Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past
Mad Creek Books, 2017
Review by Jayme Russell
Want to know more about French decadence, towering powdered wigs, and societies that benefitted from the poor and powerless? Kathryn Nuernberger’s book of essays Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past is filled with researched historical events, with a dash of the personal aside. The essays dive in and around facts about women who defied gender expectations or who used their bodies to gain the little portion of power available to them. Because these historical figures actually existed, most, if not all, accounts end in tragedy. Women suffer, men are violent, and children die young. Paintings depict this. Historical records describe this. There is an emphasis on this long historical understanding of how gender roles relate to violence. Neurnberger especially focuses on the deaths of women and children. Here, a child is simply helping his executioner father when something goes amiss:
But Gabriel slipped from the scaffold while displaying a severed head to the crowd and died of a broken neck.
From guillotine etiquette and beheadings to hot air balloon crashes, women rise and fall fast. They go down hard, but they also go down in style. Sophie Blanchard’s balloon crash is “stunning” and sets an entire Paris block on fire. The assassin Charlotte Corday cuts her own hair for the courtroom artist before being sentenced to death. The traitor Anne-Josèph Théroigne was flogged and, “When she died, it was in the Saltpêtrière, where women surrounded her and it is said their cacophony of wild screams is more than anyone can bear.”
We all know what happened to Marie Antoinette, but Neurnberger paints the image of a woman trying to run away, as white powder falls from her high wig. These nuanced embellishments and descriptions of scene make these long dead characters come back to life. And this is only in the first half of the book, titled “Air Loom” after the macabre, but quick, killing machine.
The second section delves into interviews about the more recent past and takes us down into earthy caverns. This section details the more recent family stories and how the author fell in love with the imagination.
Not even the quail are so indigenous to these mountains as they feel. When they left where they came from, they elected the owl to be there king and leave them across the water. He was so smart and so satisfied, but when they arrived, it was he who was too weary and dropped right into the mouth of the first half that came to greet them. The quail scattered like children into the grass and never came out again.
Personal history becomes fascinating in the same way that beheadings are fascinating. The stories become larger than family lore. They become nursery rhymes and fairy tales. They become magical and lasting, while Neurnberger stealthily retains both childlike wonder and adult knowing. Place itself becomes a character. The land connects everything. The reader becomes lost in caves and creeks. Art, reading, romance, and a matter of fact voice pull the book together as a whole.