A Case of Curiosities

Written by Allen Kurzweil
Review by James Hawking

A memento hominem is a collection of items memorializing a life, and a case full of such items gives structure to Allen Kurzweil’s novel. Claude Page, a creative craftsman and inventor during the period before and during the French Revolution, has a finger cut off during an operation to remove a mole shaped like Louis XVI. This begins the action.

Intricacies abound in this novel as the hero drifts from herbs to dyes to watches to pornographic mechanical curios. A bookseller with the most profound scatological contempt for books serves as a vehicle for satirizing the modern book business. The most memorable of the hero’s mentors is an anti-clerical abbé who poses a math problem. “…if the foreskin of my manhood were multiplied by three-quarters of my member’s length, the result would be equal to the length of the whole, further that my foreskin represented a twelfth of the whole.” The hero quickly calculated the answer as sixteen inches, which one might have thought to be an extraneous root. This is one of a series of choices in which the author prefers the bizarre to the believable.

Physical culture is prominent throughout the book, in the form of enameled cases, elaborate watches or displays which show society women in the position of dogs in heat and vice versa. The characters and the plot are of less interest than the objects described, and the history of the period plays an equally subsidiary role.