THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT, by Alexander Chee. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 561 pp., $28.
Alexander Chee’s second novel, “The Queen of the Night,” has a plot so crammed with wild incident, shattering reversal and explosive emotion, one wonders if the author somehow got his hands on Alexander Dumas’ old munitions dump and emptied it of its contents. In a historical note, Chee says that the book “is meant as a reinvention” of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” but, except for the title and a few miscellaneous details, that doesn’t sit right. What is actually here is a resounding echo of the heavy artillery of mid-19th century European culture: the operas of Verdi and the novels of Dumas, Hugo, and Zola, minus the concern for social ills shown by the last two.
Passion, jealousy, betrayal and revenge spill over the pages. There are duels, disguises, impostures, fatal oaths, any number of elaborately planned assignations, a secret chamber, a convent and murder. Imperial jewels play a part; people thought to be dead show up alive; an escape from prison is effected by switching identities with a corpse; another getaway is made by balloon while Paris is burning and the Seine filling with slaughtered women. The enormous cast includes history’s own actors, among them Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie; the Countess of Castiglione — spy, diplomat, and mistress of the emperor; Prince Metternich; Giuseppe Verdi and his second wife, Giuseppina; and Georges Sand — to say nothing of sundry gallants, circus performers and ladies of the night, of the stage and of the salon. The big events of 1870-1871 are here: the Franco-Prussian War, fall of the Second Empire, the siege of Paris and the Commune.
At the center of this whirlwind of events and personnel is the woman we shall call Lillet Berne, a name she commandeered from a gravestone and will replace more than once for reasons she hopes to keep secret. When we first meet her, she is in Paris at the peak of her fame as a dazzling operatic soprano known by the sobriquet La Generale (whereby, of course, lies a tale). She has just learned that a writer called Simonet has written a novel based on her life, a work he hopes will be made into an opera with her in the leading role. But who can have betrayed the insalubrious secrets of her past? There are four possible culprits, and to these we are introduced along with the convoluted roles they have played in her zigzagging career. It is a journey that has led her from a Minnesota farm to the European continent; from circus, to servitude, prostitution, enslavement, celebrity and round again.
As the novel progresses on its vertiginous way, certain elements push their way to prominence: Lillet makes increasingly frenzied and desperate bargains with various characters and the gods to control her destiny, and it must be said that this becomes pretty hard to keep track of. Of far greater substance is her precious, possibly evanescent voice, with its character — she is a “falcon,” or dramatic soprano — its training and power. At one point she explains that “the first real lesson of singing” is that “you don’t choose the role, the role chooses you,” and explains that she knows she has succeeded when “it felt as if my throat were a spindle, the voice a thread, the stage some vast loom for something drawn from me in the air, where it caught and filled out to fit the shape of something greater, greater than all of us onstage.”
Overarching all is Lillet’s struggle for independence and self-definition, a part of which struggle is against fate, which is not especially convincing. More compelling is her refusal to accept her supposed lot in the real world: her social position, her role as plaything or creature of others. Even more radical is her repudiation of her own passions, which hold her in thrall to another. This contest for self-determination, waged on many fronts, is conducted at an emotionally high — one might say Verdian — pitch, but it is the element that makes “The Queen of the Night” a 21st century work. What is more, while the book does owe much to the extravagant spirit of mid-19th-century novels and operas, it pays its debt with grace. It is wonderfully free of the faintly smirking self-consciousness and knowingness that so often attends such ventures. It works on its own terms, boldly, lavishly, and, for the most part, successfully.