Saturday, June 27, 2009

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

This is Paul Theroux's contribution to what he calls "the literature of revisitation", his own prose version of "Tintern Abbey" or "The Wild Swans at Coole", as he recreates the journey he took by train from London to central Asia in 1973 (as recounted in his bestselling book The Great Railway Bazaar). Travelling makes him feel like a ghost, he says, and "memory is a ghost train". Written in his characteristic aphoristic prose, Ghost Train is an enjoyable read, a meditation on ageing and change. The young Theroux regarded the world as his immutable playground, but this time around he encounters "an undependable world that was visibly spoiled" (although the now-famous Theroux does get to call in on Orhan Pamuk, Haruki Murakami and Arthur C Clarke). Ghost Train has an elegiac tone, as Theroux proves the truth of Heraclitus's dictum that nothing is permanent but change. Young people are boring and deluded and shallow, he concludes, whereas "only the old can really see how badly the world is ageing and all that we've lost".

Finding Moonshine by Marcus du Sautoy

"What's it all for?", Marcus du Sautoy was asked by a promising student who had decided to abandon higher mathematics to work in the City. This, and his impending 40th birthday, plunged him into a mild existential crisis. Why had he spent his life studying group theory and the problem of symmetry? Finding Moonshine answers that question. He once revelled in the unworldly nature of his subject, but now feels impelled to emphasise its relevance to our understanding of nature. The "non-mathematically sensitive" should probably avoid his discussion of the Monster (a huge symmetrical object first constructed in 1980) and moonshine (a modular function) - especially his mindbending observation that you can "see the moonshine glinting on the Monster" - and instead head for discussions of maths in music (Bach, Mozart, Xenakis). Maths is a "tribal" subject, Du Sautoy writes, and we are introduced to some eccentric members, one of whom hates being touched and mumbles "ooze" under his breath until he has cracked a problem.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

George Eliot: Novelist, Lover, Wife, by Brenda Maddox

Why do we still refer to Marian Evans as George Eliot? After all, the Brontë sisters have long since ceased to be known as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, and contemporaries such as Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Martineau proved that being female was no impediment to literary success. The short answer is that Evans wanted it that way. But as Brenda Maddox points out in this lively biography, the irrationality of maintaining a male pseudonym was obvious even in her lifetime. So why did she and her common-law "husband" GH Lewes strive "to keep up the fiction of George Eliot's maleness"?

Because, as Maddox explains, around the time when she first chose the pseudonym (inspired by the example of George Sand), Marian was living with Lewes, a married man, and had been ostracised from society, losing all her female friends. It was not her gender that she worried might harm sales of her books, but her reputation as a "fallen" woman. "The word for such a woman was unprintable," Maddox says, and indeed gossiping letter writers described the notorious Marian Evans as "a -----". She has successfully effaced herself ever since.

And what about that face? "I have no photograph of myself, having always avoided having one taken," she lied to her many fans. She was famously unattractive, and people were openly cruel about her appearance, which contributed to her lack of self-confidence. As she observed in Middlemarch: "We are all apt to believe what the world believes about us." Henry James called her a "great horse-faced bluestocking", but he also noted that "in that vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind so that you end as I ended, falling in love with her". There was something about Marian. The man she finally married, John Cross, 20 years her junior, jumped into Venice's Grand Canal on their honeymoon to escape consummating their marriage. Yet he remained her most devoted disciple and, when the 61-year-old novelist died six months later, he became her first biographer.

Some will find Maddox's interest in Marian's sex life unseemly; others will be offended by her thesis that Marian was transformed into a great novelist through the love of a good man. Others will deprecate her interest throughout in just how much cash the George Eliot brand generated: in one year alone, The Mill on the Floss brought in £271,000 in today's money. Maddox's analysis of the novels is minimal. Instead, she focuses on Marian Evans, the great woman behind George Eliot, a woman who learned to relish the role society forced on her of, in her words, "heathen and outlaw". For not only was Marian Evans the "first great godless writer of fiction" in England (as one contemporary put it), but she was also "a -----".

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Happy Bloomsday One and All!

"Miss Dunne clicked on the
-- 16 June 1904."
Ulysses ("Wandering Rocks")

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Semi-Invisible Man: The Life of Norman Lewis by Julian Evans

Semi-invisible because he "was absolutely dead against publicity" - a risky tactic that might have worked for JD Salinger and Thomas Pynchon but sadly backfired for Norman Lewis (1908-2003). Yet Graham Greene once described him as "one of the best writers, not of any particular decade, but of our century". Though he wrote novels, he is best known for his travel books, such as A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Indo-China, Naples '44 and Voices of the Old Sea. In this authorised biography, Julian Evans, Lewis's friend and editor, compares the author's diaries and notebooks with the writing to show how he often embellished the truth - a process of "creative recollection". This is an erudite, slightly self-conscious biography by a man who feels the weight of his responsibilities, so you might want to discover the writer himself before tackling this well-written and exhaustive life. Lewis, a restless, randy character, never lost his contempt for his native Enfield, and brilliantly personified what Baudelaire called la haine du domicile et la passion du voyage.

Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China by Simon Winchester

There's a certain intimidating grandeur about a book that takes a lifetime to write. Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China occupies 24 volumes - the first appeared in 1954 and more are planned, even though he died in 1995 - and he typed it all with only two fingers. Simon Winchester's account of how this magnum opus came into being (no one volume should be "too big for a man to read comfortably in his bath", Needham reasonably maintained) is just as enjoyable a read as the remarkable tale of how a married Cambridge academic's affair with a young Chinese woman in 1937 diverted him from studying biochemistry to chronicling China's 5,000-year history of invention and innovation. The Chinese, it seems, invented almost everything before us, yet despite Needham's tireless research, sinologists still don't know why they stopped. Did totalitarianism stifle China's inventors and entrepreneurs? The story of Needham's eccentric life - not least how he became persona non grata in the US - is gripping stuff, even if we are never likely to open his life's work.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Letter to D: A Love Story by André Gorz, translated by Julie Rose

In this short book (a surprise bestseller in France in 2006) the social philosopher André Gorz declares his love for his wife Dorine, while also outlining his own intellectual trajectory, from his critique of capitalist society to his work in political ecology. It was love at first sight when Gorz and Dorine met in Paris in 1947: he an Austrian Jew, she an English rose. They married in 1949 and she encouraged him while he laboured for six years writing a long manuscript that not even his friend Jean-Paul Sartre could get published. “Your life is writing,” said Dorine, encouragingly. “So, write.”

In Letter to D. Gorz wants to extract the “poison” from his previous depiction of Dorine in his first published work, The Traitor (1957), where she is “mutilated, totally misrepresented, humiliated”. That book was supposed to affirm the transformative power of love, but actually represented love as a weakness. Gorz portrayed Dorine as needing him more than he needed her, whereas the reverse was true. To set the record straight, the fragile, clingy girl of The Traitor is replaced here by an intelligent, vivacious woman on whom he is totally dependent: “You opened up the richness of life for me and I loved life through you.”

Now that they are both in their eighties, Gorz feels that he hasn’t properly lived his life, having developed only one side of himself – his intellect – whereas Dorine has “blossomed and grown in every dimension”. In 1973 she was diagnosed with a degenerative disease and Gorz applauds her principled refusal of aggressive “medical technoscience”, preferring yoga and alternative medicine. “Only one thing was essential to me: to be with you,” he writes, and he has no desire to be present at her funeral. The book’s conclusion – knowing that a year later Gorz and Dorine committed suicide together – is guaranteed to bring a lump to the throat.