Monday, October 28, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“I’M WORKING ON A BUILDING” by Pip Adam (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)

Can or should a novel be written backwards, or designed as a piece of structural engineering? Indeed should a novel be conceived as a series of blocks and units, braced and welded together like a large building?

I’m not sure that I can answer these questions and I think they smack a little too much of the writing school or the degree in creative writing. But they are certainly relevant to Pip Adam’s concise (206-page) debut novel I’m Working on a Building.

Briefly, the novel is told backwards. Its eighteen chapters shift between different viewpoints and narrative voices. They begin with Catherine, a structural engineer, working at some future date on a skyscraper, a replica of the world’s tallest building (Dubai’s Burj al Khalifa tower), being raised on New Zealand’s Wild West Coast. Apparently Catherine is very single-minded and focused on her work. She has returned to New Zealand only out of desperation and because the work is there. There is no significant other in her life. This opening chapter is told in the third-person limited voice, staying with Catherine’s viewpoint.

But the second chapter is told in the first person by Catherine’s younger sister Isabel, who works in a hair salon and begins the process of moving us backwards in time by hinting at a backstory – how Catherine’s and Isabel’s parents were once rich, but lost it. How the two daughters once lived more bohemian and rebellious lives.

And so, back-step by back-step, the novel moves, now in the singular or collective first person as conveyed by a variety of characters, now in the third person, bit by bit revealing how and why Catherine has become the emotionally constipated person that she is, as she focuses on her engineering and uses it as a logical means of imposing order on what might otherwise be emotional chaos. What, after all, is more logical and orderly that working out weights and stresses as buildings move from the drawing board to actual construction?

As a reviewer, I do not think it is my right to provide “spoilers” for new literary novels any more than I would for a plot-driven thriller. There should be surprises for readers to discover for themselves. I’m not blunting the effect, however, by noting that Catherine has a failed marriage in her past, and a number of messy relationships. Matters of casual sex, infidelity and homosexuality come into it, and the novel moves eventually back to traumatic and formative events in her adolescence and childhood. Nor does it reveal too much to note that one central event in her life (which is made specific early in the novel) is a massive earthquake in Wellington where, in the CBD, “each building had fallen down differently, and they had to search for some wholeness and order in the shambles.” (p.57). In the earthquake, various people Catherine knows are killed, with many repercussions for her.

Catherine’s structural engineering career has taken her to Berlin, Taiwan, Pyongyang in North Korea and various other exotic points. We are given snapshots of these locations, as well as of more familiar ones (at least to New Zealanders – and especially Aucklanders) such as Rainbow’s End and the University of Auckland Engineering School.

As I understand the title I’m Working on a Building, it has a resonance beyond its literal meaning. It could just as well mean I’m Working on Becoming a Human Being. A building is structured, built, put together over time just as a human being is structured, built and put together through experience, planning, mischance and misadventure. Catherine is, in a way, herself the building she is working on, especially when she has fallen into the habit of sublimating herself in her work and thinking of herself in mechanistic terms. She is being both constructed and is self-constructed.

There is also resonance in the repeated images of skyscrapers and other towering buildings.  Somehow a skyscraper can’t help having overtones of hubris – maybe part of us always thinks of any skyscraper as another Tower of Babel, waiting to collapse. There is a certain insolence in building things that tower over mountains – as the building Catherine works on in the opening chapter is said to do:

At 509 metres the tower raised a floor above the top of the tallest neighbouring mountain. It was like coming out from inside. The wind, blown up by the mountain range, hit the formwork for the walls and blew the men about as they tried to place the concrete. The men swore and complained loudly to their supervisors who were as dirty and blown around as they were. Everyone was shouting. The heavy cages of the crane swung, and a large piece of wood blew off the building.” (pp.14-15)

The sheer scariness of this concept is well-rendered in the novel’s photo-shopped cover, which has Burj al Khalifa looming over a rocky New Zealand coast. (The cover and blurb are printed upside-down, signalling the novel’s back-to-front chronology). And yet, again as I read it, this thrusting hubris is related to Catherine herself. Her attempt to escape from the complex emotional realities of life, and to pretend her past either hasn’t happened or doesn’t matter, is as prideful a thing to do as building ‘em unnecessarily tall. And the shell she has built around herself can be easily shattered. Like the building of which another character observes:

Every framing member, every connection, every nut, bolt and screw shows and if any part is removed, the building will collapse. Even the vertical elements that appear non-structural stiffen the slender diagonal members. It’s everything it is, but it’s not immediately obvious. It’s a truss that’s a frame that’s a truss.” (p.82)

Pluck one element out of Catherine’s self-created persona and she would collapse. And the novel’s reverse trajectory does, after all, deflate her hubris by moving her from being tough professional engineer to being dependent and somewhat pathetic child going through a family crisis not of her making.

Pip Adam is capable of extraordinary lucidity in her writing. Her respect for the work of engineers and architects is plain in Chapter 12, in which she manages to make clear the technical complexities of earthquake-proofing a large library. There is also something uncharacteristically touching about Chapter 10 where another character, Craig, speaking in the first person, conveys his confusion as he tries to work out what the exact relationships are between other characters in the story. At that point in the novel, I shared his perplexity.

I must note some misgivings about this novel, however.  I’m Working on a Building is far from being the first novel to be written in reverse chronological order (Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, published in 1991, readily comes to mind). While the technique does have the effect of deconstructing Catherine’s emotional deadness, it also leaves the impression of an author wilfully withholding anterior information about the character from us, rather than allowing us to see the character developing psychologically. The changes in narrative voice also mean that some individual chapters read more like separable short stories than part of a larger narrative.

I confess to another reaction, which not all readers might share. When I reviewed Pip Adam’s short-story collection Everything We Hoped For (“New Zealand Books”, Winter 2011) I acknowledged her narrative skills but also noted “the relentless grimness of Adam’s subject matter and world view”. In the closing chapter of I’m Working on a Building, I find the same phenomenon in play. Do Catherine and her friend really have to be as degraded as Pip Adam makes them in the second-to-last chapter, or is this tending to sensationalism? You might disagree with my judgement here, but read the novel before you call me unrealistic.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“CHRIST IN CONCRETE” by Pietro di Donato (first published in 1939)

It’s sometimes possible to shoot a novel full of holes in criticising it, and yet still to admire it.  Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete is one such novel. It is one of the ‘rough diamonds’ of literature, full of good things, but also bumping over god-awful lapses in style and tone; rising to great heights of poetic insight, but also collapsing into rant. Yet I still put it down feeling I had read something worthwhile.

Its author, Pietro di Donato (1911-1992), was a working class New York Italian-American, who had to take up the bricklayer’s trade at the age of twelve, and become the chief support of his mother and her large family, when his father was killed in an industrial accident in 1923. A building collapsed on his father, burying him in the rubble. Di Donato recreated this incident alone as a short story in 1937, when he was 26. The short story was highly praised and di Donato was encouraged to expand it into a whole novel, which he did. In effect, the original short story becomes the first of the five long chapters of Christ in Concrete, first published in 1939 when di Donato was 28.

As all the guides and websites note, the novel was at once hailed as a proletarian masterpiece, and was chosen over Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath by the influential Book-of-the Month club in their monthly listings. Yet though di Donato lived a long life, he never repeated this success and never produced another work of the same note. One hostile critic even dismissed Christ in Concrete (together with the Native Son of Richard Wright, who had a similar career trajectory) as “beginner’s luck”. The novel is, however, esteemed still, especially by those critics interested in the Italian-American immigrant experience.

Needless to say, it is highly autobiographical. Needful to say, it is NOT set mainly in the Great Depression, although some commentaries insist on saying it is. Most of the action takes place in the mid-1920s, when there was an economic boom. Only in the last of its five parts is it 1929 and the depression begins.

In the opening chapter the Italian immigrant bricklayer Geremio (a native of the Abruzzi) is killed in an industrial accident. It is Good Friday, and as he works Geremio thinks, with the type of religious fatalism that the novel comes to condemn  Yes, the day is cold, cold…. But who am I to complain when the good Christ himself was crucified?” (p.4 – all page references according to Signet Classics edition of 1993).

 The building Geremio is working on collapses, literally burying (“crucifying”) him in the fast-setting concrete that is being poured. The whole novel could be read as a reverberation of this disaster. Geremio leaves behind a widow Annunziata, who is pregnant with their eighth child. Having no income and no insurance, the family at first have to beg for help. (“The money that was to have bought your little house barely pays the burial and stone. You have no money. ” p. 44) Twelve-year-old Paul (occasionally also called Paolo in the novel) tries to get credit from the butcher and the grocery, but he is refused. The local priest offers vague sympathy and a piece of cake. So the twelve-year-old has to go to work, stepping into his father’s shoes as a bricklayer.

The graphic scenes of his toil are set in a vital and colourful immigrant working class community, rich in speech and rich in cultural and religious allusion. But there is no doubt that it is both exacting and backbreaking work for a kid – and all for the lousy five dollars a week that the corporation pays him. He is doing exactly the work his father did, but he is not respected as an adult. And Paul’s daily crucifixion is set against other family stresses. The cramped conditions in which the large family live in a tenement are played up in the scene in which Annunziata gives birth to her youngest child. Uncle Luigi (Annunziata’s brother), who is some sort of emotional support to the family, suffers his own industrial accident and is off work with his leg amputated.

In fact, as the years go by, there are other industrial accidents, including a Swedish carpenter having fingers shorn off by the cable of a winch; and a major fall, the consequences of which are described in graphic and bloody detail a few pages from the novel’s end. Frequently the appalling safety standards of work sites and the callousness of employers about accidents are referenced.

Paul is the author’s centre of consciousness and fictional counterpart. The novel follows him through five or six years (he is said to be fifteen on p.165). He is interested in neighbours (of various ethnicities) in the tenement. After puberty he has these awful, aching, unfulfilled lusts centring on a neighbouring girl. There is the very occasional reference to ethnic or racial prejudices directed against Italians. When young Paul asks to identify the corpse of his father, an insensitive Irish cop says within his earshot, “What? – oh yeah – the wop is under the wrappin’ paper out in the courtyard! ” (p.26). There’s also a scene where neighbourhood toughs attempt to beat up a Jewish kid, who belts them back. But racial tension is not a major emphasis of the novel. Indeed, the workplace is more often presented in “melting pot” terms, with Italians, Irish, Jews, Cockneys, Germans, Swedes and blacks jostling together on the skyscraper girders, despite the odd racial insult.

The focus is on the Italian community and on work. Paul gets a job at more pay. An old bricklayer called Vicenzo takes him under his wing as a sort of site godfather. At one point, Paul wins a medal as best site bricklayer. He is as good a provider as he can be to his mother and family. But the toil is relentless. And then (in the last chapter) the Depression comes and work dries up and life becomes even more stressful.

Much of it is highly episodic. In fact, sections could almost be read as detachable short stories, just as the first chapter originally was. The grim episode where an accident board withholds adequate compensation from the widowed Annunziata. A wild scene where, on Christmas Eve, bricklayers get drunk on wine (at a time of official Prohibition in the USA, there is never any suggestion that they can’t get it), visit a brothel, and mock one modest workmate by greeting him as the infant Christ. A wedding feast which turns into a noisy sauce-splashing, spaghetti-sucking competition.

There is also the shocking scene in which Paul and Annunziata visit a tawdry and patently fake medium (“the Cripple”) who claims to put Annunziata in touch with her late husband in the “spirit world”. What is particularly shocking about this episode is that mother and young son both take real comfort from the medium’s charlatanry.

This is linked to a major train of thought in the novel, namely its reaction to belief and to religion. To use exactly the right metaphor for bricklayers, the novel’s religious symbolism is laid on with a trowel. It is not only the frequent references to Christ and Crucifixion. It is not only the fact that key events take place on major religious festivals like Good Friday and Christmas Eve. Nor is it only the curses and idioms of the Italian community, which are drenched in religious terms. It is the ongoing relationship between the increasingly sceptical Paul and his pious – and often superstitious – mother. The novel moves towards a final climactic explosion in which young Paul renounces his mother’s Catholicism (pointing to a crucifix he says “That’s a lie”, p.230). He has moved towards another outlook in which his Job (which is always capitalised) is seen as guiding his life rather than God – in other words, he sees people as economic beings rather than spiritual beings. Apparently some ink has been spilled by critics anxious to show that this is part of the secularising experience of poor European immigrants to America in the early 20th century.

Christ in Concrete is in large part a protest against the passivity of workers who allow themselves to be exploited and die. In di Donato’s view, this theme links with a critique of the church, which encourages workers to accept their fate in the belief that Christ will ultimately reward them. (This is essentially the ‘Wobbly’ Joe Hill’s “pie in the sky when you die” criticism.) The church’s comforts are as delusionary as the fake medium’s. This attitude is particularly acute in the long interior monologue in the last chapter when, before refusing to go with his family to mass, Paul has an hallucinatory dream in which he momentarily sees an unhelpful priest and a harsh boss as one and the same person.

When I first read this novel, I was surprised at how there is virtually no political talk or political consciousness among the workers di Donato depicts. At most they feel resentment against bosses and foremen, but they never think of organizing themselves (even in the boom days, before the Depression makes them competitors against one another for work) and there is no talk whatsoever about unions. I thought more overtly political content was going to begin when there is a passing reference to a Jewish friend of Paul’s reading Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (p.122); but such political content never appeared. At first I judged this a deficiency in the novel. But then it occurred to me that it was exactly di Donato’s point. These workers haven’t yet developed a full awareness of their economic position, and di Donato sees their inherited peasant culture and religion as part of the obscurantism that prevents them from reaching such awareness.

(At which point I have to add that di Donato’s attitude towards the religion into which he was born was a very ambiguous one. His few other works of fiction have an anti-clerical tone like Christ in Concrete, but later in his career, in the 1960s, he wrote Immigrant Saint, an admiring biography of the Catholic saint Mother Cabrini, which was praised by the church and became a bestseller in Catholic circles. Yet at his death, di Donato left an unfinished work, which renewed his attacks on the church. My feeble guess is that he had abandoned the religion but still loved the inherited culture and its best representatives.)

All this has simply told you what the novel is about. But how do I justify the critical judgement that I made at the beginning of this notice? Why is Christ in Concrete a memorable ‘rough diamond’ of mixed literary achievement?

Its style is a heady mixture of social realism and modernist expressionism. Especially in the scenes where he is describing work, di Donato writes like this:

             Trowel rang through brick and slashed mortar rivets were machine-gunned fast with angry grind Patsy number one check Patsy number two check the Lean three check Julio four steel bellowed back at hammer donkey engines coughed purple Ashes-ass Pietro fifteen chisel point intoned stone thin steel whirred and wailed through wood liquid stone flowed with dull rasp through iron veins and hoist screamed through space Rosario the Fat twenty-four and Giacomo Sangini check… The multitudinous voices of civilization rose from the surroundings and melted with the efforts of the Job.” (p.8)

            There is much, much more where that came from.

Di Donato is very good at long, sensual, evocative descriptions of place, as in his account of the heavy, dank atmosphere of the Tenement (which, like Job, is capitalised as a determinant character in the novel). It ends thus:

Then the winding staired passage of Tenement hall-way gaseous in its internationality of latrines, dank with walls that never knew day, acrid in the corners where vermin, dogs, cats and children relieved themselves; the defeated air rubbery with greasy cooking and cut with cheap, strong disinfectant.” (pp.104-105)

There are throughout quirky and idiosyncratic cultural references, like the mention of the tough old workman who is nicknamed Lucy “because his favourite opera is Lucia di Lammermoor, and then he, like a woman, is mobile, and goes insane if he hears himself thus referred to.” (pp.77-78) Of course this one assumes knowledge of a couple of operas at least.

But on the deficit side – oh dear! The heavy-handed and repetitive religious symbolism is one thing. Maybe it can be justified as genuinely representative of the culture depicted. But the lapses into rhetorical rant are many and there is an awful problem throughout with the dialogue. The author was an Italian-American working class man, and therefore presumably knew the way his people spoke better than you or I do. But in Christ in Concrete, Italian idioms are rendered into English as an awful fake poetry that does not ring true for one moment:

  ‘Listen not to these peasants and potato diggers…. Cart your eight hungry little children to this official post. You need not speak, for if they belong to our Christ, these men will know their duty when they look upon the faces of Geremio’s children.’
‘Yes, but I, this stupid Grazia who counts with fingers on nose, tell you that the full gut sees not the hungry face’
‘Nor sees God nor Christ nor saints and company beautiful.’ ” (p.107)

This, in fact, is a mild example of a problem that plagues the novel. Di Donato’s tough proletarians sound as if they are auditioning for a verse play.

But outside the woeful dialogue, the author does have his moments. I underlined in my copy a sentence describing a midwife attending a birth: “The dame coaxed its oozing passage with puckered mouth and intent care.” (p.37) The word choice here is exactly right.

And who but a fool would not respect a novel which gives us so powerfully the back-breaking specificities of a physical labour? Take this part of a description of an aged working man:

Shovel in hand, bareheaded, his clothes and face powdered with lime and cement, and almost as white as his hair, he was an ancient mighty athlete of Job. He shovelled sand from a great heap in the mortar box with timed wasteless grace, lifted ninety-four-pound cement bags easily and spread their contents upon the sand, shovelled both into easy mixture, hollowed the mound, bucketed soft hot lime and water into the hollow, and then hoed the sand-lime-water-cement into warm greenish-grey plastic mortar. ” (p.69)

            Di Donato wrote about what he knew, and for all the rhetoric and awful dialogue, this is still a novel that lets us share that experience.

Impertinent footnote: Ten years after it was written, Christ in Concrete was filmed, under the title Give Us This Day, in a British studio by a director who was temporarily blacklisted in Hollywood.  Synopses I’ve read of the film tell me that it’s essentially an expansion of the first chapter, making Geremio the main character and introducing characters and plot elements that have nothing to do with the novel. I’ve caught a brief clip of it on Youtube. Being filmed in Britain, it has a supporting cast of British actors trying to be American, and it’s fun to see young Sid James pretending to belong to Brooklyn. But the clip also had the dismal fake-poetic dialogue that the novel has.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

Sometimes you remember whole poems because they are memorable, and sometimes only individual phrases or stanzas stick in your mind because they seem so apt.

For years, the only lines I could easily recall from George Herbert’s Vanity were the opening four lines of the third stanza. To me, they still seem to point to something essential in modern thought.

To put the poem in context: George Herbert (1593-1633) was, at least for the last three years of his short life, an Anglican clergyman. He is usually ranked second only to John Donne when people discuss the misnamed “metaphysical” poets of early seventeenth century England. His tone is gentle and devout, the word “sweet” is often attached to him, his imagery is arresting, his rhythms and rhymes graceful - in a word, he is a brilliant poet and I am a damned fool wasting my time telling you what any student of English poetry already knows. George Herbert is a “classic”.

Vanity presents, stanza by stanza, the familiar Christian apologetic arguments  (a.) that it is one thing to investigate the physical mechanisms of nature, but quite another to understand why they are there, why they work at all or why life exists; and (b.) that nature is a text in which God can be read. This latter argument leads to a concept of “natural law”. The study of nature tells us that it is imprinted with God’s design, but also that we have an innate sense of this design. So, after the first three stanzas look at the explorations of astronomers, pearl-divers and [al-]chemists, the last stanza says “What hath not man sought out and found / but his dear God? Who yet his glorious law / embosoms in us.  God’s law is built into our very “bosoms”. This argument carries echoes of Aquinas (whether or not Herbert was a student of him) and looks forward to the rationalism of Descartes, who saw the imprint of God in human reason.

But it’s the opening of the third stanza that most resonates with me and that I carried around in my head years after I had forgotten the wording of the rest of the poem. “The subtle Chymick can devest / and strip the creature naked till he find / the callow principles within their nest: / There he imparts to them his mind. ” Fully aware that for Herbert “Chymick” probably meant “alchemist” as much as our modern “chemist”, I still find these lines an excellent description of an aspect of the scientific process, acknowledgment of which causes much annoyance to at least some scientists.

Herbert is in effect saying that after having unclothed (“devested”) the elements (“callow principles”) of nature, scientists often then impose their own interpretations upon them (“there he imparts to them his mind”) and make the reality of nature subordinate to limited human understanding. Granted this phrase could simply mean that the scientist lets his mind work on these things, I still think Herbert is shrewdly noting that there is no such thing as “objective” science. Even in rigorously conducted science, everything is seen from a human viewpoint, which has human limitations. We do not become substitutes for God because we have a limited understanding of how the mechanisms and processes of nature work. When we impart to them our mind, we are imposing this limited understanding. Richard Dawkins please note.

By the way, the term “scientist” in the modern sense didn’t exist when Herbert was writing. I believe early versions of what we now call scientists would have been called “natural philosophers”. Anyway, here’s the whole poem, my limited interpretation of which I have just imposed on you. If you have a different interpretation of it, please do say.


The fleet Astronomer can bore,

And thread the spheres with his quick-piercing mind:

He views their stations, walks from door to door,                   

Surveys, as if he had design’d

To make a purchase there: he sees their dances,                                

And knoweth long before

Both their full-ey’d aspects, and secret glances.                    

The nimble Diver with his side

Cuts through the working waves, that he may fetch

His dearly-earned pearl, which God did hide                   

On purpose from the vent’rous wretch:

That he might save his life, and also hers,                                

Who with excessive pride

Her own destruction and his danger wears.                    

The subtle Chymick can devest

And strip the creature naked, till he find

The callow principles within their nest:                   

There he imparts to them his mind,

Admitted to their bed-chamber, before                                

They appear trim and dressed

To ordinary suitors at the door.                    

What hath not man sought out and found,

But his dear God?  who yet his glorious law

Embosoms in us, mellowing the ground                   

With showers and frosts, with love and awe,

So that we need not say, Where’s this command?                                 

Poor man, thou searchest round

To find out death, but missest life at hand.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“MY BRIEF HISTORY – A Memoir” by Stephen Hawking (Bantam Press / Random House, $NZ 34:99)

Books are written for different reasons and different audiences and there’s no point in criticising a book in one genre for not being in another. Or to put it another way – Stephen Hawking’s mini-autobiography can’t be judged in the same way as full-length adult biographies or autobiographies are judged. Once you subtract from the 126 pages of text all the photographs and publisher’s bulking-up, you are left with fewer than 100 small pages of widely-spaced type. This is about the length of one of those longer articles that sometimes appear in the New Yorker. It makes for  - at most – a couple of hours reading. To add another mildly bitchy point, I wonder if the title My Brief History wasn’t as much the publisher’s suggestion as the author’s? After all, Hawking’s international mega-bestseller was A Brief History of Time, and the promise of having brainy ideas revealed concisely was obviously one of its main selling points.

Now for the other obvious point that I’ll have to make before somebody rebukes me. Stephen Hawking is probably the world’s most famous disabled person, rendered virtually immobile by motor neurone disease (what Americans call Lou Gehrig’s disease). Writing, via secretaries and a computer system, is obviously a very difficult business for him, so it is not unexpected that he prefers to express himself very concisely, often with little nuance.

So here is his own version of his life story.  Born in 1942, of middle class parents (his father was a doctor) who both managed to make it to Oxford, little Stephen had two younger sisters and one adopted younger brother. His family had some arty connections. His mother was friends with the wife of the poet Robert Graves, so sometimes the Hawking kids holidayed with Graves’ family in Majorca. The Hawkings were intellectuals, but a little bohemian. Dad bought a Gypsy caravan for family holidays.

Young Stephen wasn’t brilliant at elementary school. He tells us that (thanks in part to going at first to an “experimental” school where nothing much was actually taught) he couldn’t read until he was 8, whereas his little sister (who eventually became a doctor) could read at the age of 4. He notes self-deprecatingly:

I was never more than about halfway up the class. (It was a very bright class.) My classwork was very untidy and my handwriting was the despair of my teachers. But my classmates gave me the nickname Einstein, so presumably they saw signs of something better. When I was twelve, one of my friends bet another friend a bag of sweets that I would never amount to anything. I don’t know if this bet was ever settled, and if so, which way it was decided.” (pp.24-25)

As a small child he loved model railways and building model aeroplanes more than anything else, because:

I was always interested in how things operated, and I used to take them apart to see how they worked, but I was not so good at putting them back together again. My practical abilities never matched up to my theoretical enquiries.” (p.26)

His father tried to steer him into an interest in medicine and had some say in the subjects he took at school. Consequently, he didn’t get the strong grounding in Mathematics that he would have liked. As he remarks, when he first tutored Mathematics at Cambridge, he sometimes kept up by reading essential texts one week ahead of his students. Fairly ironic for somebody who was later (for thirty years) Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge.

Hawking got to Oxford at the age of 17. Despite being cox in a rowing club, he seems not to have much liked the ethos of the place in the 1950s and early 1960s. As he writes:

The prevailing attitude at Oxford at that time was very anti-work. You were supposed to be either brilliant without effort or accept your limitations and get a fourth-class degree. To work hard to get a better class of degree was regarded as the mark of a ‘grey man’, the worst epithet in the Oxford vocabulary.” (p.33 and p.36)

He got a First but did his postgrad at Cambridge, with which he has been associated ever since. His real interests were always cosmology and elementary particle analysis, for which mathematics and physics were simply the doorway. He wanted to study under Professor Fred Hoyle, who was known for championing the “steady state” theory of the universe. Instead, he was placed under another don. This, he implies, might have been a blessing in disguise. The discovery in 1965 of the background noises of microwave radiation put what Hawking calls “the nail in the coffin” of Hoyle’s theories, and confirmed the idea of the expanding universe. Hawking might have wasted years trying to confirm Hoyle’s theories. In one anecdote, he implies that Hoyle could be cantankerous, as when Hoyle blew his stack at young Hawking for questioning his mathematics at a conference.

The big crisis in Hawking’s life came when he was 21. Becoming unsteady on his feet, he saw a doctor who brusquely advised him to “Lay off the beer”. Instead, specialists confirmed he had motor-neurone disease. Hawking says that this galvanised him into working harder, because he was advised that his life might be short. (He is now 71). At about the same time he was diagnosed, he met and married Jane Wilde, with whom he had three children, Robert, Lucy and Tim. He acknowledges that Jane did nearly all the toil of childcare and looking after him physically.

In moving through the fifty years of his career since he was diagnosed, Hawking concentrates on his work, achievements and scientific interests. He devotes a chapter to how A Brief History of Time was conceived and put together. His longest single chapter (twelve pages of it) gives the theoretical and physical basis for believing that time travel is not possible. He discusses his work on black holes.

The black hole that is in this book itself, however, is the absence of any revealing detail on his private life. It is Hawking’s right to present his life as he sees fit, but there is still a grave gap when the break-up of his first marriage is covered in one sentence (p.87). His second wife Elaine, to whom he was married for twelve years, disappears after three pages. He comments that his physical condition worsened, necessitating a number of medical interventions and “all these crises took their emotional toll on Elaine. We got divorced in 2007, and since the divorce I have lived alone with a housekeeper.” (p.91) There is no mention of, and certainly no attempt to respond to, Jane Wilde’s account of their marriage Music to Move the Stars, which suggested that part of her role was to prevent Stephen Hawking from thinking that he was God.

How do I sum up this “brief life”? Inevitably, like most autobiographies, it is in part an act of self-congratulation. Hawking has the habit of backing into mentioning his highest awards, so that we may conceive of him as the genius who is above being concerned with such things. Thus he says:

I used to have a bumper sticker that read BLACK HOLES ARE OUT OF SIGHT on the door of my office in [the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics]. This so irritated the head of the department that he engineered my election to the Lucasian Professorship, moved me to a better office on the strength of it, and personally tore the offending notice off the door of the old office.” (p.69)

But he still finds it necessary to tell us twice that the Lucasian Professorship is the same chair that Isaac Newton once occupied. Later, there is a smidgeon of annoyance that he hasn’t earned a higher award:

I think most theoretical physicists would agree that my prediction of quantum emission from black holes is correct, though it has not so far earned me a Nobel Prize because it is very difficult to verify experimentally. On the other hand , I won the even more valuable Fundamental Physics Prize, awarded for the theoretical significance of the discovery despite the fact that it has not been confirmed by experiment.” (p.122)

At the same time, there are some pithy argument-closing statements. I think only Hawking would be allowed to say in print that “it is almost impossible to be rigorous in quantum physics, because the whole field is on very shaky mathematical ground.” (p.65). I also liked the way he closed his time-travel chapter with the down-to-earth observation that “even if some different theory is discovered in the future, I don’t think time travel will ever be possible. If it were, we would have been overrun by tourists from the future by now.” (p.113)

So who is the ideal audience for this book? I pick it as a nice gift-book for intelligent teenagers, and for people who want to keep things simple. It’s a good two hours diversion. I’m sure it reflects accurately Hawking’ self-image, and that is well worth knowing about.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“YOUNG TORLESS” by Robert Musil (Die Verwirrungen des Zoglings Torless first published in German 1906; first English translation, as Young Torless, by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser published 1955; later Penguin Classics translation, as The Confusions of Young Torless, by Shaun Whiteside published 2001)

What’s in a title? Quite a lot as it turns out. On my shelf I have a hardback copy of a translation of a novel by the Austrian Robert Musil (1880-1942). The translation dates from the 1950s (Secker and Warburg, London, 1955, to be precise) and it is called simply Young Torless. But the preface, by Alan Pryce-Jones, reminds us that the original German title is Die Verwirrungen des Zoglings Torless, which, he explains, means something like The ‘Perplexities’ of Young Torless. And although I haven’t consulted it, I know there is a later Penguin Classics translation, by Shaun Whiteside, called The Confusions of Young Torless. Apparently there is yet a third translation, by Christopher Moncrieff, which also calls it The Confusions of Young Torless.

I’m labouring this point for a couple of reasons. First, because I’m always perplexed (or confused) over why one novel requires three separate modern English language translations, especially as I’ve heard nothing to suggest that any of the three translations omits (or censors) anything from the original German-language version. Second, because although I have read the translation that doesn’t include it in the title, Young Torless is indeed a novel about perplexities. They are the perplexities of a sensitive male adolescent in that awful gap between the certainties of childhood and the greater confidence of adulthood. At least, these are the perplexities of the thinking adolescent. Those who don’t think aren’t perplexed.

In many respects Young Torless could be regarded as the classic German-language novel about the perplexed adolescent male in the same way that Le Grand Meaulnes [look up my comment on it via the index at right], The Catcher in the Rye, Sons and Lovers and (possibly) A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are respectively the classic French, American, English and Irish novels on the same general theme. All these novels are Bildungsromanen and have at least some scenes where there is a tension between the adolescent and the school (or schools) he attends – although a lot less in Le Grand Meaulnes and Sons and Lovers than in the others. Young Torless is dominated by its school setting. It takes place in an elite boarding school, where (although they regularly smoke cigarettes when out of school bounds) the students wear military uniform, complete with ceremonial swords and the clicking of heels. The school is in the eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is culturally isolated. Its Germanophone students and staff are surrounded by a Slavic population with whom (as an early chapter tells us) they do not mix. The boarding school’s atmosphere is more enclosed, more rarified, more ripe for intense psychological conflict than the school setting of any other novel I know, and in the end, reading Young Torless is a wrenching experience.

It goes like this.

As soon as Torless is left at the school by his well-to-do parents, he feels intense homesickness. The opening four or five pages of the novel give an exact analysis of the psychological phases of homesickness before Torless reluctantly surrenders his nostalgia for home. But, though a thoughtful and sensitive boy, Torless’s way of accepting his new environment is to mix with the roughest and least academic boys in the place.

He becomes friends with Beineberg and Reitling.

Beineberg fancies himself as a philosopher, intensely interested in the mystic East and tales of fakirs and their extraordinary powers. Reitling has a more straightforward hunger for power. The lack of the opposite sex hangs over all the boys. In an early scene, Torless and Beineberg, on a day off, visit the matter-of-fact peasant prostitute Bozena, but the experience basically disgusts Torless and fulfils none of his erotic desires.

Beineberg and Reitling catch another student, Basini, stealing from one student to pay his debts to another. Basini is pretty, effeminate and implicitly homosexual. Rather than reporting Basini to the school authorities, Beineberg and Reitling decide it would be more amusing to blackmail him by making him their “slave”. They regularly take Basini up to a special hiding place in the attic, to which they have already introduced Torless. There they strip Basini naked, beat him and torture him with games intended to make him grovel. It is heavily suggested that Reitling also sexually abuses Basini; and Beineberg wishes to do so.

Torless is the passive witness of much of this, regarded by Beineberg and Reitling as their supporter.

Torless has mixed feelings about what is happening, as he does about every aspect of his own character. These are his “perplexities”. He despises Basini. He desires Basini. At one point we are told he becomes “sexually excited” (meaning, presumably, that he gets an erection) as he watches the two thugs at work on the smaller boy. He knows the torture is mere sadism and bullying. He is detached from the torture and tries to look on it as a mere interesting instance of human behaviour. He listens to Beineberg’s pompous, self-justifying “mystic” and abstract discourses and retreats into wondering about the nature of illusion and reality. He looks out windows and wonders. He has an intense conversation with his mathematics teacher about the reality of negative numbers and whether anything can be proven to be real.

At one point, when Beineberg and Reitling are absent from the school, Basini, his body now covered in welts and bruises, creeps to Torless and begs him to be his “protector”. Torless is disgusted and despises the weakling. Basini takes off his clothes and climbs into bed with Torless. Torless is moved and excited by his girlish form. He is excited to “passion”. Presumably this means he has an orgasm.

Torless refuses to help Basini, but Beineberg and Reitling discover that he has been consorting with Basini behind their backs. The climax comes when they arrange to humiliate Basini publicly by having him beaten up by a whole class of boys. Finally, Torless tells Basini that he can save himself only by confessing everything about his theft of money to the school authorities. Basini does so and is expelled. Torless makes a half-hearted attempt to run away from school. When he is brought back, he faces a teachers’ board of enquiry about what has been going on. Trying to explain himself and how he feels about everything, Torless gives a rambling philosophical discourse on the difference between reality and illusion and how hard it is to be precise about anything. The school’s principal decides that he is far too sensitive a soul to be at a boarding school in the first place and writes to his parents to say so. The novel ends with Torless returning home and presumably entering into adult life after his horrible experiences.

Like Joyce, Alain-Fournier and Salinger, Robert Musil was a comparatively young man when he wrote this classic of adolescence. He wrote Young Torless when he was a university student, aged 22 and 23, and it was published when he was 26. It was a scandalous success, shocking for its sexual content, which is still hair-raising. The school the novel depicts apparently resembles closely the elite boarding school Musil himself had attended (and before him the poet Rainer Maria Rilke), but Musil insisted that none of the novel’s events were based on anything he had witnessed.

The novel’s mode of narration is distinctive. Musil uses the third person limited voice, allowing us to see all Torless’s thoughts and feelings (and nobody else’s) but keeping detached from Torless. In a way, Musil assumes the voice of the omniscient adult, sometimes commenting ironically on the adolescent’s self-importance. The irony is so deft that the hasty reader may not notice it. Take this early passage, in which he has just described the worthy and lofty books, with their expressions of ideas and emotions, that the young man reads. Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare etc. Then Musil adds, crushingly:

For these associations, originating outside, and these borrowed emotions, carry young people over the dangerous soft spiritual ground of the years in which they need to be of some significance to themselves and nevertheless are still too incomplete to have any real significance.” (p.9 of 1955 translation)

The awful oppressive power of the school environment is particularly potent because the novel makes the teachers and other adults virtually invisible. There are no scenes set in lessons or classrooms (until the teacherless classroom in which Basini is beaten by a swarm of boys) and no teacher is named. Torless is depicted speaking to teachers twice only. The first such conversation (with the mathematics teacher) is halfway through the novel. The second is at the very end when he confronts the board of enquiry. The net effect of this is to emphasise how much the boys have internalised and then redirected the ethos of an authoritarian institution. Ostensibly, this is not a story of teachers mistreating adolescents, but of adolescents mistreating other adolescents. (“Tom Brown’s Schooldays meets Lord of the Flies” as I heard somebody describe it.) Yet clearly the institution itself has influenced the way the adolescents behave.

Despite its specific cultural and historical setting, there are many things that make this novel universal. There is that tentative adolescent quest for a firm identity once childhood certainties have been pulled away. In a way that some might consider particularly Germanic, Torless and his peers speculate cloudily and at great length on metaphysics, ideals, illusion and truth. They are seeking, but not yet finding, a firm grounding, and are still unfamiliar with the state of personal autonomy. In an acute piece of observation, Musil at first has Torless caving in completely to the ideas of Basini’s tormentors. There is at once that adolescent desire to be separate from parents and family and yet at the same time to conform to peers. Indeed sensitive Torless is the passive conformist, not once actively helping Basini and in the end leaving him to his own devices.

Beineberg, who often disguises his sadism in terms of the questing soul, asks Torless “Why do you keep staring out of the window? What is there to be seen? Torless replies that he is wondering whether things have a language of their own. The author then cuts in:

 “But actually he had gone on to thinking about something else, which he did not wish to speak of. That high tension, that harkening as if some solemn mystery might become audible, and the burden of gazing right into the midst of the still undefined relationships of things – all this was something he had been able to endure only for a moment. Then he had once again been overcome by a sense of solitude and forlornness, which always followed this excessive demand upon his resources. He felt: there’s something in this that’s still too difficult for me. And his thoughts took refuge in something else, which was also implicit in it all, but which, as it were, lay only in the background and biding its time: loneliness.” (p.26)

Later, the quest for personal autonomy is made even more explicit:

Then he would yearn to feel something firm in himself at long last, to feel definite needs that would distinguish between good and bad, between what he could make use of and what was useless, and to know he himself was making the choice, even though wrongly – for even that would be better than being so excessively receptive that he simply soaked up everything…” (p.54)

But, together with the quest, there is that adolescent scepticism of all things, which impedes the entry into adulthood:

He felt the urge to search unceasingly for some bridge, some connection, some means of comparison, between himself and the wordless things confronting his spirit. But as often as he put his mind at rest about any one idea, there would be again that incomprehensible objection: It’s all a lie. It was as if he must work out an unending sum in long division with a recurring decimal in it, or a if he were skinning his fingers in the frantic struggle to undo an endless knot.” (p.92)

To talk about and about things without ever confronting them – that is a universal adolescent habit too, even if we meet it here in Germanic guise.

So it is as an intense dissection of a half-formed mind that I value Young Torless and find it a rewarding experience.

But I know there are two other dominant ways this book has been analysed.

One is to link it with the Vienna of Musil’s contemporaries Freud and Schnitzler, and see it as a story of repressed and wayward sexuality. Uncertainty about sexual identity is, after all, as much a part of adolescent experience as uncertainty about selfhood, reality or valid values. So we have analyses of the novel, which split the difference between homo-sociality (the experience of living in a single sex environment); homo-eroticism (sexual arousal by a member of the same sex) and fully-formed homosexuality. Is this a “gay” novel, as some websites now rather glibly assume? Indeed, I saw one such website which suggested that (though it is sometimes taught in German high schools), Young Torless couldn’t be taught in American high schools because conservatives would object to its “gay” content. (My own thought is that it couldn’t be taught in American high schools because most American adolescents would find it too intellectually challenging).

I’m not sure this is the point of the novel. Certainly it is sexually explicit, but the homo-eroticism it depicts is the sexuality of the prison, and not of free and fully-formed desire.

Very early in the novel (pp.6-8), and before the “story” proper starts, there is an account of Torless’s relationship with a young prince whose manners are described in terms that would now be called “camp”. Torless is at first attracted to him, but then begins to tease him mercilessly – prefiguring the later complexities of homo-social relationships in the novel. Beineberg and Reitling’s sexual exploitation of Basini is the sexual exploitation of an available object. And, to the very end, Musil is ambiguous about Torless’s own orientation. He comments:

But it would be entirely wrong to believe that Basini had aroused in Torless a desire that was – however fleetingly and perplexedly – a thorough-going and real one. True, something like passion had been aroused in him, but ‘love’ was certainly only a casual, haphazard term for it, and the boy Basini himself was no more than a substitute, a provisional object of this longing. For although Torless did debase himself with him, his desire was never satisfied by him; on the contrary, it went on growing out beyond Basini, growing out into some new and aimless craving….. It was the secret, aimless, melancholy sensuality of adolescence, a sensuality attaching itself to no person, and like the moist, black, sprouting earth in early spring, or like dark, subterranean waters that some chance event will cause to rise, sweeping the walls away.” (pp.165-166)

That bit about the “secret, aimless, melancholy sensuality of adolescence, a sensuality attaching itself to no person” seems to suggest masturbation, and Basini as merely a stimulus to such.

The other way the novel has been considered is as a harbinger of Nazism (which, in its SA and SS, did have its own core of homo-erotic appeal). Nearly thirty years after writing the novel, Musil (married to a Jewish wife and very anti-Nazi) gave credence to this interpretation when he compared Reitling with the naked power-seeking side of Nazism and Beineberg with a racially-conscious, Superman-worshipping Nietzschean philosopher.

Okay – the homo-erotic content and the social awareness are there in the novel, but I’d still stick to my view that it’s the analysis of a tentative adolescent mentality that makes Young Torless a classic.

Interesting footnote: Many years ago I saw a film society screening of Volker Schlondorff’s debut feature film, made in 1966 and adapted from Musil’s novel. He chose to call it simply Der Junge Torless (Young Torless) without the “perplexities” bit. It was shot in black-and-white and was very popular with the critics, winning a prize at Cannes. I remember it as a grim and chilly movie, but I am fairly sure that, while it depicts the novel’s setting and core situation accurately, it does not follow the action of the novel closely. I have been able to access only a few clips of it on Youtube. These include a (subtitled) trailer for its original German release, which says “this is not a literary adaptation, but a film from a young and talented director”. Given that so much of the novel is internal commentary, I believe this is indeed the case.