Pictures in motion — who invented this process?
There's an obscure Frenchman — he has a name, Étienne-Jules Marey, but scarcely anyone knows it — who, in the late 19th century initiated the technique that made the modern movie possible. And there's an Englishman, long a traveler in the United States, who perfected the technique and became famous for his work in this field. That is Edward Muybridge, usually seen in photographs of the time in his long-white-bearded stage of life, though according to a new biography, he changed his style of dress and hair and beard more than most people, sometimes so radically that old friends failed to recognize him. (At one point in his life, he even changed the spelling of his first name to Eadweard).
Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the eccentric English innovator and inventor will recognize him in the pages of Robert J. Seidman's new novel "Moments Captured," in spite of a number of changes Seidman makes in the actual man's history. He works with the general outline of his Muybridge's adult life, focusing on his work for California railroad mogul Leland Stanford, for whom he made his famous series of galloping horses to prove they went airborne. Seidman tells us in an author's note that he has "taken liberties with the chronology of the artist's career and … omitted and invented characters in his circle."
Certainly having the novel's Muybridge come from Baltimore as a teenager rather than from England at age 25 is a bit of a liberty. Well, more than a liberty. I'm not sure why Seidman makes him so thoroughly American — what does he gain by that? — and why he invents a character named Holly Hughes (in behavior and expression apparently based on Isadora Duncan and a few other early feminists) rather than keeping to the facts of Muybridge's actual marriage. He retains the general shape and form of the actual Muybridge marriage, which reached a crucial turn when the photographer shot his wife's lover dead; Seidman's Muybridge and his Holly never marry.
Do these discrepancies — and there are others — matter to the novel's success? For someone who knows nothing about the subject, no. But then, if you knew nothing about Homer's poem, you still might enjoy the story of the Trojan War even if it were set in Brooklyn. Or go along with a novel about a Canadian-born Henry Ford who creates the first modern auto assembly line.
Seidman approaches a threshold by doing his novel this way, changing so many things that he distorts the figure of Muybridge but never to the point where the man seems completely invented. If a reader knows virtually nothing about how the technique of moving images across a screen got started, the novel will be perfectly enjoyable. Paradoxically, the more you know, the more uncomfortable you will feel about the way the writer has bent, twisted and tied the truth in knots.
For me the book galloped along but never went airborne.
Alan Cheuse, National Public Radio's longtime "voice of books," is the author of five novels, four collections of short fiction and the memoir "Fall Out of Heaven."
By Robert J. Seidman, Overlook, 384 pages, $26.95