Memoirs of a Dwarf
At the Sun King's Court
(Univeristy of Wisconsin/
Terrace Books)The oldest of old wheezes has to do with the dwarf that went around sticking his nose in everybody's business. If we are to believe Weidner's narrator, it's literally true.When hurrying around the corners of various rooms in various palaces of Louis XIV, he becomes involved in crotch-level collisions (their crotches; his face) with dukes, marquises, princes and princesses, and in a couple of cases, representatives of the Pope in a hurry.
Everyone gets knocked down, M. Hugues, our friend the dwarf, gets cursed, his ears pulled --- and the mutts that roam the royal palaces at Versailles or Vaugirard or St. Germaine-en-Layeat nip at his face and make his life miserable.Readers who are fans of all things French as well as those who are fans of lovingly-constructed novels should spend a few days with Memoirs of a Dwarf. It's a you-are-there adventure, a brilliant return to the pleasures and tradition of the picaresque novel.
After a few pages, we become the dwarf, cleaning up the royal slops, spying on the royal family, carrying out the embossed shit-pot of Louis XIV, and, at night, since we can fit under the tables in the gaming room, passing cards back and forth to the nobility, listening to their coarse jokes and even coarser gossip --- the gentry who hang around whatever palace Louis XIV and his various wives and mistresses are inhabiting at the time.Hugues also finds himself used by the younger ladies in the gaming room (including the Marquise de Montespan --- one of the more favored mistresses of the king) in a more tawdry occupation, inspired by his prodigious tongue. Hugues develops a high regard for the Marquise's "pasture," which --- he observes --- "has not too many fleas."
The key to a dwarf's life, Hugues tells us, is that "life as observed at crotch-level beneath an apartment of tabletops presents a vastly different aspect from that of aboveboard ... where the appearance of at least a modicum of civility can be mustered up."
But below! below, take heed: for here are to be found the least admirable pursuits of humanity; to wit, the passing of wind; the covert loosening of various articles of clothing, depending upon the heat of the evening and matters of girth; the scratching of bums, of _______s, of _______s, of groins, of feet, of _________s, of knees; the pursuit of fleas and other parasites in the lower hypogastric region ... manual stimulation of divers parts (I blush to write it); and lusts, lusts of various orders, all of them lower, much lower, and most of them manifestly apparent to one who was privy to the nether regions as I had indisputably become.
Fans of the great writers of the 17th and 18th Centuries --- Casanova, Fielding, Richardson, Swift --- will recognize the overwrought language: "a modicum of civility," "one who was privy," "the lower hypogastric region." There, too, is there a mock-Puritanism, a convention that dictated that certain words were not to be spelled out to spare the delicacy of the reader who --- presumably --- was so genteel that he or she would not know what "_________s" referred to.
Finally, there are the constant asides, making the reader part of the plot, with the (fictional) author holding back the facts, urging patience,
And you shall learn what this matter was; nor will you, I believe, be in any way surprised at what I had conceived but will clearly appreciate it and will as well endorse the thing. And so, attend..."
The conventions of the picaresque tradition are well represented here: a hero of lower order (and before the 20th Century, nothing could be literally and figuratively lower than a dwarf) surviving by persistence and wit alone amongst the continuing panorama of life in the towns and the court.
Weidner knows his history and knows the conventions, making Memoirs of a Dwarf a delicious revisit to an ancient tradition of Western literature (the very first novel was published in 1554. It was the picaresque La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes: y de sus fortunas y adversidades.)
Memoirs of a Dwarf makes the reader a part of court life: the impossibly damp and windy life at Versailles, the endless bickering and maneuvering around Louis XIV, the raw peasant humor of the nobility (and their crudenesses and stink), the easy and commonplace violence, the ceremonies in the cathedrals (and the sub-rosa devil's ceremonies), the dogs everywhere crapping (and biting dwarves), the belches and the bad English of Louis' gross Spanish wife, the crowds who wander through the palace listening in at doors to find out what is supposed to be going on, the endless wars in Flanders, the sportive love life of a lusty king and his various mistresses and, finally, the blind worship our beloved dwarf has for him.
As fans of Jonathan Swift know, this style of literature lends itself to a corrosive irony. This is Hugues on the burning at the stake of a suspected witch: "When the fire was at last applied to the straw which was piled around godless La Voisin's feet; and I lifted my heart, if not my voice, in praise of so just an execution even as the flames themselves lifted upward toward the stake; we watched enthralled as one tongue of it lept up ahead of all the others and caught the woman's eyebrows on fire, arousing the crowd yet more; and when her wisps of hair began to smolder and then to burn, we could not contain ourselves."
The burning of the witch, says Hugues,
has served me as an opportunity to do honor to that exalted institution, the public execution of criminals, for these acts not only serve our society as deterrents to malfeasance and mischief but provide as well healthy outdoor diversion to people of all ages. And it was most heartening to witness the number of dear little children present that February afternoon, for how better might our future generation learn of the gravity of misdeeds and of their consequences than to observe at firsthand a burning at the stake, a hanging, or a beheading? The matter requires no advocacy on my part.
The elegant turning of the knife in these last three sentences is, I claim, on a par with Dean Swift's "A Modest Proposal" which offered the conceit that since the poverty-stricken Irish were good at but one thing --- that is, siring children --- it might behoove them to sell them, at age one or so as a possible gourmet feast for the upper classes.
"Instead of being a charge upon their parents or the parish, or wanting food and raiment for the rest of their lives," Swift wrote, "they shall on the contrary contribute to the feeding, and partly to the clothing, of many thousands."
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.
Swift is careful, in good Adam Smithian style, to enumerate the economic gains to be had from feasting on babes: "I have already computed the charge of nursing a beggar's child (in which list I reckon all cottagers, laborers, and four-fifths of the farmers) to be about two shillings per annum, rags included; and I believe no gentleman would repine to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat, when he hath only some particular friend or his own family to dine with him. Thus the squire will learn to be a good landlord, and grow popular among his tenants; the mother will have eight shillings net profit, and be fit for work till she produces another child."
Finally, in a style that presages works by Shaw, Wilde, Mencken and, yes, Paul Weidner, Swift is careful to claim no ulterior motive in his proposal:
I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.
--- A. W. Allworthy