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Lively, witty, and fun
on May 9, 2005
Founding Fathers are hot stuff these days. Benjamin Franklin, with two major bios in the past three years (Morgan and Isaacson) and re-publication of others by H.W. Brands and Gordon Wood, may be the hottest. Into this crowd wades Stacy Schiff, whose elegant and witty biography of Vera Nabokov won a 2000 Pulitzer (and whose previous bio of Saint-Exupéry garnered a nomination). Why step from uncommon byways onto a crowded boulevard?
Happily, Schiff's breezy, cosmopolitan, but never superficial style is excellently suited to the open-minded satirist and scientist, and a tale that reads like a cruel farce. _A Great Improvisation_ focuses on just eight years of Franklin's 84-year life, starting in 1776 when he was sent to Paris by the Continental Congress at the age of 70 to get France into the war. Fortunately, France regarded Franklin as a celebrity genius, which was more than many of his colleagues back home in Congress thought of him.
Franklin was "honest, but not too honest, which qualifies in France as a failure of imagination." He could "indulge in the ingenious and wholly specious argument, a staple of French conversation." His defense of French admiral d'Estaing was "a shining tribute to benevolent ignorance. (And one that happened accidentally to be accurate.)" Surrounded by spies, he had papers and money stolen. The other Americans in Paris squabbled endlessly with one another, accusing the French of deceit and intrigue even more than the British. Franklin's co-commissioner, Arthur Lee, "was ideally suited for the mission in every way save for his personality, which was rancid."
Poor trans-Atlantic communications enabled the Paris delegation's enemies to poison Congress against them, especially Franklin, who risked censure several times. He also was beset by psoriasis boils, gout and bladder stones. Schiff does not neglect Franklin's poor relations with much of his family, and his flirtations with French ladies, widowed and married. It's a wonder it all came out so well. Not a little of the credit goes to Franklin's skill as "a natural diplomat, genial and ruthless." When he was "rebuffed, he played hard to get"!
France ended up backing the colonies' successful revolution with men, arms, ships, and aid that would be worth $13 billion today. Americans who carp about Gallic "ingratitude" for their 1940s rescue might consider whether we were paying a 160-year-old debt.
With writing this good, it's startling to encounter a false note: more than once, Schiff uses "adverse" when "averse" is the word she wants. The book also shows rare but regrettable signs of sloppy editing. Franklin's grandson Temple is said to be 18 upon their arrival in Paris in mid 1777, but thirty pages and five months later he is 17. The news of Burgoyne's capture as a prisoner after the Battle of Saratoga is reported to hit Paris on Dec. 4, 1778, which is a year late.
Nevertheless, Schiff handles a broad array of characters and events with élan. Her book reads like a spirited production by Merchant-Ivory.