Friday, 25 January 2008

First Year of Scientific Knowledge (1890)

‘What a charming book!’ I thought, ‘filled with a wealth of facts concerning biology, chemistry and physics, a brief guide to the state of scientific knowledge in the later 19th-century. How pleasant to browse, to note how rarely the author is incorrect in his pronouncements , and how often he is correct: for although he thinks electrical charge passes from churches to the sky (‘electricity glides gently toward the steeples … and from them into the air and into a cloud’, 191) almost all the other physical and chemical facts in the book are as factually accurate today as they were then.' Not only that, but this scientific common sense is illustrated with some delightful images and captions. Click this thumbnail, for instance, for a larger image:

Lovely, I thought. But then, having browsed throughout, I turned at last to the beginning: Natural History, Animals, Divisions of the Animal Kingdom. What’s this? Mankind: ‘we will begin the study of Mammalia with mankind, for man belongs to that category’. And right at the get-go, here is as blatant a statement of nineteenth-century ‘scientific’ racism as you’ll find. Click again and read:

'We will for the time being take notice only of the white race of Europe, the yellow race of Asia, the black race of Africa, and the red race of America. Only you must know that white men, being more intelligent, more industrious and more courageous that the others, have spread over the whole world, so that the inferior races disappear as they are subjugated by them.' [21]

I was wrong; not a charming book at all, but an ugly one; one small portion of that tide of racist discourse that generated so much human misery in the nineteenth-century, and directly informed the mass murders of the twentieth. The preface says: 'In issuing an English edition of M. Paul Bert's famous Book, the Publishers would mention that its success has been so great in France that in 3 years 500,000 copies have been sold, and there is scarcely a school, even in the smallest village, which doesn't use it.' Those words look rather chilling, now, don't they? Every child, even in the smallest village, being taught that the inferior races disappear as they are subjugated by the white? I wonder how significant a part M. Bert played in normalising a culture of racism and murder?

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Henry White, History of France from the Earliest Period to the Present Year (1851)

Splendid little volume, that really does go, in 377 small-format pages, from 'earliest times' ('The city of Marseille, of old called Massilia, was founded by the Greeks of Phoeaea in Asia Minor five or six hundred years before the birth of Christ') to 1851. Of Napoleon III, only just come to power when the book was written, White observes: 'the world in general had but a poor opinion of the abilities of this prince, who, at Strasbourg in 1836 and at Boulogne in 1840, had shown neither firmness nor good sense; but all moderate and conscientious men agreed to give his government a fair trial' [366]. Hugo wouldn't have agreed.
Each chapter ends with questions for the student. For instance, from the various questions at the end of the last chapter: '3. Give an account of the socialists and communists, and the views they entertained' [p.367]. Luckily, White has previously summarised this complex question for us:
A set of men called Socialists and Communists had been for some time forming a party whose design it was to change the whole order of civil society. The principle from which they started was, that the labouring classes should be taken in hand and provided for by the state, instead of working on the system of free labour for their own bread. They taught these doctrines very sedulously; and as there was something in them attractive to the idle and worthless, they had many followers. [349]
So there we are.
But best of all is the (I like to think) Victorian doodling with which a previous owner of the book filled the blank pages at the end. Trees. As if, in postscript, the book is saying: 'sketching trees, howsoever poorly, is more interesting than French history'. [As to the dates of these doodles: I can't be sure, but somebody in pencil has marked his/her progress through the volume by writing dates, '3rd September 1892' on p.33; '11th October 1892' on p.64 and so on, which makes me believe the sketches date from then. The name 'Sarah Anne Buckley' is written, in pen, in the inside back cover. Maybe she's the artist].

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Mary (1926)

Nabokov's first novel (first published as Машенька, 1926): Ganin is Russian, chased from his homeland by the Revolution and living with others of his kind in a seedy Berlin boarding house. He is at a loose end, miserable, jobless, purposeless. One of his fellow boarders, a clownish geezer, announces that his wife Mary (Mashenka in the original) is coming to join him. Seeing a photo, Ganin becomes convinced that this woman is his first love, and begins to fantasise that when she arrives the two of them will be able to rekindle their romance and run away together. One of the more effective features of the novel is the way the reader is lead to believe that this fancied resemblance between the photograph of the wife and Ganin's memory of his first love is a mismatch, which is to say, that it's all in Ganin's mind. The way Nabokov resolves this (I'd say the Mary of the photo is Ganin's first love; but it's nicely ambiguous) adds depth to the whole. For much of the book sunlit, dew-drenched memories of this first romantic encounter alternate with passages neatly capturing the down-at-heel experience of penniless exiles. It's a little clumsy in some regards: various awkward transitions from sentence to sentence (but what sentences!), a few moments misjudged tonally and overall a kind of crudeness of pacing. But there's lots of very striking and indeed beautiful writing. I particularly liked this description of Ganin's final flight from the Crimea:
At night, on board ship, he watched the empty white sleeves of searchlights
filling in and sinking again across the sky, while the black water looked
varnished in the moonlight and farther away, in the night haze, a brightly lit
foreign cruiser rode at anchor, resting on the streamy gold pillars of its own
reflection. [119-120]
Rich but handsomely handled, that, like most of the prose in the novel. Mary, I take it, is a sort of oblique homage to Russian later nineteenth-century poetry; verse that is often gaudy and emotive; the sort of thing Nabokov himself tended to write, when he wrote poetry. Here's Ganin remembering being a boy, in the lavatory of his parent's house at night, fantasising about the girl Mary he has seen but not yet got to know.
Ganin flung open the casement and installed himself, feet and all, on the window
ledge; the velvet cord swung gently and the starry sky between the black poplars
made you want to heave a deep sigh. And that moment, when he sat on the
window ledge of that lugubrious lavatory, and thought how he would probably
never, never get to know the girl with the black bow on the nape of her delicate
neck, and waited in vain for a nightingale to start trilling in the poplars, as
in a poem by Fet -- that moment Ganin now rightly regarded as the highest and
most important of his whole life. [56]
Fet is Afanásy Fet (1820-92), the illegitimate son of a Russian Squire (the Squire was called Shenshin; 'Fet' was his German mother's maiden-name) one of the most romantic, and Romantic, poets of his lush generation. Here is a Fet poem from 1843:
I have come to you with greeting,
To tell you that the sun is up
To tell you its new light is fleeting
On the green leaves' loving-cup.
To say the forest is awake
Its trees are filled with springtime's thirst
Its many tremulous branches shake
And every bird within it stirs.
To tell you that I've come again
As passionate as I was before;
My soul prepared once more to frame
Our happiness, our true amour.
To tell you that joy's billowing
Blows over me from everywhere,
To say: I don't know what to sing;
I only know a song is there.