Is one of the pitfalls of being a writer that you read differently?
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve read Sarah Perry’s historical novel The Essex Serpent, two-thirds of Carlo Rovelli’s Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity – non-fiction, although parts of it read far more strangely than fiction – and playwright Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, set partly in 1809-1812 and partly in the present.
The Essex Serpent had dazzling reviews. I read it with great pleasure and interest, appreciative of Perry’s skill in imparting nuances of human interchange, her ability to write wonderfully creepy and dark-toned scenes, and her knowledge of the period (1893) – yet I was also aware that I wasn’t carrying the novel around with me (in a metaphorical sense). Why wasn’t I more moved by the various characters, Cora with her dark past and restless energies, the vicar with his rock-solid faith, the surgeon who pushed his skills to the limit, the crusading Martha, the unaffectionate Francis and warm-hearted Stella?
Was I resisting the omniscient narrator, the use of multiple points of view, the abundance of themes? I don’t think so. Do writers tend to read at one remove, alert to noticing, even analyzing, the deployment of exceptional skills? A mixed blessing, if so. Or was something else going on?
Sarah Perry was interviewed at the end of the book and made it clear she wanted Cora and Martha to correct the assumption that Victorian women were “feeble, fainting, fragile” creatures – these two characters thus came with an agenda (my own word), and perhaps for me that agenda got in the way? I asked my extremely well-read friend Mary Jo Anderson about her take on the book. She loved The Essex Serpent. It’s a novel of ideas, she said, a novel about reason at war with faith and with superstition. Not, for her, a “gut-wrenching” read with, say, the emotional power of Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End.
Book talk with good friends: one of the joys of life!
I read Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics shortly after it came out in English in 2015. The first of his lessons was about the general theory of relativity – and for a fraction of a second I got it, I understood what Einstein meant – and then, had you asked me three seconds later, I couldn’t have put words to that flash of comprehension. Never mind. It was there!
So I was delighted to come across Reality Is Not What It Seems, which carries you at greater depth and complexity into certain of those seven questions. Quantum mechanics claims that electrons, photons, even time and space are by nature granular, relational and indeterminate. Each (granular) quantum exists only when it collides (is in relation) with another of its kind, such collisions being unpredictable (indeterminate). In the gaps between such collisions, the quanta do not exist. Spacetime itself does not exist. Obviously on the macro level at which we live, we are not aware of this. The table is a solid table and oh no, I’m late for the dentist. But at the quantum level, the world is in ceaseless fluctuation and the future cannot be predicted.
I had high hopes after Rovelli described how our universe cannot be infinite that he would also clarify a limited universe. What is its boundary, its “edge,” and what’s “outside” it? My hopes were dashed by my own limitations. Einstein claims our three-dimensional universe is finite but has no boundary, his mathematics involving three-sphere geometry and spacetime’s curvature and I simply couldn’t grasp it. I desperately wanted Dr. Rovelli to drop in for tea – or a glass of wine – right there and then, and explain it to me.
However, I’m beguiled by the author’s enthusiasm and his wide knowledge of the classics; Democritus and Dante quite often become our guides. Now I’m about to enter the dark wood of quantum gravity and loop theory. Wish me luck. Plus a sky-high IQ.
Arcadia was our book club’s choice for November. I started it on my Kindle, was discouraged by several pages of what seemed like unredeemed farce, and did something I almost never do – went to the reviews before I finished reading. Brilliant, they said, amazing, dazzling, entirely terrific. Okay. Off to the library to pick up the actual book and begin again.
Perseverance paid off. Stoppard dances among fractals, chaos theory, the second law of thermodynamics, Lord Byron, landscape gardening, two gunshots, and the pretensions of modern-day academics. Reason clashes with emotion, the Classical temperament with the Romantic, the present misinterprets the past, and the universe, like the steam engine, loses heat as I turn the pages (although sex – the attraction that Newton neglected to include – does not). To top it all off, Stoppard is intelligently and deliciously witty.
Was part of my initial problem the very obvious fact that a play is written to be acted and that accomplished acting adds other dimensions to the work (remember Hamlet in an earlier blog?). As to the writers-as-readers question, I’ve added even more margin notes to Francine Prose’s wonderful Reading Like a Writer, a book I highly recommend.
A December hodge-podge: an historical novel that immerses me in another time, a play that plays with time, and a physicist’s ruminations that upset our notions of time…I love the way seemingly indeterminate reading (of seemingly solid books) can come together – can be relational, can carry me far beyond the bounds of the quotidian. Dare I say, into parallel universes?
May you be surrounded by books over the holidays.
Oh, all the books sound very interesting. Three to add to my lonngggg list of books to read. Thanks, Jill !
You know what they say, Dee: “So many books, so little time…” and it’s true. I always have piles of unread books – sometimes prioritized, sometimes not. But what a wonderful complaint to have!
Yes, three for me to read as well….better watch out though, old friend; next thing you know you’ll be reading Tolkien and Rowling….thin end of the wedge!
I read Tolkien a few years ago after the movies came out – and enjoyed them! Have you read “Lincoln in the Bardo” yet – weird and wonderful. I can lend you “Essex Serpent” now the blog is up!
Thanks as always for the comments, Carol.
Absolutely loved “Lincoln in the Bardo” – in fact, read it twice – and anything else George Saunders cares to offer. A unique and significant voice. He has a new book about writing coming out this spring, I hear. Thank you for this very astute and inspiring blog. Jill. I will look forward to it every week!
Thanks for the reviews, Jill. How astute of you to realize that the reason you weren’t carrying a couple of the characters from The Essex Serpent with you as you normally would was that the author had an agenda for those characters i.e. to show Victorian women as strong rather than feeble. It poses the question for me–how could Sarah Perry have written those characters more convincingly? How could she have persuaded you and other readers? I’m mulling those questions over, and perhaps I need to read the book myself to answer them. Raewyn.