No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, October 30, 2009

#72: Song of Kali -- Dan Simmons

I am used to Americans and their reaction to our city. They will react in either one of two ways: they will find Calcutta 'exotic' and concentrate only on their tourist pleasures; or they will be immediately horrified, recoil, and seek to forget what they have seen and not understood. Yes, yes, the American psyche is as predictable as the sterile and vulnerable American digestive system when it encounters India. (p. 131)

1977: Robert Luczak, journalist and critic, travels to Calcutta with his Anglo-Indian wife Amrita and their baby daughter Victoria in search of the poet M. Das -- declared dead in 1969, but allegedly the author of a savage, obscene poem that's recently come to light.

Luczak is not a likeable fellow. He's racist, sexist, hypocritical and selfish in the extreme. He's a caricature of the American abroad (or perhaps of the whole colonial/imperial era), impatient and intolerant and all but blind to the different beauty of India.

The poverty on the streets, the interminable bureaucracy, the heat and the humidity are only the beginning of Luczak's disenchantment. His quest for the mysterious poet leads him into Calcutta's darkest side -- an undercity where religious rituals are enacted, where something waits in the darkness, and where Luczak is forced to remember some unsavoury episodes from his own past.

And yet it all seems facile: his life changes, but his essential nature does not. Even right at the end, when he's found a kind of healing in writing a bedtime storybook (a talking cat, a fearless and precocious mouse, a gallant but lonely centaur, and a vainglorious eagle who is afraid to fly. It is a story about courage and friendship and small quests to interesting places (p. 311)) there's a sense that he's just papering over the cracks, trying to block out the horror and violence of the real world.

On reflection, I wonder if there's a layer of subtlety that I missed on first reading: a friend remarked that Kali's the only god apparent in the story, but I wonder if some of the other characters are more than they seem -- the mysterious not-niece, the various guides ... Amrita, who saw herself as a ghost when she was seven and was happy, after that, to leave India behind.

This is Simmons' first novel, and I'm glad I became familiar with his later work first: I wasn't impressed by Song of Kali. It feels, sometimes, as though the author's missed the target -- I was hooked by Amrita's thoughts on different realities framed in terms of mathematical models, but that's never really picked up. And sometimes it feels all too grounded in personal experience, as though written by someone who'd been to India and had a bad trip (in one way or another) and was trying to exorcise it.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

#71: Measuring the World -- Daniel Kehlmann (translated by Carol Brown Janeway)

After six months in New Amsterdam, Trinidad, Humboldt had examined everything that lacked the feet and the fear to run away from him. He had measured the colour of the sky, the temperature of lightning flashes, and the weight of the hoarfrost at night ... [he] dug holes, dropped thermometers on long threads down wells, and put peas on drumheads. The quake would certainly begin again, he said cheerfully. Soon the whole town would be in ruins. (p. 56)

Alexander von Humboldt grows up in the shadow of his brilliant elder brother: their father is carrying out an experiment, raising one son as a man of culture and the other as a man of science. Young Alexander quickly works out that whenever things were frightening, it was a good idea to measure them. (p. 16). As a teenager, he's his own experimental subject for studies involving Galvinism (it wasn't easy to explain to the doctor what had been going on): from an early age, he goes through life certain that the trick of it is not to let anything get to him. Humbolt lives a swashbuckling life on the frontiers of science and geography: climbing mountains, rowing up the Orinoco, discovering oceanic currents, observing silver-miners at work beneath the unsettling mask of an ancient god.

Carl Friedrich Gauss is another infant prodigy, though born rather than moulded: he counts prime numbers when he's nervous. Numbers didn't seduce one away from reality, they brought reality closer, made it clearer and more meaningful in a way it had never been before. (p. 71) Awkward with people, he's wholly at home in the mathematical world: he finds himself wondering if the occasional anomalies he notices in physical laws are a sign of God's negligence.

The novel's mostly told from the two men's viewpoints, plus that of Humboldt's assistant the long-suffering Bonpland ("Oh hallelujah," he says when Humboldt interrupts a bout of altitude-induced vomitting to announce that they have now climbed higher than anyone in human history). It's a fascinating account of two very different lives in science, of two men gripped by scientific fervour and the need to know who go about their quest for knowledge in very different ways. There are parallels, congruences, differences and similiarities. Humboldt is uninterested in women (there's a hint, late on, that he's homosexual, but he doesn't do anything about that either): Gauss marries, but finds himself thinking of orbital eccentricities on his wedding night.

Humboldt's science is eighteenth-century science, with outmoded ideas: the sun would never burn out, it would renew its phlogiston and shine for ever (p. 187). He lectures on light-extinguishing ether and regards evolution as the greatest insult to mankind. Gauss, by contrast, seeks eternal truths: Whatever was hiding out there in holes or volcanoes or mines was accidental, unimportant. That wasn't how the world would become clear. (p. 212) And later, One didn't need to clamber up mountains or torment oneself in the jungle. Whoever observed the needle [an iron needle suspended in a galvanometer] was looking into the interior of the world. (p. 233)

Humboldt is the celebrity scientist, a supreme self-publicist: see to it that you get it into the newspaper. The world needs to learn of me. I doubt very much that I am of no interest to it. (p. 41). He's lauded in courts and sent on expeditions to distant lands, though he seldom has the freedom he craves, the freedom to study whatever captures his interest. Gauss, meanwhile, sits in a dark room in Göttingen, watching his needle, boxing his son's ears when the boy opens the door and disturbs the air.

Gauss enlists Humboldt's help in measuring magnetic variations: the two men strike up a kind of friendship, though neither understands the other, and indeed they grow to feel sorry for one another -- Gauss for Humboldt's lack of freedom, Humboldt for Gauss's hermit-like, confined existence. Only gradually, though, does Humboldt begin to appreciate that Gauss's mathematical certainties, his laws and rules and numbers, enable him to see further:
... all of a sudden he could no longer have said which of them had travelled afar and which of them had always stayed at home. (p. 252)

This is a rivetting insight into the scientific mind, and into the characters of two very different men. It's also beautifully written: kudos to the translator for a smooth, poetic, subtle rendition.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

#70: Lavinia -- Ursula Le Guin

His words were all the music of it, his words were its drumbeat, clack of the loom, tread of feet, oarstroke, heartbeat, waves breaking on the beach at Troy away across the world. (p. 44)

This is Le Guin's self-confessed 'act of gratitude to the poet, a love offering' to Vergil, whose Aenead this explores and transforms. In Vergil's poem, Lavinia -- Aeneas's last love, mother of his son -- is blonde and more than a little hysterical. But the poet's idea of Lavinia has given her a kind of life, distinct from any real Lavinia ("it confuses me to think about her") and not quite real enough. So she says. Le Guin's Lavinia is startlingly real, present, close: she reminds me of something I read (maybe Christa Wolf?) about the past, the people of the past, being so close, just in the next room or around the next corner ...

Which is not to say that Lavinia's any kind of anachronism. What impressed me most (though I am neither classicist nor historian) was the sense of a distant and different society, a world where religion (though not necessarily belief) was a part of everyday life, where the aristocracy were 'those who speak for [the] people to the powers of the earth and sky ... go-betweens' (p. 189). Where there's little distinction between that aristocracy and the other people of the city. Where 'city' is what we might term 'village'. Where a young girl in the woods might fear wolf and bear, but not man. Where Mars is first and foremost the god of boundaries, the god who sets the sword in the farmer's hand so that farmer can protect what is his.

That said, the gods are absent from this tale. Aeneas' mother (Venus) is never mentioned by name or nature. Aeneas himself doesn't speak of divine interventions at Troy. There is no sense that prayer is answered, or that the land is alive. At a point where something slightly supernatural might be going on, a bystander is confused: "he doesn't know if he saw an owl ... or if he saw something Turnus was seeing, that wasn't actually there." (p. 174)

There is a mystical element, the element of prophecy and foresight: primarily Lavinia's oracle, and the visions she sees in the dazzle of Aeneas's shield. Lavinia, like many of her father's lineage, can hear the voice of the local oracle. One evening the oracle brings her a vision of a poet, who speaks to her of Aeneas and her fate, and of how fate is what should happen, 'in spite of need. In spite of love.' It's not her only encounter with Vergil, and he is as important to her, when she looks back on her life, as Aeneas her husband and beloved.

something passed us perfectly silently and lay still ... A bird, I thought, they shot a bird, but I saw it was an arrow. It lay there with its long, bright bronze point and stiff clipped feathers, motionless. (p. 145)

Aeneas is a warrior, a man who murders like a butcher and is called 'hero': Lavinia knows the emptiness and the futility of war. (I don't know if the symbolic and ceremonial War Gate, standing alone in a field, opened as an announcement of the outbreak of war, is a real thing or not: "the gate that led nowhere, whether open or shut" (p. 164). It's a powerful image.) Knowing that to embrace Aeneas as her fated husband will bring war (in specific, with Turnus whom she's due to wed; in general, because Aeneas is a warrior) Lavinia follows her fate.

A friend asked why I'm so impressed with a book that's 'basically a feminist retelling of part of the Aenead'. No no no. I mean: yes, possibly, but the feminist twist isn't what draws me in, isn't the appeal. It is the utter verisimilitude of Lavinia, and simultaneously her own sense that she's not quite real, that she's a creation of the poet. The book is filled with her voice, first-person narration, and every word rings true: the calm simplicity of the language, as when she hears 'the poet's voice overlapping his as a sea wave running up the shore overtakes and overlaps the wave before it' (95). Nothing jars, nothing is wrong, but it's not all placid and comfortable either: defying her mother, she's 'false, frightened, incredulous, scornful and alone'. (101). The scorn makes her real: the loneliness makes us empathise.

I like Lavinia a lot. I like Le Guin's Aeneas (enough to want to go and read Vergil). I love Le Guin for writing this love-offering, this transformative work, this fan-fiction in the purest and most wholesome sense. And I like Vergil, still confused about some man he guided: "I met him in a wood ... a dark wood, in the middle of the road. I came up from down there to meet him ..." (p. 59)

in truth he gave me nothing but a name, and I have filled it with myself. (p. 241)

#69: The Light Ages -- Ian MacLeod

...aether is like no other element, and it shuns all physical rules. It is weightless, and notoriously difficult to contain. Purified, its wyreglow fills the darkness, but spills shadows in bright light. Strangest of all, and yet most crucial to all the industries and livelihoods it helps sustain, aether responds to the will of the human spirit ... with it, we are able to make things more thinly, more cheaply, more quickly and — it has to be admitted — often more crudely than the harsh and inconvenient rules of simple nature would ever allow. Boilers which would otherwise explode, pistons which would stutter, buildings and beams and bearings which would shatter and crumble, are borne aloft from mere physics on the aether-fuelled bubbles of guildsmen's spells. (p.30)

I liked Song of Time so was keen to read more of MacLeod's writing. The Light Ages didn't hook me to the same extent: I was fascinated by the worldbuilding, by the complexity and creativity, but ultimately felt there was too much going on and not enough happening. (If that makes any sense.)

The Light Ages is set in an England that isn't our own. I'd got the impression, from the blurb, that this was an alternate 17th-century: though quickly amending that assumption, it took me a while to work out just when it was set. (I'm guessing mid-to-late 20th century, though MacLeod's London feels more Victorian, more Dickensian.) Why should the period setting matter? It shouldn't -- except for the desire to ground oneself in time if not in other ways: because Light Ages England, after the discovery of aether, is vastly different to our own reality. (There is, for instance, no Father Christmas: instead, there's the hooved and masked Lord of Misrule who comes down from the moon on Christmas Eve with his cloak of leaves (p. 386). I can make sense of that in a world where the Industrial Revolution was shorter and stranger, where the last king was executed three centuries ago, where England is more insular.)

This is a novel about social change: about the changes wrought by aether (and the damage it does to individuals, possibly on a genetic level as well as more overtly) and about the changes wrought on society by aether, and the ills of that society and how they might be remedied. The economics of aether underlie the interactions of the characters: Robert Burrows, born in a northern town of parents who met at the Works; Annalise, changeling; Sadie, warm-hearted aristocratic daughter of a Greatgrandmaster of the Guild; George, another aristocrat with revolutionary leanings. For -- surely, they whisper on the streets, in the dreamhouses -- surely it's the end of the Third Age, surely it's time for a new age to dawn ...

There's a great deal in here about change, about appearance and reality, about living myth and magic and what might replace them: it's all beautifully written (I do love MacLeod's prose style) and strikingly inventive. I'm still trying to work out why it didn't hook me, and I suspect it's because I didn't click with any of the characters. I'm still looking forward to reading House of Storms, though!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

#68: Boating for Beginners -- Jeanette Winterson

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young the very heaven. Ur of the Chaldees looked less and less like an inhabited spittoon and more and more like Milton Keynes as the hours ticked by. Neighbours made friendly gestures and lent one another their lawnmowers, the dustbin men volunteered to return to work without their extra ten per cent, and the Socialist Worker Party Magazine painted their offices. It's extraordinary what Art can do. (p. 22)

The tale of Noah, his Ark and his God as you've never seen it before ... The Book of Genesis is translated to a modern(ish) setting, the Unnameable to a blasphemous joke and Noah himself to a entertainment entrepreneur with designs on famous romantic novelist Bunny Mix, noted for her improbable maquillage and her insistence on No Sex Before Marriage.

But the heroine is Gloria Munde, who has read just enough Northrop Frye (she was too naïve to understand that when a serious work is issued in paperback the publishers always use a misleading cover (p. 44)) to be dangerous and wants to start thinking in paragraphs, in joined up sentences, in metaphors.

they could play Charades, but not I Spy because it would have to begin with W after a while and everyone would guess the answer. (p. 136)

I confess Boating for Beginners made me laugh out loud: there's a great deal of arch, wry humour in here, though at times it's hard not to be caught between amusement and repulsion at the tawdry Seventies suburban feel of it all. There is a serious dimension to the satire, though: Winterson on the joy of non-linear texts, the stages of being and the almost-mythic powers of those who don't distinguish between themselves and the world; whether or not one should write books that '[fix] themselves into time, or books which [flout] the usual notion of time' (p. 100); an orange demon that pops out of nowhere to teach Gloria to be poetic as well as analytic ...

In further proof that Boating for Beginners doesn't take itself too seriously, it gets extra points for featuring, on the back cover, reviews that are ... differently good. "I could have done with a bit more of this" [Winterson 'seriously explaining the power of myth'] "and less jokes about fast food..." quoth Time Out: "If you find the Monty Python Life of Brian amusing, this is your comic book of revelations," The Times praised with faint damns.