Oxford, £19.99, 243pp. £17 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Darwin the Writer, By George Levine
Friday 19 August 2011
To come up trumps on the evolutionary scale is a doddle compared with publishing a book - let alone one that does not slumber in the warehouse. Triumphantly, George Levine's latest Darwinian study shows why both men should be read, and enjoyed - by those who deny evolution, and those who take it for granted. Rarely is textual analysis so exhilarating.
No hermit, Levine can even make the reader feel as if in a Woody Allen movie. When talking with a Texan graduate audience, a young woman "took my breath away in the extravagance of her confident misunderstanding". After discusssing the New Testament, he asks "well, you know I'm Jewish. What's going to happen to me?" Without malice, she replies, "you're going to hell."
In a Bleecker Street pasticceria in New York, a counterman notices his Darwin volume and is so derogatory that Levine wonders how "could I begin, with several customers behind me, to explain the whole Darwinian argument about branching descent? Humbled and silent, I took my change and began to walk off, feeling very inadequate... He... gave a knowing look at a fellow worker, who was boxing four cannoli for another customer, and called triumphantly after me: 'so how come there are still monkeys?'"
Levine now supplies a considered answer for anybody in the queue. It places Darwin at the centre of the 19th century while showing his immersion in prose of the previous one, and with many a Miltonic echo. What's more, Levine highlights his effect upon later work, with close analysis of Hardy's The Woodlanders and an adroit glance at Virginia Woolf's "The Mark on the Wall".
There is also a persuasive take on Wildean paradoxes, and, brilliantly, a parallel drawn with Sherlock Holmes's methods as well as "sensation" fiction. He could have mentioned the Darwin-suffused heroine of AN Wilson's The Sweets of Pimlico, who finds epiphany in the V&A. Her delight in his earthworm study contrasts with the "High Victorian Worcester and Chelsea ware which seemed repugnantly full of shape and colour".
Whether deliberating upon Darwin's use of infinity or the famous, later deleted, metaphor about nature's face being "ten thousand sharp wedges packed close together and driven inwards by incessant blows", Levine extols Darwin's ability not only to see but to write. Close up, "Darwin's world emerges strange, unpredictable, sometimes comically perverse, sometimes awesome and scary". The essence of this is his "replicating in his prose the processes that he sees in nature - long, gradual movements that in the end produce extraordinary and apparently 'catastrophic' differences".
Crucially, Levine makes the point that Darwin "wasn't a philosopher and certainly not an idealist: but his prose regularly finds ways to dramatize the mind's power to make up order".
That is, Darwin's explanations, which overturn apparent order, posit an even more startling world. As such, when read with the right cast of mind, which Levine has in abundance, it is the stuff of comedy in a fuller sense than the Bleecker Street counterman could ever realise.
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