Boyd Tonkin: Stories that cross the great divide
The week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Friday 30 September 2011
Unless a strange glitch disrupts the predictable system of mass-market bookselling, within a few days we shall see at or near the top of the charts a novel that tells its readers more about the mathematics of global finance than they probably ever sought to know. Robert Harris's The Fear Index (discussed in these pages last week) confirms that "popular" fiction often does a better job than its "literary" equivalent of bringing a wide audience up to speed with the theories and technologies that carry change into our lives. Techno-thrillers, where complexity of data can happily coexist with simplicity of character and velocity of plot, may well be the nimblest vehicle for such elusive source-material.
In other kinds of fiction, the danger of the undigested "info-dump" arises. Great writers have often sidestepped it. Reading Claire Tomalin's magisterial life of Charles Dickens, I was reminded of the way that he dodges the question of what the brilliant Daniel Doyce, "smith and engineer", has actually invented in Little Dorrit. It's enough that Doyce's scientific prowess and progressive outlook make him an enemy of the dim and reactionary Circumlocution Office. As Mr Meagles ironises, "He has been ingenious, and he has been trying to turn his ingenuity to his country's service. That makes him a public offender directly, sir." For Dickens, we don't need to know quite how his subversive ingenuity works.
These dilemmas still strike and stir novelists of talent. To fence off a separate genre labelled "science fiction" merely brackets the problems rather than resolving them. They properly belong in much broader field of enquiry: how can we bring the creative arts and the creative sciences together, especially in an era of segmentation and specialisation? This weekend, a festival at the Royal Society in London, firmly entitled "One Culture", will try to shed more light on such dark matter. Participants among a galaxy of interdisciplinary stars (sorry...) will include Marcus Du Sautoy, Sebastian Faulks, Michael Frayn and Apostolos Doxiadis, the polymath who transformed the modern history of mathematics and philosophy into a graphic novel, Logicomix.
Other speakers prove that the age of the sustained twin-track career in literature and science did not die with that magnificent stylist, Charles Darwin. Sunetra Gupta will talk about the nature of narrative on both sides of the arts-science fence that this festival seeks to demolish - or at least diminish. Gupta has published five novels, most recently So Good in Black. She also serves as the professor of theoretical epidemiology at Oxford. Her research focuses on the evolution of the pathogens responsible for malaria, influenza and bacterial meningitis – all of them leading drivers of the human story, however hard to characterise in fiction.
From the calibre of speakers, I would rate the probability as high that One Culture will move beyond the dreary technics of "popularisation". Literature of whatever kind does not consist of empty vessels into which didactic filler may be poured unaltered.
And even the most plodding student ought to grasp that the nature of content will change with its form. For me, this is Dawkins's Drawback, and a deeper worry than the great atheist's stance on faith: the conviction that a body of scientific narrative exists out there, neutral, disembodied and infinitely adaptable to contexts that carry no weight in themselves. Some might call this a metaphysical belief.
Try to challenge the conventions of popular exposition, though, and you run the risk of spreading bafflement. Dava Sobel has had a mixed reception for her new book A More Perfect Heaven: how Copernicus revolutionised the cosmos (Bloomsbury, £14.99). True, its opening and closing sections convey the life and ideas of the pioneering Polish astronomer - who in the early 16th century demonstrated the heliocentric model of the solar system – with all the page-turning lucidity and brio you would hope for from the creator of Longitude.
However, the middle of Sobel's sandwich consists of a play, almost in the Michael Frayn manner, about Copernicus and his pupil Rheticus. I found it a plausible and provocative gambit, if hardly a threat to Frayn, as the polyphony of drama shatters the pop-science rules. Publishers should welcome more of such experiments, and writers should be unafraid to imagine them. The pursuit of a border-crossing "one culture" surely calls for feedback loops - not one-way transmission.
'One Culture', Royal Society, London (01497 822629; royalsociety.org/exhibitions/one-culture), 1 & 2 October
A new bridge builder on the Nile
Whatever happens in the region over the coming years, our need – and appetite – for translations from Arabic literature can only grow. For its second year, the admirable Harvill Secker Young Translators' Prize chose Arabic as its source language (Spanish was the first, and Beth Fowler the winner). It asked entrants to give an English rendering of the story "Layl Gouti" ("Gothic Night") by Egyptian author Mansoura Ez-Eldin. The winner, announced this week, is also Egyptian: Wiam El-Tamami from Cairo, an editor for American University in Cairo Press. Her translation was chosen out of 92 versions of the story from 18 countries. You can read it now on www.granta.com
Man on a (rare) losing streak
What fun to see the biter bit for once. There was always something neatly symbolic about the takeover of Booker Prize sponsorship by the Man Group of hedge funds. Since the Renaissance, the current top dogs of capitalism have always sought prominence via patronage. So it made some sense when our premier honour for fiction acquired the name of a business that embodied the British shift into complex finance as a source of wealth. And, since the hedgies promise to make money on the downside as well as the up-, they need to know how a crash feels. On Wednesday (as I write) Man Group shares have dropped by a shade off 25 per cent inside a single day as the funds' performance dips. By the time you read this, they may be racing ahead again – so it goes. But I still live in hope that a novel which (following the lead of Sebastian Faulks and Robert Harris) puts the hedgies and their mysteries centre-stage will cause some embarrassed shuffling at the Man Booker dinner before long.
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