid, visceral account like this one…

Thompson closed his spyglass, having no need to see. He could hear with perfect clarity the slapping sound of wood on flesh, the splintering of limb and log, the despairing cry of Sergeant Atkins as his horse was struck. The animal died on the instant, its skull crushed. The man fell back, submerged, and only at length floated lifelessly free.

… to long excerpts of Rumford’s own rather dried cracker echo of the Declaration of Independence in the Prospectus of the Royal Institution of Great Britain:

It is an undoubted truth that the successive improvements in the condition of man, from a state of ignorance and barbarism to that of the highest cultivation and refinement, are usually effected by the aid of machinery in procuring the necessaries, the comforts, and the elegancies of life; and that the preeminence of any people in civilization is, and ought ever to be, estimated by the state of industry and mechanical improvement among them.

You can see Delbanco’s point. By mixing accounts of Rumford’s achievements with the down and dirty facts of life, he is trying to evoke the peculiar atmosphere of the time. A time when science and philosophy danced a stately minuet in the hall while sewers overflowed in the streets.

Moreover, the author as Sally says, Rumford is the symbol of these contradictions. He is a questing Faust amongst the hellfire, Fortune’s Fool, a man who rises and falls in the muck and rises again, a scientist who scorns the fallacy that all men are created equal.

Yet for all of Rumford’s trials, The Count of Concord is a book oddly devoid of fire. The good Count seems always to be on the periphery of great events and remarkably disinterested in their outcome. He drifts from project to project, he weds and beds, and then he dies.

And while parts of Sally’s elliptical story are clever, her history is spotted and she does not fully materialize as a character. One wonders what it would have been like to hear Delbanco’s narrative commentary, with his elegant pen and a historian’s eye for detail, instead.

Then again, perhaps the ultimate elusiveness of his subject is not entirely Delbanco’s fault. History has often neglected Rumford in favor of a more jovial Ben, a.k.a. Franklin. While this is a shame, it is also true that Franklin had a trajectory, had a mission, had, if you will, a flow to his life. In the end, he survives in our imagination because he committed himself to a burning cause. Rumford, on the other hand, appeared to have been committed only to burning.

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