Monday, 9 December 2002

Lotsa books

Listening to:

Brahms, symphony no. 3 in F, op 90.

Just read:

Granta 79: celebrity.

This issue of the literary magazine was an enjoyable one. The photo essay was a series of photos that “ordinary” people had sent in, showing them in the company of someone famous. One was even of someone with a famous horse (not, I hasten to add, that I had ever heard of this horse). I also remember an interesting essay about the position of the monarchy in the UK. The author puts forward the interesting theory that people like going to see the Queen because it gives them a chance to be part of a big crowd and to see that they and the rest of the crowd behave well. The British like to be decorous; like to think that they're capable of civilised behaviour in the mass, so that they can go to line the streets of London and wait quietly for hours before the Queen even arrives. As a republican, I can only mutter that it seems an expensive habit. On the other hand, it is good for people to learn to congregate without starting riots.

Brenda Maddox, Rosalind Franklin: the dark lady of DNA.

This was another biography of a scientific subject. I liked it a lot. Rosalind Franklin played an important rôle in the discovery of the structure of DNA. She took particularly good crystallographic photos, and was, it appears, thinking thoughts of roughly the right sort when Crick and Watson had their own Eureka moment. They were helped to this important idea after obtaining one photo of Franklin's in a slightly underhand way, and this doesn't reflect so well on them. Just as in all science, they were standing on the shoulders of giants, and anyone else who offered what looked like a good perspective could expect to be clambered on. Nonetheless, they did have the idea first, and deserve the credit. Certainly, Franklin doesn't seem to have harboured them any ill-will, and got on particularly well with Crick.

But this biography tells the story of the whole life, and the research into DNA was a relatively small part of Franklin's career. Maddox also describes her childhood and early schooling in plenty of interesting detail. One chapter, about post-graduate work in Cambridge, features an obnoxious chemist called Norrish. (I think he may have gone on to win a Nobel Prize.) This was something of a strange experience; it's an uncommon enough surname that my eye tends to pick it out automatically on a page.

The tragic bit is that Franklin died of cancer in the late 50s, before Crick, Watson and Wilkins got their Nobel Prize for the work on DNA; before the publication of Watson's popular science book, which portrayed Franklin very unsympathetically and very unfairly in the opinion of most; and before she had a chance to do all the research she wanted. She was less than forty, and was definitely cut down in her prime.

The comparison with A beautiful mind is an interesting one. Franklin's subject is more accessible than Nash's, and she didn't have a lot else going on in her life apart from it. This means that there is even more science in this biography, but much less in the way of intimate personal stories. When Franklin took time off, she hosted dinner parties and went walking over European mountains with friends. Nash went bonkers, fathered illegitimate children and got arrested in Californian toilets for obscene behaviour. I didn't mind this difference in focus at all. The science was interesting, and there was lots of personal detail in terms of the inevitable politicking attendant on working with others in any sort of field. It's not so clear that this biography will ever turn into an Oscar-winning film, but I'd recommend it just as highly.

Robertson Davies, The Cornish trilogy.

I don't know if this trilogy's component novels are available separately. I read a fat paperback omnibus of all three, and enjoyed it a great deal. The three novels are definitely separate books, so it's not as if Davies set out to write one big novel, and just happened to split it up into three volumes (as happened with The Lord of the Rings, say). There are definite linkages between all three, but the basic stories in each are self-contained. The first novel is definitely the weakest. It's made unappealing through the presence of a couple of characters who are supposed to be unappealing, but who get far too much air time, right up until the moment when they undergo mutual annihilation. This latter is done extremely stylishly, and is really very funny, in a beautifully shocking way. The other problem with this first novel, is that Davies presents a scientist as a fairly important secondary character, and completely fails to convince me that any scientist could be remotely like this. All three novels are quite philosophical, by which I mean that there are frequent digressions into things like morality and the nature of Art. This can be difficult to do well, but Davies usually does a good job of it, and kept my interest, even if the story wasn't advancing at a great rate of knots.

The second novel surprised me by dropping back to the start of the 20th century to tell the life-story of Francis Cornish, who was dead at the start of the first novel. Where it was hard to see any particular theme in the first, this second is definitely about painting, a subject that Davies writes about very well. (This contrasts with the treatment he metes out to Science in the first novel.) Francis Cornish is a fascinating character, and the other characters, his family, lovers and acquaintances, are also compellingly drawn. I found a lot to savour in this novel, managing to bear the cutesy interjections from a pair of disembodied spirits.

The third novel shifts back to the modern Canada of the first novel, and we rejoin the cast of characters that we met there (less the awful duo that did the mutual annihilation). There are more characters to meet as well, and if painting was the focus before, now we get to look at music, and opera in particular. The new characters are again very good, and the plot is a good vehicle for their continuing interaction, even though nothing particularly dramatic happens.

Davies wrote a number of other novels, and I'm definitely looking forward to reading them too.

To read next:

Walter Moers, The 13½ lives of Captain Blue Bear.

I am now living in Australia. For the moment I'm in Perth, and in January I will be in Canberra. The hiatus in my web-log entries is a result of all the faff of moving a household.