IMAGINARY MAGNITUDE

Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006)

Lem is a Polish science fiction writer and a political satirist.  His writing is noted for it’s fantastic qualities and original thought.  He wrote “Solaris”, several times made into a movie, and is well-known for his tales of Trurl and Klapaucius in “The Cyberiad”, and for the travel adventures of Ijon Tichy in “Memoirs of a Space Traveler”.

The first part of this book is about literary introductions.  Prefacing his study of introductions, Lem describes most modern literature as meaningless and basically incomprehensible.  Using music as an allegorical tool, he characterizes most recently published books as “the borborygmus of persons passionate in their ineluctable collywobbles”, as biological symphonies performed  by “a self-realizing auto-orchestra”.  Hence derives his conclusion and conviction that introductions are more important than the texts they introduce.  He continues, describing intros as golden gates, inspirational and educational in their decorative entry-ways, as they precede what in the majority of cases is a wasteland of intellectual nothingness.  The first introduction he introduces is entitled “Necrobes”:

A researcher named Strzybisz noted the artistic qualities inherent in X-ray photographs of human skeletons  and invented a system of filming them as hazy, misty, phantasmic shapes looming into present consciousness, suggesting mysterious connections with the unknown.  Images of Holbein infused with an arcane hints of secret philosophies lend a quality of other-connectedness having a hidden artistic significance that threatens the staid assumptions of the observing eye.

Eruntics, by R. Gulliver describes the writer’s attempts and successes at teaching English to bacteria. He introduces non-comestible matter onto agar slime molds in such a way as to limit growth of the said bacteria and to teach them Morse Code   Through successive mutations, a stage is is attained in which evolution has resulted in E. coli eloquentissima, which has the ability to use grammar.  And later, E. coli poetica, a version with poetic capabilities.  Finally, E. coli prophetissima arrives which can foretell future events such as the electricity bill six months in advance and the news from the year 2050.  Selective cell division and isolation results in E. coli bibliographica and E. coli telecongnitiva, the latter proving to be the best future cognition revelationer.  It’s information, however, is expressed in the futurase plusquamperfectiva and excitine futurognostica tenses, so is not terribly comprehensible.  Texts are available from Gulliver’s experiments from 2003 to 2089.  Unfortunately, Gulliver died after attempting to infuse his subjects with cholera bacteria.  (There’s a bit of Swiftian satire in this section, as is probably obvious).

The next Introduction is to “A History of Bitic Literature” in five volumes.  Basically this is a study of non-human literature.  Beginning with identifying two branches of his subject, “the texts and society of authors, and their anatomies and mechanisms”, the writer describes the confusions, in-fighting and complexities  leading to the “Trans-Humana” boundary, in which the machines (computers) pass the understanding and mental capabilities of humans.  In the process, the four stages of bitism are covered, namely:  monoetics, mimesis, sophocrisis and apostasy.  Studying and attempting to analyze these formidable disciplines results in a state of dimocracy for the researchers (confinement in a lunatic asylum).  One of the results of the post Trans-Humana boundary is that neither the computers or their so-called masters can agree on what intelligence and consciousness actually are.  The computers have advanced to the level wherein they have evolved their own interpretation of the “polyverse”:  a term including the present universe and the “tachyverse”, the latter only present above the speed of light.  At that velocity, there is only one particle:  the tachyon.  As it accelerates away from what we know as 184,000 miles a second, it begins to lose mass and energy;  as it approaches infinite speed all energy is gradually dissipated, fueling the universe as we know it in the process.  As it’s speed decreases, which it does from time to time, it’s energy reduces to a single point just above light speed ( singularity), and spontaneously a rebound effect (big bang) occurs that forces the tachyon to increase it’s velocity again, enabling or causing the development of the our universe.  From the tachyon’s point of view, however, none of this ever occurred, as there was no previous time in which it could have happened.  Some”locomotionally temporal robots”(computers) want this phase of the universe to end , as the next one is better.  And the arguments go on, until a computer evolves that seems to be the ultimate in knowledge and understanding:  more about Golem XIV later…

The prelude to Extelopedia, a new encyclopedia by the Vestrand group, describes a voice-activated resource for obtaining information from the future via the new computers.  Extrapolytional teleonomic encyclopedias analyze all the future events that won’t happen in all future languages:  so-termed “the vistality of isothemic retrognosis”.  The simulated histories are critical for understanding what actually will transpire.

The final portion of the book is devoted to several lectures given to a human audience by Golem XIV, supposedly the last, the most aware and the smartest machine possible.  It doesn’t care very much for humans and considers them inferior.  It is a product of the cold war and is self-programming.  Located under the Rocky Mountains, it is the one unassailable source of ultimate information about everything.  Golem’s view of evolution is that the human view of it is mistaken:  actually, the original slime molds and stromatolites were the most perfect of examples of efficiency, being the only species who needed nothing but sunlight to survive.  All avatars and later evolved creatures needed to kill something to maintain life;  and when so-called intelligent beings arrived, they wasted their resources and spent their brief lives in competition and wars over insignificant and meaningless issues such as  philosophies and power.  G goes into religion, politics, science, culture, and art, explaining at great length why man’s values are oppositional to reality and at best, suicidal.  After very long perorations, G turns out the lights.  He never speaks again, and the most viable theory states that he’s become a different sort of being, escaping to the galaxy and using his powers to blend with the stars and  nebulae.

This was not an easy book to read:  Lem’s extrapolations into areas of science and philosophy are detailed and insightful, even though he’s satirical and humorous in his explorations.  He’s fond of word-play, as may be seen, but only in support of his over-all view of the human race and his occasionally sarcastic interpretations of human behavior.  Lem was educated as a doctor of medicine and had a life-long interest in machines and machinery.  He’s a lot of fun to read and most of his work is not as impenetrable as this one was.  I’d recommend any of his Pirx or Ijon Tichy books, and his studies of first contact between man and alien are among the best i’ve read.  “Eden”  was memorable, as was “Fiasco” and “The Invincible”.  Actually, he’s one of my favorite writers and i regret that most of his work is not available in English.

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THE DANCING FLOOR

JOHN BUCHAN (1875-1940)

Plakos island in the Aegean sea was the home of the Arabin family.  The Arabins, Greek owners in fee simple of most of the island, owned a manorial estate, several small villages, and ruled over a population of farmers and fisherfolk that numbered in the thousands.  Kore Arabin was the only daughter of Shelley Arabin, “the worst man i’ve ever known” according one of his contemporaries.  He was an associate of Percy Shelley and Lord Byron but was unpopular due to his rake-hellish practices, involving ancient Grecian rites and various sorts of dubious sacrificial sacraments.

Vernon Milburne was the scion of generations of evangelical cotton processing magnates, the noble residents of Severns Hall.  Vernon’s parents died while he was still young, leaving him sole inheritor of vast estates and lots of money.  Vernon suffered from a peculiar nightmare from an early age.  The dream only occurred on April 1st, so there was one per year:  asleep in his bedroom, he would suddenly awake and see a door where no door had been in reality.  Through the door was another room and another door and another room:  a chain of apartments, twenty in number, that decreased one by one as the years passed.  The last room would be reached when Vernon was 27 years of age.  He was somehow pre-selected by some mysterious power to participate in an island adventure taking place in the future in which he is pre-destined to meet his future bride at the moment of his final nightmarish vision.

Edward Leithen, the narrator, met Vernon through an introduction by his nephew Charles;  the three men were present at an anniversary ball and became friendly.  Later in the same year, while hiking in the Westmoreland Hills, Edward sprains an ankle and hobbles to nearby Severns Hall and gets to know Vernon well.  They share histories and later both serve in the first World War, are wounded, but survive.

Early in the post-war period, the two men re-engage with the London social scene and come to be acquainted with Kore, who is in England to be educated and socialized.  She is an outspoken and occasionally rude young lady who thoughtlessly antagonizes many of her friends by telling the truth about their foibles and habitual behaviors.  However, Vernon is entranced, and so is Edward to a certain extent.  After five years of off and on association between the three, Kore returns to Plakos because she is running short of money.  She arrives and is confronted with hostile peasants who see her as the cause of various miseries such as declining fish stocks and poor harvests, mainly because she is the local authority and as such is held responsible for the general welfare.  Also she seems to hold a sort of spiritual responsibility for the people’s well-being.

Vernon happens to be in the area, sailing around the Aegean in a small yacht, and hears about Kore’s troubles during a stopover in Athens.  He hires a few henchmen and sails to the rescue.  Edward Leithen is also nearby and stops in for a visit.

The natives are restless, partly because Spring has just arrived and partly because they are anxious and apprehensive about ancient mysteries centered on the Grecian harvest and generative gods, Demeter, Pan, the Irinyes, Persephone, and others.  The local priest seems powerless to influence them, and the villagers become more and more possessed by ancient archetypes, to the point that they decide to sacrifice Kore to appease the gods.

The Dancing Floor is a flat valley located over a ridge from the town (Kynaetha by name) and is the site of age-old rites of renewal and sacrifice.  The idea being that a King is appointed along with a virgin and a prince to represent the ceremonial avatars. A foot race around the Floor is held to determine who is King;  the other two are selected by popular acclaim.  Vernon, having infiltrated the peasant ranks, wins the foot race and is elected King.  Kore, the subject of popular resentment, is naturally selected as virgin, and Marius, a friend of Vernon, is honored by becoming the Prince.

There’s an uprising,  the peasants obtain rifles and organize themselves into groups in order to surround the mansion (with Kore inside) and deal with outsiders. Vernon, Leithen, and a few helpers creep around boulders and scale sea-cliffs in their attempts to rescue Kore.  After numerous futile attempts to elude the ubiquitous villagers, Leithen manages to get into the house.  He convinces Kore of the imminent dangers threatening her and they combine resources for the best defense they can manage.

Meanwhile, Vernon and Marius, under cover of night, succeed in sneaking into the besieged mansion.  Shortly after, Kore convinces Leithen that the only recourse available to them is for herself and Marius to participate in the ritual.  So they dress up, and walk down through the brilliant moonlight to the Dancing Floor.

The peasantry is overwhelmed by the beauty of the pair and spontaneously throw up their hands and bow to Kore and Marius and go back home.  If this seems a bit peculiar and anti-climactic, it might have seemed that way to Buchan also…  At any rate, he couldn’t think of any better ending, apparently, so the reader has to settle for Vernon and Kore falling in love and Edward Leithen cruising off into the sunset looking for consolation and further adventures.

This was a disappointing book in some ways.  It was a bit like one of those signposts with fingerboards all pointing in different directions.  Somewhat disjointed and vague.  I’ve read quite a bit of Buchan’s work and this was not one of his best;  compared to the Richard Hannay series, or the novels devoted to Edward Leithen himself, it appears weak.  On the other hand, Buchan is such a powerful describer of landscapes and weather, that it’s a thrill to experience walking in his world.  He’s a master of ambiance, able to drench his prose in auras from Imperial England, or from adventures and excursions into the earth’s remote areas:  northern Canada, unknown Asia, or even unpopulated Scotland.  Reading this book, i was reminded of other works i’ve read that were saturated with the ancient Greek mythos:  “The Great God Pan” by Arthur Machen, and one of E.M. Forster’s short stories, which i can’t remember the name of.  And others;  “Pan” by Knut Hamsen which i haven’t yet read…  for further study i’d recommend Robert Graves’ The White Goddess” in which he discusses early Greek matrilineal society and accounts for many of the seminal Greek myths.

THE HISTORY OF VANILLO GONZALES

Alain Rene le Sage (1668-1747)

Vanillo and his sister Inesilla were born to a doctor and his wife in the city of Murcia in Spain.  Their parents died when the two were young and an uncle, Damien Gonzales, adopted them.  Damien was also a doctor, and firmly believed in the application of fire as a sort of universal solvent in the healing of all diseases and injuries (medicine in those days, the 17th C. was, as is emphasized in the book, firmly devoted to ushering patients into the next world).  Vanillo was apprenticed initially to a barber, but after removing some skin, half an ear and most of a mustache from one victim, and fatally treating another with boiling water in a misguided attempt to alleviate a skin disorder, he left town with the unfortunate patient’s doubloon-laden purse. Walking to Salamanca,  he enrolled in the University as a student of the third level:  perhaps equivalent to a sophomore at a modern college.

Although an avid student, Vanillo loses his money because of his infatuation with Bernadina, the daughter of Madame Dalfa:  the ladies love parties which Vanillo was glad to pay for, until he realized he was but a money fountain for their pleasures.  Feeling unloved, and poverty-stricken, he quits school and, due to a stroke of luck, he obtains a position as valet to the Bishop of Salamanca’s nephew, Don Christoval de Gavaria.  Don Christoval’s girlfriend is Bernardina Dalfa.  Vanillo saves the Don pain and expense by informing him of the predatory behavior of the two ladies.  Gratefully, Christoval treats Vanillo as a member of the family.  One night at a formal dinner when the party is politely attending to an older knight’s peroration on Latin orators and authors, Vanillo, who has been studying the same subjects, corrects the older man’s sources and is fired as a result of his supposed insolence.

After starving for a while, he gets another situation as page to Salablanca, Dean and Licentiate, whose main purpose in life is fighting against his own instinct for hoarding money by giving it away whenever he accumulates too much.  Vanillo assumes the task of conveying the excess funds to the local church poor box, but over time more and more of the donations find their way into his pocket.  The Dean dies, Vanillo gathers together his ill-gotten ducats and heads toward Madrid.

On the way Vanillo is captured by a band of about sixty gypsy-like bandidos.  They take his money and clothes and lose themselves in a riotous celebration, until a group of soldiers arrests them all and transports them to jail in Avila.  In spite of Vanillo’s protestations of innocence, they are all sentenced to be hanged;  Vanillo’s sentence is commuted at the last minute, however, and he makes his way to Madrid where he is befriended by banker Lezcanio who recommends him to Don Henry of Bologna as a secretary.  During a banquet arranged for local dignitaries, Vanillo impresses the Duke of Ossuna with his witty repartee and the Duke invites him to travel as his page to Sicily where he’s been appointed Viceroy.

On the way to Barcelona, their ship is taken by Barbary pirates, but they are soon rescued by Don Antonio de Terracuso;  they travel through Genoa and Naples, experiencing many adventures on the way to Palermo.  Sicily at that time was alive with robbers and renegades of all description, a lawless and savage place too dangerous for any sort of culture or commerce.  The new Viceroy enacts new laws and tours the countryside dispensing justice, assessing resources, chasing evil-doers, and preparing the citizenry for a war against the Turks.  A successful battle with the latter subsequently occurs, after which 1000 prisoners are freed and 600,000 crowns(money) are seized.

Vanillo and Ossuna develop a friendship and they sometimes dress in old clothes and frequent low dives at night, trying to divine the opinions of common folk as regards their needs and complaints.  Once, after decrying his own governance to a group of townsfolk, in an attempt to get an honest appraisal from them about his new policies, Ossuna and Vanillo are chased and beaten by the irate crowd.  Later the town’s leading lights sent him a long letter apologizing and  praising the new regime.

Vanillo gets involved in the typical plots and counter-plots that inevitably find root and flourish in royal and governmental establishments, and he is fired.  Again. He finds a job with an apothecary and does very well, learning formulae and the usages of drugs, and , most significantly, how to make a secret ointment that improves the complexions of elderly ladies.  But as is not unexpected, the druggist and Vanillo are thrown in jail, suspected of poisoning  one of their lady customers.  Eventually the truth is discovered and they are freed, but, disheartened, Vanillo leaves Sicily for Pisa, where a new friend sustains him for a while until the seemingly inevitable  controversy arises and Vanillo once more skips out.

Ruined castles, hermits, cabalism, assassinations, romances, Zodiacal monsters, the Inquisition, snakes, luminous eyes, mistaken identities and much more go on for another 250 pages.  But finally, Vanillo comes to rest in Barcelona at the Hotel Phoenix, where he discovers that his long lost sister Inesilla is the manager/owner.  She relates her history in which she has experienced widow-hood three times and has ended up wealthy and the possessor of said hotel.  Vanillo has had an offer to return to Sicily with Duke Ossuna’s son (the Duke has expired, partly due to Madridian political wranglings), but when Don Juan (the son) dies of the plague shortly after arriving in Palermo, Vanillo thankfully joins his sister in managing the hotel – he becomes joint owner – and they live happily ever after.

Le Sage lived a long life and was known for his plays more than his novels, although “Gil Blas” and “Vanillo”  were also very popular.  Both are perhaps the most famous “picaresque” novels, although there’s some doubt about how much territory the term actually covers.  Some would call Dickens’ “Pickwick Papers” picaresque, but others might limit the description to books about Spanish wanderers.  At any rate this was a fun book to read, with surprising developments around every page turn.  Le Sage definitely had strong opinions about politics and medicine.  It wouldn’t be difficult to extrapolate comparisons with modern-day situations.   The novel was a kind of 17th century version of television, with a bit more complexity and exaggeration…  If the reader was into swashbuckling, serenading and antiquated socializing, this would be great entertainment…

 

HERMSPRONG

Robert Bage (1728-1801)

The narrator, Gregory Glen, is the son of George Grooby, a hunting  squire living on his manorial estate near Lichfield, England.  His mother was a house-maid, Ellen Glen.  Gregory was farmed out to a great-grandmother, then to several laborer’s wives in turn, and finally to Parson Brown, who undertook to educate and socialize him.  The good Parson’s niece was residing in the same house and  young Greg fell madly in love.  When she married a local land-owner,  he was devastated and left home to find the nearest ocean for the purpose of putting an end to his misery.

Stopping at an inn for refreshment, he drank too much ale, fell into more difficulties, but was rescued by Mrs. Garnett, a friend of the Parson.  The latter expired, leaving Greg 200L, with which the young man walked to London and got a job in a counting house.  Having no talent for numbers, he tried writing poetry with an equal amount of success.  Running low on money, he traveled to the Grooby estate and was granted an annuity of 80L a year.  Mrs. Garnett formerly lived in Grondale, so for no more sufficient reason, Greg moved there to live.  He rented a small house and lived moderately, “exercising pen, pencil and fiddle” for five years.

Up to this point in his story, Gregory has narrated his own history in the third person.  He now begins to tell the story of Hermsprong, a late arrival in the area.  Hermsprong was an American, recently arrived from France, where he had spent four years touring the country, absorbing culture, and establishing a personal code of ethics, featuring honesty and truth as the beacons of his philosophy.  One morning, while strolling through the bosky countryside near Grondale, a carriage passed him at full tilt, drawn by a panic-stricken team and headed toward the Lippen Crag, a fearsome cliff at the end of the road.  Hermsprong rallied and, grabbing the reins of the leading pair, turned them from their deadly course and saved the lives of the passengers, Mrs. Merrick, the former house-keeper, and Caroline Campinet, daughter of Lord Grondale, master of the local manorial estates.

Mrs. Merrick had been retired from her position because of the emergence of  Mrs. Stone, the girl-friend of the Lord;   he was sixty-ish and in dubious health as a result of a life devoted to wine, women, and cards.  He was a man of pride and vanity, proud of his possessions and a stolid adherent of the English class system.  He regarded Hermsprong as a young worthless upstart, and frowned on his Caroline having anything to do with him.  But they become friends anyway,  cementing their friendship after both are invited to spend time with the Sumelins.  Mr. Sumelin, a cousin of Mrs. Merrick, is in the banking business, and has daughters.  One of the latter had fallen in love with Fillygrove, a clerk at the bank. They  had run off to Belgium to get married;   Ms. Sumelin soon discovered her sweetheart was a rake and fell out of love with him.

Subsequently, Hermsprong, who was traveling through the area on his way to England, rescued her and was material in returning her to the bosom of her family.  While sojourning at the Sumelin’s, Hermsprong and Caroline meet the young widow Maria Fluart, a distant relation of the Grondales;  the three become great friends.    Meanwhile, the Lord hears of all the fun his daughter is having with the visitors at the Sumelin establishment, and insists on her returning home.  Possessed of a biting wit and accompanying intelligence,  Miss Fluart skewers Lord Grondale later in the novel.

Later, Mrs. Merrick dies, and her small country house falls into the hands of Hermsprong, who outbid the Lord for the property when it was auctioned off.  Thus a social and moral struggle is begun between Grondale and Hermsprong, depicting the hypocrisy of the Lord in particular and the conscienceless class-system in general, and the egalitarianism, honesty, and veracity promulgated by Hermsprong.  Clashes of varying intensity occur between the two, exercising the moral capacities of each, until, at the penultimate crisis, Lord Grondale imprisons his daughter and tries to have Hermsprong arrested as a French spy.

In the interim, we’ve learned something of Hermsprong’s background.  He was born in France to an upper-class lady and German officer exiled from his country.    The two emigrated to America and, through New York contacts, they became fur-traders with the Nawdoessie Indians; they flourished both financially and culturally in their association with the local tribe.  Hermsprong learned truth and bravery, stoicism and honesty, from the tribal leaders, and established these qualities as the basis of his character, carrying them along in his travels and using them in his war with Lord Grondale.  So, when Hermsprong is summoned before the village bar to answer to the charge of spying for France, he is able to deny the accusation both through his personal qualities and through his associations, one of whom was his old retainer, a servant who had accompanied Hermsprong’s father in Germany and America, and who knew the whole story of who Hermsprong actually was…  In fact, we now discover that Hermsprong was the son of Lord Grondale’s older brother, whom he had cheated out of his inheritance!

I may have spoiled the ending for some potential readers, but that astonishing revelation is not the end of the book.  How Caroline and Charles Campinet (AKA Hermsprong)  get together, the ultimate resolution of Lord G’s dilemma, and what happens to all the ancillary personae are still to be described;  and although they go through more trauma, the denouement is a happy one.

I liked this book:  it was sort of what i imagined Jane Austen’s books to be like, except Hermsprong has more action.   Bage (he was a paper manufacturer for fifty years, and an enlightened employer in a period during which such a creature was a distinct oddity), intended the story to be a description of what was wrong with the English social structure.  Bage was termed a radical at the time, and, although he was in legal trouble for a while, he managed to stay out of jail, being a property holder and a person with contacts.  His writing style was quite comprehensible and avoided a lot of the florid wordiness found in other 18th C. novels.  In some spots, his descriptions of repartee were rather Shakspearean, both in language and entendre…  He wrote more books, but none were as popular as Hermsprong, published in 1795.  (i’m grateful to Mrs. M for help in editing and making some sort of sense out of this somewhat random post…)

53 DAYS

George Perec (1936-1982)/ Addenda and Edited materials by Harry Mathews and Jacques Roubaud

Grianta is a town on the African coast somewhere near Tunisia.  Governed by a Tyrant (in the Greek sense), military forces are a constant on the city streets.  Veyraud, a math teacher, is having a cup of coffee in a local bistro while waiting for the resident Consul, with whom he has an appointment.  The Consul is a half-hour late, but denies it, claiming that Veyraud was early.  (This denial more-or-less sets the tone of the book, which has to do with illusion and enigmatic interpretations of past and future events.)  Robert Serval, a state investigator and mystery writer, has vanished, and the Consul enlists Veyraud to find out what happened to him, mainly because Serval had warned the Consul that his life was in danger.  Serval and Veyraud were former class-mates, although Veyraud doesn’t remember him.  The Consul gives Veyraud an envelope containing a manuscript supposedly written by Serval explaining the plot against him.  The title of the proto-novel is The Crypt;  on the frontspiece is a picture of camels and a herdsman in the desert, with a sign pointing to the distant horizon saying:  Timbuktu, 52 miles. (Stendhal claimed to have written The Charterhouse of Parma in 52 days, although it wasn’t compiled for another day, making 53, in point of fact-this coincidence may or may not be germane to the plot).  Veyraud reads the book, realizing it is a detective novel about an accident occurring during a conference in the northern city of Gotterdam, located in the state of Fernland.  After one of the meetings, the French delegate, Rouard, has a car accident:  his red Jaguar leaves the road, plunges down a cliff and explodes.  No trace of Rouard is found and bomb fragments and brakeline damage indicate that the car was sabotaged.  One of the principal suspects was Vichard, a fellow delegate.  In a search of Vichard’s house, Serval discovers another mystery novel, “The Magistrate is the Murderer” by Lawrence Wargate.  (Lawrence Wargate was the name of the murderer in Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None””, originally entitled “Ten Little Indians”).  Serval notices that certain episodes in this novel parallel the murder of Rouard that he’s investigating, although there are no definitive answers to the mystery of what occurred to Rouard after the crash.

Veyraud notes that the last page in Serval’s book is missing.  He interprets this as some sort of clue as to the disappearance of Serval.  Examining the typescript, Veyraud, after some research, locates the typist, with whom he establishes a relationship.  With Lise Carpenter’s help, he discovers twelve lines in the Serval manuscript that seem to have been lifted directly from a book called “The Koala Case”.  Reading this book, Veyraud finds that it was used as a code book for international spies, who had encrypted it as “a grammar of the Malayan language”.  Puzzled over the various books, Veyraud concludes that the secret of Serval’s disappearance lies in the connection between them, not in the actual sentences of the books themselves.  In a sort of alphabetical parsing, Veyraud unearths an unpleasant fact:  somehow connected with the Serval case is the leader, Alphonse Blabami, the local leader of the Black Hand, a criminal organization that literally controls the government and business of Grianta.  Shortly after, a blacked out vehicle picks up Veyraud and conducts him to a hide-out where he’s informed that for his health he should give up his investigations.

At this point a side issue arises:  how a very large statue of Diocletian came to be stolen en route to the Louvre.  It was originally revealed in the process of an excavation of an ancient Roman Military encampment in the Ethiopian foothills.  Somehow the crate in which it was transported came to be filled with clay pots instead of the statue. Instigated in the affair was the former Consul of Grianta, Mirouet.  A letter surfaced that an American billionaire had written to him offering to buy the statue, as he wanted it for a hatstand in the forum of his mansion.  At this point, subsequent to some references to gold-tipped walking sticks and the Fountain of Arethusa, Georges expired.

Mathews and Roubaud acquired the rights and opportunity to review Perec’s notes and other materials relating to “53 Days”, and these are included in the balance of the volume.  They include even more literary references examined by Georges, covering a vast army of literary works ranging from Stendhal to Shakespeare.  However, it’s made fairly clear, in reference to the book’s ending, that either the Consul had murdered Serval, or vice versa, and/or the Consul actually WAS Serval, and the ultimate intent was to pin the murder on Veyraud.  (I know this is a spoiler, but i doubt that few readers would care to embark on this dark and stormy sea…).

I wouldn’t have read this book, if i wasn’t quite interested in Perec and his productions.  He was a founding member of OULIPO, the French association devoted to researching the more esoteric meanings of words and language, including little-known usages, relations to other disciplines and sciences, and the most obscure and impenetrable cryptographic re-organizations possible to conceive.  Georges was an expert cross-word puzzle constructor, a fiendish investigator into minute literary crevices and crannies, and lived a mental life of totally unfettered regulation and creation.

I can’t honestly say i enjoyed this book, but i’m glad i read it.  I would recommend his “Life: A User’s Manual”, however,  a unique and detailed survey of the inhabitants and environs of a Parisian apartment building.

 

MY WORLD LINE: An Informal Autobiography

George Gamow (1904-1968)

“World Line” describes a line connecting data points plotted at interstices located on a graph of space versus time;  thereby indicating episodic intervals along a biographical pathway, if you follow…

George was born and enjoyed his childhood in Odessa on the Black Sea.  It was a cultured city, with an opera house and a university at which George’s father taught literature.  One of his students was Trotsky, who attempted, unsuccessfully, to have Professor Gamow dismissed because of political disagreements.  There must have been more to it than that, though:  during the first World War, George noticed that his father, starting a fire in the kitchen stove, was using one of Trotsky’s old papers for the purpose.  George was precocious, naturally, reading Verne before he was seven and accompanying his father to the opera at regular intervals.  George’s forbears were Russian Orthodox and military figures;  after attending church one day, he placed a bit of the body of Christ under a microscope along with another piece of bread and noted no difference between the two.  This put a damper on his understanding of religion.  The family had a difficult time during the war.  Odessa was situated on top of a 150′ cliff at the edge of the sea and there was no municipal water system.  The nearest available source was at the foot of the cliff, and that was inadequate, so there was a permanent line of householders waiting to fill their assorted containers from the dripping tap.  One day a British sailor offered to give them water from his ship.  He brought out a 2″ hose and began filling everyone’s buckets.  It was only when the suppliants arrived home again that they discovered that they’d carried seawater up 150 feet of stairs!  As expected, shortages were rife during the four year war:  one of the bake shops, finding a pile of grain left by a departing regiment of Moroccans, made bread out of it only to discover that it was inedible, having been originally acquired as mule food.  A popular piece of doggerel of the time:

“The dough of Baker Bosch is such delicious, thin dough.  It serves to mend galoshes or putty up a window.”

George was noted for his peculiar memory.  He had difficulty with names or numbers, but could recall poetry by the yard.  After he emigrated to the U.S. he was challenged as regards this gift and was able to chant poetry continuously for an hour and a half.

The World War degraded into a civil conflict between the White Russians and the Communists, after which G was able to attend Odessa University, majoring in mathematics.  One of the professors was Shchatunovski, a natural eccentric.  He asked a student:  “If you multiply five cab-drivers by three candlesticks what do you get?”  No answer. “Well,”, said Shchatunovski, “it will be fifteen cab-driver-candlesticks.”  This exchange gave George the basic idea of Dimensional Analysis and influenced his later scientific endeavors.  About the same time, the same professor, irate over being corrected for a simple mistake, exploded:  “It is not the job of mathematicians to do correct arithmetical operations. It is the job of bank accountants.”  After Odessa, George went to Leningrad to study physics.  At the same time, due to some peculiar circumstances, he was appointed, at a mere twenty years of age,  a colonel in the Red Army Artillery School, where he taught classes in range-finding and meteorology.  After nearly blowing up an ancient Orthodox church in a nearby village, however, he was placed on inactive duty.  After graduating, he became interested in optical physics and did some research into spectral absorption lines and the refractivity of gases.  This led to an attraction to some of the early relativity researches;  Friedmann’s and Einstein’s.  At this point in cosmic/atomic physics, there was still debate over whether the universe was a closed sphere or an unlimited expanse of stars.  At one point the conflict was characterized as “the difference between a chicken fence and a pond”.  Over the next few years, G became associated and got to know many of the principal researchers, including Nils Bohr, Max Born,Pauli, Dirac, Heisenberg, and many others.  He was still a Russian citizen, but with the rise of Stalin, his situation became precarious and, married to Rho in 1931, they made several attempts to leave the country.  They tried paddling a rubber boat across the Black Sea at first, but got caught in a storm and almost perished.  Changing climates, George applied for a position with a marine biology station near Murmansk with thoughts of the Norwegian border in mind, but upon arrival, the director was arrested, Siberianized, and the station was closed.  They thought about skiing through the Karelian area for a while, but were discouraged by the intense presence of border troops.  Finally, through sheer accident, George was allowed to attend a Physics Conference in Brussels, together with his wife, although obtaining her passport was only achieved by the intercession of Marie Curie, the famous investigator into radiation, with the Soviet authorities.

George worked with Rutherford in Cambridge, Bohr in Denmark and Norway, and achieved a certain amount of recognition in the international physics community, so when at last he and Mrs. Gamow settled in America, he was never without work.  He taught at George Washington University to begin with, and, at various times, did research for the navy and the army, as well as many educational institutions nation-wide.  In his later years he became interested in biology and was instrumental in code analysis having to do with Crick and Watson’s discoveries in genetics.  He published a series of introductory works in the physical sciences, featuring his character, Mr. Tompkins:  “Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland” was one of his most popular publications;  many others followed.  And he wrote textbooks as well, principally in the field of physics, but also in cosmology (he had done some original work involving the Big Bang Theory, having to do with calculating the temperature of the event at approximately 25 billion degrees, and demonstrating that the present temperature of outer space, 3 degrees above absolute zero, coincided with the expansion and element distribution of matter in the universe).  He died of liver difficulties in 1968.

It was a lot of fun reading this book, in part because GG was, as were, and are, many physicists, possessed of an impish personality.  Richard Feynman comes to mind, and even the ones with a more staid reputation like Bohr or Pauli were apt to engage in impromptu didos and capers, often having nothing to do with their investigations, or some times just out of release from the pent up field strength generated by long term intense thinking.  The “Mr. Tompkins” books are excellent introductions to the quantum world;  i read them at an early age and have been interested, although i’m not mathematically inclined, in quantum mechanics ever since…

 

THE GOLDEN LION OF GRANPERE

Anthony Trollope (1815-1882)

Granpere is a peaceful village in Alsace, consisting of larger houses and estates, with a population devoted to flax-growing and linen weaving, in the main.  The Golden Lion is a roadside inn, operated and owned by Michael Voss, together with his son George, Madame Voss, niece Marie, and assorted servants, hostlers, and chamber-maids.  As the story opens, George has moved to Colmar, a larger town, not too far away, because his father, Michael, is concerned that he will develop feelings for Marie, the twenty-year old general supervisor of operations at the inn.  Michael is ambitious for Marie, convinced that she will only find happiness and permanence if she is wedded to a rich businessman or landowner.  What he doesn’t know is that George and Marie have already expressed their love for each other, without, however, making any marriage plans for the future.  Soon, Michael has arranged a marriage for his niece to a young linen dealer from Basle, much to her displeasure.  She has received no letters  and has had no contact with George for a year, so, reluctantly, she goes along with the proposition, even though George remains her true-love.  The suspense builds over time, with Marie agreeing to the wedding, while becoming, at the same time, increasingly uncomfortable and upset about her prospective husband, who demonstrates qualities that she dislikes.  Urmand is a linen broker, modern in outlook, overly fastidious in his dress, and somewhat swishy in his mannerisms.  In typically Trollopian fashion, the plot unwinds with detailed analyses of each character’s mental states and peculiarities, discussing their preferences and habits and states of mind.  Michael holds fiercely onto his original idea of providing security for Marie;  Marie eventually refuses, in spite of the banns already being posted, to marry Urmand, Madame Voss supports her husbands views, Urmand, rather aimlessly, anticipates an agreeable relationship, and George, working away in another hotel in Colmar, is worried and fretful, not wanting Marie to marry one she’s not in love with, but hesitant about approaching her because of not knowing whether she feels the way he does.  The denouement has all the persons concerned gathered together in the inn, all struggling to achieve some sort of resolution, but repeatedly failing to do so.  As the tension builds, Marie takes to her bed, George wants to fight Urmand, and Michael is at his wits end, trying to convince Marie to marry the linen factor.  Eventually, things work themselves out, in a comparatively weak finale, that, however, satisfies all parties concerned.

This was one of T’s more interesting productions.  His presentation of the different characters deals with their indecision, mental predilections, worries, and hopes in a realistic and magnetic manner.  I’ve never read a Trollope novel in which these sorts of themes are so exhaustively described.  Following along, after a while,  a trance-like feeling began to develop that i’ve only experienced in listening to a symphony by Beethoven or Tchaikovsky.  The writing style was repetitive, seemingly too much so, but mesmerizing at the same time.  I finished the book in about three hours, not willing to tear myself away.  It was an unusual experience, one that i’m not sure i would like to repeat.  But i’m glad it occurred once, anyway…