Aaron Burke's Reviews > The Pride and the Sorrow

The Pride and the Sorrow by Matt Fullerty
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Jul 01, 2012

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"The Pride and the Sorrow" is a generally well-done if raw historical novel on eccentric 19th century U.S. chess master Paul Morphy. Competent stylistically, surreal in parts, author Matt Fullerty captures the humid, languorous 1850s New Orleans French Quarter mood and mores with humor. Unfortunately, the novel tends to be about the people around Paul Morphy instead of Morphy himself. The otherwise fascinating Morphy is only seen tangentially. This is disappointing as we acquired Fullerty's book because of our interest in Morphy. Fullerty's Morphy is more mope than myth, an incomplete shadow of a man. Whether this was intentional or simply timid writing is unclear. Why not take on some of the leading Morphy issues head on? For example, was Morphy a homosexual? Was he terrified of women? Was Morphy's jurist father physically and emotionally abusive? Was his slave-trading grandfather a 19th Century syndicate godfather figure, actually running elaborate pirate shipping and swindling syndicates? Were Morphy's anti-successionist and lukewarm Confederate loyalties destructive to his law practice? Throughout the novel, Fullerty is more comfortable describing the thoughts and actions of Paul's surrounding cast than Morphy himself.

Morphy's childhood and school days are well-presented and draw readers in. However, Morphy's ascent to the apex of the chess world is disappointing. The chess tournaments and matches are boring, flat, and somewhat trite. There is no excitement to Morphy's European chess adventures in 1858-59 in the way that they came alive in Frances Parkinson Keyes' historical novel on the same subject.

While historical novelists can take liberties with established facts for dramatic purposes (Keyes certainly did), Fullerty seems to mold Morphy's actual life without any clear dramatic pay-off. While Paul's grandfather built the Chartres Street house (now the Beauregard-Keyes House), and Paul's family lived there before moving to the larger Royal Street mansion (now Brennan's Restaurant), Paul hardly lived on Chartres Street into his college days. Fullerty also adopts and adds silly myths to Morphy's achievements when Paul's actual career was fascinating enough in itself. Morphy began playing chess at age 10, and almost certainly never defeated General Winfield Scott at age 8. Also, Morphy was extremely well-read on the chess literature and games of his day, and did not simply "summon" his gifts from the chess goddess, although Fullerty clearly has fun with the chess goddess "Caissa." By the way, does Fullerty really think that chessmasters or grandmasters shout "check" and "checkmate" at each other during serious match games?

The (Katrina-like) hurricane that devastated New Orleans toward the end of Morphy's life makes for compelling reading. Indeed, after a strong start, the novel finds itself again in the last chapters as Morphy and his harlot fantasy woman finally have an actual relationship. Unlike other writers, Fullerty boldly takes on some of the grimmer demons haunting Morphy's family such as suicides, alcoholism, profligacy, and insanity. The book's appropriately bleak ending features Fullerty's most compelling writing and is worth the wait. It's just too bad there wasn't more of a focus on Morphy himself.
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message 1: by Tom (new)

Tom Well written and insightful comment.


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