Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Romance of a Mummy by Théophile Gautier

A skillful take on an oft-told tale
Théophile Gautier’s novel The Romance of a Mummy was originally published in 1858 under the French title Le Roman de La Momie. Though the word “roman” translates literally into “novel,” to call this story a romance is certainly no misnomer. Gautier was a staunch Romanticist, and the book prominently features a love story, so the term is accurate in both senses of the word. Like many 19th-century French Romanticists, Gautier was fascinated by exotic locales and cultures. Egypt was one of his many travel destinations and a source of inspiration for at least a few of his writings, including short stories like “The Mummy’s Foot” and “One of Cleopatra’s Nights.”

The Romance of a Mummy opens in the nineteenth century. Two English gentlemen, an Egyptologist and a wealthy aristocrat, set out to discover an undiscovered tomb. With unbelievable luck, they hit the jackpot right away and are soon exploring the passageways of a man-made tunnel system that has been sealed for thousands of years. After this prologue, the story not surprisingly flashes back a couple millennia to recount the life story of the entombed, who lived during the time of Moses. Gautier takes us to Thebes and immediately gives us four complete chapters of nothing but description. Every aspect of the architecture, clothing, furniture, decoration and customs of the Egyptians is spelled out for the reader in loving detail. In Gautier’s time, this brand of heavy description would have been equivalent to the set design of a Hollywood blockbuster. Today’s readers, however, with so many images of ancient Egypt at our disposal, might find all this visual detail somewhat unnecessary and boring. Nevertheless, one can’t help admiring Gautier for his depth of research and his exceptional skill for painting vivid pictures with words.

Once the actual narrative gets underway, it’s really very engaging. Though it’s a highly romanticized tale, the detachment from reality doesn’t hinder one’s ability to relate to the characters and empathize with their loves and losses. Gautier’s skilled plotting really kept me wondering what would happen next. The book disappoints in its final few chapters, however, when it starts to relate an episode from the Bible that almost every reader will be familiar with. Gautier’s retelling of this well known story is quite exciting and eloquent at times. Still, once you realize where the narrative is headed, any chance of unpredictability has been removed. I was just becoming involved with Gautier’s characters and wished he would have crafted an original story around them. Instead, his choice to end the book with a rehashing of an ancient legend feels like a bit of a cheat.

Gautier was a great writer by 19th-century standards, but 19th-century standards don’t always translate into 21st-century reading enjoyment. The Romance of a Mummy likely thrilled the audience of its day, but today’s readers may find the story a bit too commonplace despite its exotic subject matter. Even so, if you have a fascination with ancient Egypt and you appreciate good, old-fashioned storytelling, give it a try and spend a few hours along the banks of the Nile.
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