A Tale of the Wind: A Novel of 19th Century France, by Kay Nolte Smith, New York: Villard Books, 516 pages, $22.00
The 1980s saw not only the discrediting of socialism but a weakening of its intellectual first cousin, modernism the doctrine that declares that repulsion and nausea are the chief purposes of art and that novelists should write small stories about hopeless lives. Although the avant-garde faith of the 1920s still holds sway among the mandarins who dispense grants, earlier romantic forms constructed upon traditional lines have begun to make a comeback. Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera are popular not just because of the spectacles they present, but because their stories are epic, life-affirming tales that transcend ordinary experience. Most of the major movies of the 1980s were romantic epics, and the rising success of fantasy and science fiction partially comes from the sense of wonder and heroic adventure that the best sf stories provide.
Romanticism has also returned to the shelves of the local bookstore. Robertson Davies, for example, has become a bestselling writer because his tales immerse the reader in magic and grandeur. And Ayn Rand’s enduring popularity as a novelist certainly comes as much from the grandeur and authority of her fiction as from the ideas her novels present.
Kay Nolte Smith is, in many ways, a disciple of Ayn Rand. Like Rand, Smith is an individualist romantic with a healthy dislike for government. Smith’s earlier novels, particularly The Watcher, were quite Randian in form, structure, and technique. But with each book, Smith has distanced herself from her teacher.
Her latest work, A Tale of the Wind, is a homage not to Rand but to the French romantic playwrights of the 19th century. The book begins with its characters watching the first production of Victor Hugo’s Hernani in 1830 and ends with them seeing Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac 67 years later. It is Smith’s longest, most complex, and best novel.
As the book opens, a dwarf known as Nandou rescues teenage urchin Jeanne Sorel from a life selling rags. Nandou is an actor infatuated with romantic ideas; he teaches Sorel to read by reading favorite passages from Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott. She is a quick learner and within a few years becomes a famous playwright whose best-known work, The Dwarf Lord, stars Nandou.
Although A Tale of the Wind describes three French revolutions (in 1830, 1848, and 1870), the characters, as they age and as they become increasingly cynical, become more passive. The young Nandou and Sorel rejoice in the overthrow of the Bourbons in 1830; 40 years later, they survive the terrors of the Paris Commune by eating rats, horses, and weeds. The only character who attempts to join the Communards dies in a hail of bullets.
A Tale of the Wind is a succession of intimate tableaux, not a large canvas; the book’s center is the eternal conflict between parents and their children. But the novel is also a tribute to the power of words to, uplift and transform our lives.
When Victor Hugo dies in 1885, one character meditates on his achievements: “She was marching in tribute not only to France’s great poet, but to language itself, to the power and glory of words, which opened people’s minds to each other and allowed the profoundest of thoughts to reach the simplest of men and women.” IT is a profoundly unmodern sentiment. from a grandly romantic author.