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Monday, March 20, 2017

Something New



NOTICE TO READERS: For six years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
 
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE DOLL-MASTER and other tales of terror” by Joyce Carol Oates (Mysterious Press / Head of Zeus – Harper/Collins, $NZ24:99)

            Recently I read a profile of the American novelist and short-story writer Joyce Carol Oates (born 1938). It began by saying that, when reviewers deal with her, they always have to admit that they have read only a fraction of her work. There is a reason for this. Since the early 1960s, Oates has produced over 90 books, including fifty novels. She averages nearly two books a year and it would take a couple of years to read her complete works.
Her productivity drives some people wild.
The late neurotic and insecure scribbler Gore Vidal, who spent his public life posing as a world-weary patrician, was big on bitchy one-liners and put-downs. The story goes that when asked what the three most dispiriting words in the English language were, he replied “Joyce Carol Oates”. For those who have read none of her work, this is a good enough excuse to ignore her. For myself, I have, like most people, read only a few of her books, but at the very least I have found them entertaining, even if they do sometimes go on a bit. (Find elsewhere on this blog reviews of Joyce Carol Oates’ Gothic vampire novel The Accursed and her short-story collection Black Dahlia& White Rose).
            Oates’ latest production The Doll-Master and other tales of terror comprises six longish short stories (all about forty or fifty pages in length). All are more or less in the thriller or suspense mode, though I think it’s stretching it a bit to call then “tales of terror”. I would say that only one of them really terrified me. The rest gave a slight frisson of impending doom, but no real terror. All were previously published in magazines, as is the way with Oates’ story collections, with fully half of them first appearing in the venerable Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
            The title story “The Doll-Master” is told in the first-person by Robbie who, when he was a little boy, was separated from the little girl he liked who owned a doll. Robbie became obsessed with dolls, hiding his obsession from his macho father who wanted him to play with action men. The story develops with his collecting and hiding dolls he has found, until he is of college student age. His voice is the voice of a psychopath. This is creepy up to a point, but regrettably, the story comes to a punch-line which reveals too much and shows much of the story to have been trickery at the reader’s expense. I am surprised that it is the weakest entry that gives the volume its title.
            “Soldier” is once again told in the first-person voice of a disturbed male, 30-year-old Brandon who is awaiting trial for what some characterise as a race-hate-crime. He shot dead a black teenager, but he seems to sincerely believe that he was being threatened by a gang and acted in self-defence. In part, Joyce Carol Oates is satirising both the hysteria of social media and those who promote racial violence. Awaiting trial, Brandon gets hate mail but also mail telling him that he is a hero. A wealthy gun manufacturer pays for his defence and a TV company offers big money to dramatise his life story. Because this is in the first-person, we believe we are privileged to see how Brandon’s mind really works. It is clear that his upbringing (fundamentalist Protestant church; gun-toting ex-cop uncle) has influenced the way he thinks. It is also clear that he has limited intelligence. When shown a large denomination banknote he says “It is the first time I have seen and touched a hundred-dollar bill with the face of Benjamin Franklin on it – I think he is one of the U. S. presidents of a long time ago.” He puts common phrases, unfamiliar to himself, in inverted commas (“defence team” etc) the way the semi-literate sometimes do, and at one point he admits that he has never travelled further than the next county. We tend to pity him rather than despise him. But Oates pulls a switch in the last few pages of this 40-page story which so totally changes the psychological landscape that it is hard not to think we have suffered a prolonged confidence trick. I am left wondering if Joyce Carol Oates set out to explore in detail the mind of a killer, but than backed out into a compromise ending.
            “Gun Accident – An Investigation” is yet again in the first-person, but this time it is a woman’s voice. This is an ambitious story. The middle-aged woman Hanna, married with children, conveys the sense of trauma that still shakes her when she comes back to the neighbourhood she grew up in. She always recalls an awful event that happened to her as a teenager. There is a great and long (possibly over-long) build-up to the revelation that when she was house-sitting for a neighbour, burglars broke in on her and mistreated her intimately. I think Oates’ purpose here is to deal with the life-long psychological after-effects of such an event rather than with the brutal event itself. Yet, coming as the story’s late climax, the event is still a sensational shocker and that is probably a good description of the story’s effect
            “Equatorial” is told in the third person, but it is the third-person-limited in which we see the thoughts of only one character, Audrey. She is the wife of an academic, Henry, accompanying him on a guided tour to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. She feels inadequate. She is not an academic as most of the tour party is. She is Henry’s third wife and he is her second husband. Could it be that their marriage is falling apart? Could it be that Henry has found another woman? Indeed could it be that Henry is trying to kill her? Was he actually tying to knock her off balance when they came down that steep mountain path in Ecuador? Did he want to push her into the sea from the “moon deck” of their cruise ship? And is that sleek, young Asian woman academic in their tour party Henry’s new lover, because Audrey thinks she’s seen the woman with Henry before? As a suspense story, this one reminds me very much of the ancient Hitchcock film Suspicion, in which a wife spends the whole movie fearing that her husband intends to kill her, and we are not sure if she is right or simply too imaginative. Given that premise, it works reasonably well as suspense (and of course I am not the sort of cad to tell you how it turns out). But Joyce Carol Oates seems to want it to say something more. Henry is usually called “the husband” and Audrey “the wife”, as if they are types of marital insecurity. And in the Galapagos Islands section there’s a lot of talk about natural selection (it’s Darwin country, folks) and whether the fittest really do survive – which Audrey relates to her own fraught situation. But while it’s a good time-passer, I see it as a suspense story with pretensions.
            For me, “Big Momma” is the one real tale of terror in the book, with suspense built up slowly to a grisly ending. Again, it is written in the third-person-limited voice, with us sharing the thoughts and viewpoint of Violet. She is an awkward only child, friendless at school and neglected by her mother who is often out late.  But a nice man takes an interest in Violet and often drives her to his home, where she enjoys the company of other children, especially as the man is the father of one of her classmates. Gosh, the man is nice to her. He strokes the nape of her neck affectionately… and if you at this point think you know where this unsettling story is going, you are quite wrong. At about midway point it introduces us to something bizarre and horrifying, taking us down quite a different path. I can’t spike its surprise by saying anything further. It works very well as a horror story. There is nothing more that need be said about it.
            “Mystery Inc.”, on the other hand, dips into a rather more genteel form of horror – indeed a somewhat retro one. The first-person narrator is the disgruntled owner of a chain of failing second-hand bookshops. He plans to murder the owner of an upmarket antiquarian bookstore, which he hopes to take over. His voice is fussy, pedantic and self-justifying and we lose much confidence in him when, less than a third of the way through the story, we learn that he has disguised himself from his intended murder victim by donning a red wig and false glasses. Surely the owner of a shop specialising in murder-mystery books would rapidly see through such a disguise?! It is not only the antique bookstore setting, but also the story’s development that makes it appear most like the old-fashioned “cosy” variety of murder story – like those which appeared in the very same antique novels and mystery magazines that line the bookshop’s shelves and are referenced in the text.  This cosiness is reinforced by the  way so much of the story is conveyed in a long conversation between the would-be murderer and his intended victim.
            Is there any distinctive voice of Joyce Carol Oates in these stories?
            Not really. They are the work of an author who knows how to adapt herself to the requirements of publications that accept her work, and proof that she can turn her hand to mystery and murder stories, some with odd psychological kinks. Cornell Woolrich and Patricia Highsmith did the kinks better than she does, but she is entertaining.
            Which is no less than I expected of her.


Something Old


Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "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 four or more years ago. 

“A MUMMER’S WIFE” by George Moore (first published in 1884)

More than once on this blog I have dealt with the Irish-turned-English author George Moore (1852-1933). So far, I have discussed those of his books that are most often reprinted, and regarded as his best work, the novels EstherWaters (1894) and The Lake (1902); and the three-volume autobiography Hailand Farewell (1911-1914). These were all written when George Moore was well-established as a literary figure.
But it is sometimes interesting to consider what an author was like nearer the beginning of his career. Written when he was in his early 30s, A Mummer’s Wife was only Moore’s second novel, coming after the mediocre A Modern Lover. Up to that time, Moore had mainly written (now forgotten) poetry or had tried to make himself a painter. There are moments of vigour in A Mummer’s Wife, and some of the action is vivid. But it is also a rocky ride of melodrama harnessed to social comment and some heavy-duty moralising.
The action of the novel takes place over four years.
In the Staffordshire potteries town of Hanley, 27-year-old Kate Ede is married to asthmatic Ralph Ede the linen-draper. Her mother-in-law, Mrs Ede, is a severe Wesleyan and strongly disapproves of all things theatrical. Ralph requires Kate’s constant nursing.
Kate finds the town where she lives oppressive and nasty, and George Moore piles on the figurative language to express her disgust, as in “The crescent-shaped suburb slept like a scaly reptile just crawled from out of its bed of slime.” (Chapter 10) Or as in “There were long lines of coal-wagons… These were covered with black tarpaulin, and the impression produced was that of a funeral procession marching through a desert whose colour was red.” (Chapter 11)
Kate, a furtive reader of romantic novels, dreams of escape and secretly admires their shop-assistant Miss Hender, who frequently goes off to the theatre.
Straitened circumstances means the Edes have to take in lodgers. They take in the corpulent travelling actor Dick Lennox. His bedroom is just across from Kate’s and Ralph’s. It is relatively easy for Kate to allow herself to be attracted to him, even though her church-bred conscience occasionally troubles her.  She finds excuses to meet the fat actor while pretending to make business calls…. And eventually she runs away with him.
It takes Kate some time to get used to the bohemian amorality of the acting company of which Dick Lennox is part. It is clear that the company’s leading lady, Miss Leslie, was once Dick Lennox’s mistress, and there is much backbiting and easy morality in the chorus. Kate is soon aware that Dick has a roving eye. Eventually, however, she is accepted grudgingly as a member of the company and begins to make a modest name for herself singing and dancing. She is cast in supporting roles in the light operettas that the company performs as it tours the provinces. George Moore remarks “Kate had not become an actress; she was merely a middle-class woman veneered with Bohemianism.” (Chapter 17)
Then, about the time that her divorce from Ralph Ede is granted, she discovers that she is what the novel tactfully calls “enceinte”. At about this same time she has formed a platonic attachment to the company’s sentimental musical director Montgomery, with whom she has many long conversations when Dick is too busy to engage with her.
Up to this point, the touring theatrical company is reasonably prosperous. Dick and Kate are married. But Kate’s baby dies within hours of his birth and, coincidentally, the company’s fortunes begin to decline in economic hard times until the management (in London) decides to break it up and the chorus is paid off. For a short time Dick, Kate, Montgomery and a few other actors call themselves the “Constellation Company” and tour tiny industrial settlements, attracting tiny audiences. But even this comes to an end and Kate and Dick head for cheap lodgings in London.
Now Kate begins to drink seriously. She feels some remorse for her infant child’s death. More poignantly, she regrets the settled domestic life she abandoned and she becomes obsessed with her husband’s fidelity. Her husband becomes involved with a wealthy dilettante Mrs Forest (in which character George Moore ridicules fashionable Oriental mysticism) who has said she is willing to bankroll a production of an opera Montgomery has written.
 Kate sinks lower and lower into gin-swilling. She makes some fearful, violent scenes. At one stage, she is committed briefly for possible insanity. Dick arranges a formal separation from her. Kate dries out and tries to reconcile with Dick, but she discovers that he is already cohabiting with another woman. It is at this point that Kate happens to meet Ralph Ede, who has married their shop-assistant Miss Hender. So Kate feels sharply the fact that she no longer has either the excitement of the theatre or the satisfactions of settled domesticity.
In one last massive binge, and sometimes funding her drinking habit by prostituting herself, she proceeds to drink herself to death.
The novel whose plot I have just synopsised has been reprinted many times but is not as well known as Moore’s other works. When I read it, I had to retrieve it from the stacks of a university library. The very early edition I read had an inserted slip of paper declaring: “This book has been placed on the Index Expurgatorius of the ‘Select’ Circulating Libraries of Messrs. Mudie and W. H. Smith and Son”.
Clearly there was much in the narrative to offend the sensibilities of Victorians and their circulating libraries – the wife’s adulterous affair with the actor; the backstage nudity that George Moore describes; the child born out of wedlock; the divorce; the “boozing” (so called in the novel) and the prostitution. In Chapter 29, in a passage beginning “Prostitution had for the moment monopolised the town”, George Moore gives a detailed and comprehensive description of all the types of women selling themselves in the seamier London streets. There is also the fact that the sinful Dick is in no way punished for his sins at the novel’s end. Indeed, on the very last page of the novel, Dick signs off with a note of complete indifference. On her deathbed, Kate is delirious and raves in a mixture of the Wesleyan hymns of her youth and the show tunes she had more recently learned, expressive of her “double life”. But when she eventually dies, Dick merely turns to Mrs Forest, who has dropped in to visit the dying woman, and asks casually “Have you finished the second act, dear?
Worse than this (as far as Victorian sensibilities are concerned), there is Kate’s reaction to her baby’s death. Moore suggests that her wailing and grief are strictly for public display, as if she is playing a role that is expected of her, when her feelings are zero:
There was a want of naturalness in this sorrow. It was too vehement and it came too much in jerks to be considered a spontaneous expression of true grief. It was not sustained, there were times when she forgot herself and relapsed into indifference. And yet she was perfectly sincere. Knowing what a mother should feel, she strove to force these feelings upon herself, but the truest sentiment in her heart was a hatred of herself for having got drunk and neglected her child… We have, therefore, arrived at the period of decadence in Kate’s character. Her want of motherly instincts and her forced hysterical grief… As the funeral approached the cemetery, her sobbing was so boisterous that one of the mutes looked round….” (Chapter 24)
And yet, despite all these offences against Victorians and their lending libraries, Moore himself is essentially Victorian in his attitudes in this novel. Indeed, his attitude towards theatrical people is really as reproving as that of the puritanical Mrs Ede. I can imagine the whole novel playing as a Victorian melodrama under some such title as RUINED! The Downfall of a Plain Woman. The overall structure is what Leslie Halliwell in his fat film guide so often calls “the road to ruin.”
From first to last, the influence of French naturalism upon young George Moore is clear. A Mummer’s Wife begins as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (or Guy de Maupassant’s Une Vie, which was published the year before A Mummer’s Wife) with a bored woman dreaming of escape from a limiting life. It ends up as Emile Zola’s condemnation of booze and alcoholism L’Assommoir, which was published in 1877, seven years before A Mummer’s Wife. George Moore was a lifelong admirer of Zola, and records a visit he made to Zola in the Confessions of a Young Man, which he wrote a few years after A Mummer’s Wife appeared.
In A Mummer’s Wife there is both ripe melodrama and much piling-on of documentary detail, just as there is in Zola. When Kate and Dick make a visit to a Staffordshire pottery, we get a full description of how the place works. When a Dr Hooper ministers to Kate in her last pathetic days, we are given the pathology of alcoholism and all its symptoms (at which point Moore really is copying L’Assommoir). The effect is much as it often is in Zola – the effect of having been “mugged up” and producing a detachable essay.
There are, however, scenes where Moore’s scrupulous pursuit of physical detail pays dividends. The best single scene in the novel – or at least the one that stays longest in my mind – is in Chapter 12, where the theatrical touring company make a brief stop at a railway station on their route; and manage to scoff a meal laid out by the station’s caterers, without paying for it before their train departs. The narrative of anxious waiters running up and down, trying to find who is responsible for paying for the meal, would not work as well if we had not first been given a full account of the station itself and its practices in catering for visitors who are passing through only briefly. Likewise the scene in which simple Lancashire folk are so impressed by the tatty “Constellation Company” that they give the mummers a bed for the night – this works because we are first given a set-up to what sort of people the Lancashire audience is.
            In spite of these merits, A Mummer’s Wife has the same essential flaw as de Maupassant’s Une Vie. Its central character is a puppet. Moore himself appears to despise Kate as a brainless woman, easily duped by tinselly illusions, which are rapidly shown to be only illusions. The literary “pretext” of using her ignorance of the theatre to introduce us to the theatrical life makes her appear doubly naïve. Moore’s fundamental contempt for Kate is made explicit:
            She was the woman that nature turns out of her workshop by the million, all of whom are capable of fulfilling the duties of life, provided the conditions in which they are placed, that have produced them, remain unaltered. They are like plants that grow well so long as they are not transplanted from the original soil. They are like cheap Tottenham Court Road furniture, equal to an ordinary amount of wear and tear so long as the original atmosphere in which they were glued together is preserved. Change this, and they go to pieces. This was precisely what had happened in the case of Kate Ede.” (Chapter 27).
I closed A Mummer’s Wife feeling that George Moore had much talent that had not yet matured. Where he stands morally is at best ambiguous, but the “road to ruin” structure harnesses him to received opinions. He can be vivid when writing of sordor or the scallywaggery of travelling actors, but he can also pile on the moralising. He has read his French masters, but he has not the freedom to speak as frankly as they do. This is a very imperfect novel showing promise. A young man’s novel forsooth.

Something Thoughtful


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

           

Once upon a time, kings and emperors could command architects to design great buildings to their specifications, in a way that only dictators can do now. Of course what the resulting buildings looked like would depend as much on the architects and builders as on the king’s or emperor’s wishes. Even so, there are many great palaces and castles across Europe that give some indication of the mind of a ruler with near absolute power.

We visited three of them during a recent trip to Europe.

Taking a daytrip out from Paris, we visited Versailles, which I last saw as an eleven-year-old in Europe with my parents and some of my siblings. Versailles is so clearly and so unambiguously a hymn to the worldly magnificence, wealth and power of King Louis XIV, designed to overwhelm visitors by its scale, by the extent of its grounds, by its statuary, design and decorations.

Walking down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, we visited the Palace of Holyroodhouse, still occasionally the residence of the present queen. It was rebuilt to its present state in the 17th century after the union of England and Scotland. It is like a pocket edition of Versailles – much smaller and more modest in scale, reminding Scots that they are subordinate to the country down south, and with the smashed ruins of Holyrood Abbey on its grounds further reminding Scots that their religion would now be dictated by the monarch.

But more than any other, the palace that incarnated the idea of a monarch was the monastery and royal palace of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, built for Philip II of Spain between the 1560s and 1580s. It’s about 28 miles north-west of Madrid – so about an hour’s train journey across the Castilian Plain from Madrid. Frankly tourists, and not claiming to be experts on Spain, we visited it as a daytrip when we were spending six nights in Madrid. Apparently the great majority of its visitors are day-trippers – about half a million of them each year.

It was one thing to bustle across the plain in mid-January, which should be the depths of winter, and to have a blue sky above us, and the great plain looking parched and yellow as if in mid-summer heat.  It was quite another to arrive at the small town of Escorial and find a bitterly cold wind blowing, despite the sunshine. It was mid-winter after all.

After a short taxi hop from the railway station, we were at the palace and monastery.

And here is the first thing that advises you of the mind of the king.


The outer walls of both palace and monastery are plain, bare, uniform and largely unadorned. They speak of a sort of magisterial austerity, even if they took the equivalent of millions of dollars to raise. You are not being told here of magnificence and worldly wealth, as at Versailles. You are being told of a formidable and fixed purpose.

Going through the main gate to the palace, you pass under a lintel with huge statues of the Old Testament Kings of Israel – David, Solomon and others. The religious purpose of the king is declared.

The Escorial is one of those places that does not allow tourists to take photos, though you may ache to do so. For some, the centrepiece would be the huge basilica within the palace, with its towering, elaborate and colourful altarpiece, incorporating at least seventeen paintings; and with huge canvases by El Greco and others around the walls, special chapels to saints abounding, and the general over-elaboration of late Renaissance art on the way to becoming baroque. In a way it is magnificent, at least declaring the centrality of religion to the king. In other ways, it is daunting and forbidding. This is the heart of Spain declaring it is ultra-Catholic in the face of the Protestant Reformation.

Royalty lies below religion in this schema – at any rate, all but two of Spain’s monarchs since the sixteenth century are buried in the vaults below the basilica. And down in this crypt, too, I delighted to discover the tomb of Philip II’s bastard half-brother Don John of Austria, which set me off remembering, from school, parts of G. K. Chesterton’s poem Lepanto, about Don John’s great sea victory.

But more than anything, what impressed me about the Escorial was Philip II’s great library. It contains thousands of folios and quartos from all quarters of the literate world – volumes in Spanish, Latin, Greek, Arabic and other languages. Many of them might have been banned by the Inquisition, but the king had special dispensation to possess them – and apparently he was an eager reader. The vaulted ceiling of the library contains Biblical scenes to rival the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Lined up along the floor of the library are the best astronomical and geographical aids that the sixteenth century possessed – great terrestrial and stellar globes; compasses; telescopes; what were then the wonders of modern science.


There are map rooms, which boast of Spain’s huge American empire, the largest empire the world had yet seen. But as for the king’s private apartments – they are modest and small.

Now how do I put all this together to read the mind of the king? He was a humanist scholar and a man schooled by the Renaissance. His library tells me that. He was firmly Catholic. He knew that there was a power set over his kingly authority. The great basilica tells me that.  He ruled a huge empire. The map rooms tell me that. Yet he was not personally vain. Indeed, he was something of an ascetic. His modest personal apartments tell me that. And those daunting external walls tell me that he knew much depended on sheer power.

English historical mythology casts Philip II as a villain and tyrant whose great Armada of 1588 was duly defeated. (Of course the Escorial has a triumphant painting of Spaniards defeating the English Counter-Armada of 1589.) But this really is a caricature. The king was a cultured and capable ruler in an age when all monarchs (including English ones) tyrannised subject peoples and asserted royal power.

What I do get from the Escorial, however, is something infinitely sad. The king’s great residence is a considerable distance from his capital city Madrid. When he is here, he is cut off from his people. Standing in the shadow of mountains, the palace is isolated. The wind whips across the plain. But, behind solid walls, the king finds absolute certainty. An ascetic, subjecting himself to the church’s authority, he knows he is not master of the universe. He has read enough to understand better than most people of his time the laws of nature and how the universe works. But he also knows that in Spain and in his empire, his word is law.

This is his burden and his curse. To be ascetic, well-educated, determined and the possessor of absolute kingly power.

How much could go wrong.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Something New


NOTICE TO READERS: For six years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
 
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.


“THE GLASS UNIVERSE” by Dava Sobel (4th Estate – Harper/Collins, $NZ36:99)



            Astronomy made great advances in the 19th century when photography came to its aid and astrophotography was born. Telescopes in observatories were organised to defy the rotation of the Earth and to stay focused on just one area of the night sky. Cameras fitted with specially prepared glass plates could now capture images of greater detail and clarity than a naked eye could see when pressed to the telescope eyepiece. An English firm perfected new dry (and chemically infused) plates, which meant that astronomers themselves no longer needed to treat their photographic plates with chemicals. Stellar spectroscopy allowed astronomers to work out the chemical substance of stars through their colours.

            The new precise and detailed photographic images of the stars were the “glass universe” of science-writer Dava Sobel’s latest work. The heavens suddenly seemed crowded as astronomers could observe far more than had ever previously been seen.  One picture in the 1880s “yielded 462 stars in a region where only 55 had been previously documented.” (p.19)

Nowhere was astrophotography taken up with such enthusiasm as at the observatory of Harvard University between the 1880s and the 1920s. “In less than a decade at the helm,” says Dava Sobel, “[Professor] Edward Pickering had shifted the observatory’s institutional emphasis from the old astronomy centred on star positions, to novel investigations into the stars’ physical nature.” (p.21)

It was men who watched the night skies, organised the telescopes and took most of the photographs – the type of men who won prizes and fellowships and became professors. But increasingly it was women who went through the business of analysing the glass plates and working out the magnitude, position, motion, brightness, colour and position on the spectrum of the stars observed. Comparing different photographic glass plates of the same area of sky, women were also assigned the task of hunting for “variables” – those stars whose brightness changed, possibly because they were part of a binary system or because they were emitting light at different rates in keeping with some process of growth or decay.  

Odd as it now sounds, the women who scrutinised the plates were called “computers”. They computed the distances, magnitude etc of stars. As observation became more precise, as tens of thousands of stars were observed for the first time, and as the sheer variety of stars became known, whole classification systems had to be altered and revised. These “computers” were at the forefront of devising the new systems of classification and hence of re-writing academic astronomy books.

You will now understand why Dava Sobel subtitles The Glass Universe  “The Hidden History of the Women Who Took the Measure of the Stars”. Her declared purpose is to bring to light those pioneering women in American astronomy who did the hard analytical work, in some cases without great public recognition, while the men who ran the astronomical institution often received the kudos.

She tells the stories of many such women.

There was, for example, Antonia Maury, of whom Sobel remarks  “Her two-tiered classification system, which addressed both the identity and the quality of the spectral lines, required a painstaking exactitude.” (p.49) Those last two words, “painstaking exactitude”, characterise much of the work of the “computers”. Glass plates were scrutinised in minute, indeed microscopic, detail, and stars reclassified according to systems that required multiple digits.

There was “Mina” (Williamina) Fleming, who classified over 10,000 stars, discovered ten novae and over 300 variable stars. Fleming was made “curator of astronomical photographs” and was therefore the first woman to hold a title at Harvard – but she was granted a lower rate of pay than her male colleagues.    

“ ‘In the Astrophotographic building of the Observatory,’ [Fleming wrote on] March 1 1900, on a lined yellow notepad, ‘12 women, including myself, are engaged in the care of the photographs; identification, examination and measurement of them; reduction of these measurements, and preparation of results for the printer.’ Every day they bent to their examination tasks in pairs, one with a microscope or magnifying glass poised over a glass plate in its frame, and the other holding a logbook propped open on a desktop or in her lap, recording the spoken observations of her partner. A hum of numbers and letters, like conversations in code, pervaded the computing room.” (p.89)

There was Annie Jump Cannon, who classified many hundreds of thousands of stars and devised the index system “OBAFGKM” which is still used by astronomers. Though it might now be condemned as “sexist”, it was Annie Cannon herself who made up the mnemonic for her index system: “Oh Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me.”

Some of the women Sobel chronicles came from humble backgrounds, including a maidservant, but many came from the newly established colleges for women. Even if they were not paid well, they found the Harvard observatory one of the few places where they could gain meaningful employment in research. In fact some women college graduates begged to be employed for free, such was the prestige of the institution. But Mina Fleming “did not consider it good policy to place the observatory under obligation to anyone for services rendered gratis.” (p.105)

As well as the “computers” Maury, Fleming, Cannon and others, there was another class of women who influenced American astronomy. These were the benefactors, such as Catherine Wolfe Bruce, a wealthy widow who donated her astronomer husband’s advanced telescopes to Harvard; and Anna Palmer Draper, the widow of the wealthy man who basically invented astrophotography and who funded the Harvard work. The constant search for funds is one sub-theme of this book, with Professor Pickering often writing begging letters to the likes of Andrew Carnegie.

To remember innovators in science is obviously a worthwhile thing and Dava Sobel makes a good case for the patient, methodical, observant and highly focused women whom she praises. It is often a matter of recording their careful movements, as in the following precise passage:

Miss Fleming removed each glass plate from its kraft paper sleeve without getting a single fingerprint on either of the eight-by-ten-inch surfaces. The trick was to hold the fragile packet by its side edges between her palms, set the bottom – open – end of the envelope on the lip of the specially-designed stand, and then ease the paper up and off without letting go of the plate, as though undressing a baby. Making sure the emulsion side faced her, she released her grip and let the glass settle into place. The wooden stand held the plate in a picture frame, tilted at a forty-five degree angle. A mirror affixed to the flat base caught daylight from the computing rooms big windows and directed illumination up through the glass.  Mrs Fleming leaned in with her loupe for a privileged view of the stellar universe. She had often heard the director say ‘A magnifying glass will show more in the photograph than a powerful telescope will show in the sky.’ ” (pp.25-26)

By this stage, you are probably persuaded that this is a very worthwhile book. It praises science, it gives an important role to women, its heart is in the right place.

But there are a couple of difficulties in the articulation of Sobel’s feminist theme. First there is the obvious fact that, once the “computer” women are factored in, the progress of astronomy was dependent on both sexes. As an experienced science-writer, Sobel author is fascinated by astronomy itself and its results. Hence, willy-nilly, the book becomes a history of men as much as of women and frequently wanders away from the Harvard “computers”.

Second, unlike her earlier best-selling book Longitude, this book cannot focus on one person and gradually becomes an institutional chronicle, with much information on who was appointed when, what departmental rivalries were going on, and other – not particularly enlightening - detail. In the story of many women’s toil, there is no single breakthrough or “Eureka!” moment; no climax to which the story can build; and hence much dull plodding.

I found myself frequently snatching at the incidental details on the periphery of Sobel’s main narrative. It was amusing to read of Harvard’s (eventually successful) attempts to set up a subsidiary observatory in the clear air of Peru while an armed uprising was going on in that country. There are tantalisingly brief references to the eccentric Percival Lowell, and to Professor Edward Pickering’s younger brother William Pickering, both of whom became obsessed with the notion of “canals” on Mars and even sent articles to credulous newspapers about vegetation on the moon – much to the consternation of more level-headed astronomers. There was the way international events disrupted research. During the First World War, American and British astronomers were separated from their valued German counterparts, meaning they had to catch up with the latter’s observations years after they had been made. This disruption was part of the reason that the great English astronomer Arthur Eddington (the man who confirmed Einstein’s theory of light by astronomical observation) became a lifelong pacifist. And towards the end of Sobel’s narrative, there was, from 1918 through the 1920s, the battle among astronomers over whether the universe was just one huge galaxy of stars; or whether our Milky Way galaxy was simply one galaxy among millions. This academic battle was stimulated by the earliest observations, thanks to astrophotography, of spiral nebulae.

The Glass Universe is a book packed with such interesting information, but in the end, it is a noble and worthy piece of work rather than an intellectually stimulating one. It walks patiently from datum to datum – a bit like the women whom it celebrates.

Something Old


Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "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 four or more years ago. 

“ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE” (“CIEN ANOS DE SOLEDAD”) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (first published in Spanish in 1967; English translation by Gregory Rabassa)

A couple of times before on this blog (see my reviews of The General in His Labyrinth and Autumn of the Patriarch), I have peddled the tale of how I spent seven weeks or so reading the major works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014) ahead of writing a newspaper review of Gerald Martin’s biography Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life. Each time I have discussed this Nobel Laureate, I have made a point of noting that his two most-read novels, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, never really appealed to me, even though I know that One Hundred Years of Solitude has sometimes been called the most significant Spanish-language novel since Don Quixote. I suppose it is now time for me to explain why I am a heretic in this matter, so here goes:
I have tried very hard to like One Hundred Years of Solitude because it is universally regarded as Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece and the key South American novel – but I simply did not engage with it and in the end found myself only dutifully marching through it.
In “magical realist” style (much as Garcia Marquez and others came to hate that term) the novel covers at least one hundred years (and then some) in the life, across six or seven generations, of the Buendia family in the small Colombian town of Macondo – which reportedly stands in for Garcia Marquez’s hometown of Aracataca. Some of the characters, such as the matriarch of the first generation Ursula Iguaran, live through the whole period. Others, such as her son Colonel Aureliano Buendia (who is said to have fought in 32 wars) exert an influence over many generations. Time is stopped, sped up, reversed etc. and of course repeats itself, sometimes with the implication of the “eternal return”, which has befooled more than one person who can’t be bothered investigating in detail the changes that history brings.
Despite its careful structure, the novel is essentially episodic – which meant that I engaged with it only on an episodic level, enjoying individual stories that are embedded in it, but little else.
It is hard to discern which themes are implicit or intentional. In the early chapters, there is much talk about the introduction of modern technology (railways etc.) to the basically pre-industrial society of Macondo and its region; hence there is presumably a balancing of the modern and the pre-modern – the scientific and the magical. There is also much about the creative power of the word and the imagination. It is the gypsy Melquiades who introduces much of the technology in the early section, and near the very end of the novel a young descendant of the Buendia family finds writings by Melquiades which could suggest that the whole story of the Buendias family is a figment of the gypsy’s imagination… or could the gypsy be a personification of Fate or Time or History?
The town of Macondo vanishes at the end of the novel, and is preserved only in the memory of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who introduces himself as a very minor character towards the end.
In the matter of politics, it is interesting to see how Garcia Marquez views the struggles between Liberals and Conservatives with complete impartiality. Colonel Aureliano Buendia fights for the Liberals, but in the political to-ing and fro-ing, the regime he favours is shown to be neither more benign nor more popular than its Conservative rival, and is just as corrupt. This dispassionate view of the political scene is true of Garcia Marquez’s later novels, too, as is the author’s relatively amused view of the Church, which is basically seen as backward but harmless, and is taken for granted as a background factor in everyone’s life. There is some gentle mockery of excessive religiosity. Jose Arcadio, one of the later Buendia offspring, is raised by his pious mother in the hope that he will become pope. But he does not study at all when he is in Rome and instead he becomes a wastrel and a sensualist.
Of course Yanqui imperialism comes in for condemnation with one episode, set in the 1920s, in which thousands of striking workers are massacred to advance the interests of a North American–owned banana company, whose presence has totally changed Maconda’s economy. The massacre is blithely denied and written out of the history books so that nobody any longer believes it happened  – a very ironical instance of the creative power of the word.
Only research subsequent to reading this novel told me that much of the action is deeply rooted in Colombian history. The 32 wars in which Colonel Aureliano Buendia fought were Colombia’s many military upheavals between the 1880s and 1901. The period between 1901 and 1930 was when the country’s economy became heavily controlled by the (American) United Fruit Company, and the mass shooting of striking workers took place in 1928. One Hundred Years of Solitude has often been interpreted as commentary on colonialism and neo-colonialism. According to a critical consensus the “solitude” of the title points to Macondo representing the unassimilated Hispanic culture which has never fully attuned itself to the South American continent and hence which often feels isolated and receives modern developments from the wider world as if they are “magic”. This false consciousness has to disappear before a real, grounded national character can emerge. Yet when he was alive, Garcia Marquez disavowed any specific political “message” for the novel, and one of the reasons for the novel’s popularity is that it can bear many conflicting political interpretations.
This tells you (superficially) what the novel is “about”, but it does not really give you my reasons for being so lukewarm about it. Basically, my objections resolve themselves into three things.
First, I never attuned myself to Garcia Marquez’s (wilful) confusing use of proper names. Across six or seven generations of the Buendia family, a very small pool of personal names is used. Nearly all the men are Aureliano, Jose Arcadio or such imaginative variants as Aureliano Jose. The women across the generations are all variants of Ursula, Amaranta and Remedios. Yes, there are some exceptions, but as very few people are characterised distinctively enough to separate one from another, it is frequently difficult to know who is being discussed – or to care. I should note, by the way, that some have seen a subtext of incest running through this novel – the founding patriarch and matriarch of the Buendia family are first cousins; there are superstitions about babies being born with pigs’ tails; repeatedly, across the generations, reproduction rarely happens in marriage, or it happens in marriage only after many obstacles are placed in its way. It is an inward-turning society that is being depicted.
Second, there is that deadly, boring, killing, monotonous South American machismo. It is hard to find in this novel any exception to the notion that love is nothing more than seduction and sexual conquest. Frankly, it bored the hell out of me to be told that Colonel Aureliano Buendia fathers seventeen different bastard sons on seventeen different women (all of the sons being called Aureliano); or to have yet another account of somebody’s visit to a brothel; or to be given yet another boastful macho account of seduction and copulation in various poses and angles. It is odd how, apparently, South American culture encourages even left-wing writers to measure themselves by the activity of their penises. Women in this novel are either matriarchs OR they are incredibly sexy and willing OR they are cold and cruel and turn away their faithful dying-for-love swains. (There are two or three examples of the latter class in the novel).
In this field, characters remain cartoonishly shallow stereotypes. Does this mean that I am not attuned to the novel’s intended “epic” style – the broad sweep of an historical panorama rather than the intense close-ups of the tighter narrative? Maybe – but the characters are still shallow.
Third, the historian in me rebels at the violation of linear time. Anterior action (reported in conversation etc) is fine. Flashbacks and memories are fine. But when the hundred years-plus are stirred together as if they are one mythic event, we are really confronted with mystification (i.e. “fudging”) by the author. Often, Garcia Marquez’s style comes across as an evasion of cause and effect and historical specificity. As for the magical realist trimming – to me they are just that. Trimmings.
I have just said negative things about a novel that is held in almost universal esteem, so I am on the wrong side of most commentators and many millions of readers. It is sometimes a burden to have tastes and opinions of one’s own, no matter how well-founded they are.