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Posts from the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

When Breath Becomes Air

whenbreathbecomesReading Paul Kalanthi’s book is bittersweet: its author wrote it knowing he would die soon and I read it hoping time would slow down. I forgot that racing awestruck to the end meant racing to a foregone conclusion.

The book is a sort of letter, the sender dead before the words reach us. The first and last words are dedicated ‘to Cady’, Kalanthi’s baby daughter, and to his wife, Lucy. There’s something spooky and poignant about text that reaches us from a person no longer there. Like Albertine’s conciliatory telegram that reaches Marcel after she has died falling off her horse in Remembrance of Things Past, a letter with no extant sender is like being shut in a room where the door has been rubbed out. The instability of ideas we’d like to convey in letters is highlighted by Maggie Nelson in her recent, excellent book The Argonauts where she teases out the bravery of writing letters, we commit them to another person’s safekeeping, as well as the suspicion that the letter writer is really addressing themselves (an angry girlfriend replies to one of Nelson’s love letters the puncturingly simple: ‘Next time, write to me’). So why is Paul Kalanthi’s last letter of interest?

Last year, one of the editors wrote here about Do No Harm, written by the neurosurgeon Henry Marsh. When Breath Becomes Air has much in common with Do No Harm: it’s also written by a neurosurgeon and deals with the crushing responsibility that comes with the job for the few that make it and it’s brilliant (arguably, more so). Marsh and Kalanthi reflect on their careers at different stages, of course: Marsh is towards the end of his; Kalanthi had only just completed his training. The difference in their accounts, however, is also attitudinal. Where Marsh bemoans the growing number of technological surgical interventions eclipsing a surgeon’s job and the impossibility of getting enough practice in the operating theatre as a junior, Kalanthi is passionate and always uncomplaining. Kalanthi castigates himself for mistakes made, most of them inevitable. Sometimes, he fights hard to save a life only for that life to be so limited by brain damage he wonders if saving it is the right way to look at it; decisions deferred not made.

Like Marsh, Kalanthi studied English before turning to medicine, a feat less surprising in America where students are encouraged to specialise later than in the UK, turning to medicine only after a first degree. Kalanthi’s writing shows how much literature meant to him and his style is lauded in the foreword. With infectious enthusiasm he tells us that ‘to burke’ meant “to kill secretly by suffocation or strangulation, or for the purpose of selling the victim’s body for dissection“, fuelled by medical schools’ demand for cadavers in “the bad old days“. We learn the root of the word ‘disaster’ means a star coming apart (the Greek for star is ‘astron’). According to Kalanthi, ‘no image expressed better the look in a patient’s eyes when hearing a neurosurgeon’s diagnosis’. Later, he tells us the word ‘hope’ first appeared in English about a thousand years ago “denoting some combination of confidence and desire“. His evident enjoyment in writing and choosing words deliberately is overdone only once. Expounding on how to communicate the immensity of an unbeatable brain cancer to a patient incrementally, he cautions: the “tureen of tragedy was best slotted by the spoonful“. The structure of the book is interesting: necessarily frustrating us as Kalanthi ran out of time. In the beginning of the book we race along hearing about his training, forgetting that the story is about to turn tragic. “Eat with your left hand. You’ve got to learn to be ambidextrous“, his boss tells him one day passing him at lunch in the canteen during his first year as a surgical intern.

Lessons learnt are hard won. “In the midst of this endless barrage of head injuries, I began to suspect that being so close to the fiery light of such moments only blinded me to their nature, like trying to learn astronomy by staring directly at the sun. I was not yet with patients in their pivotal moments, I was merely at those pivotal moments. I observed a lot of suffering; worse, I became inured to it“. At the end of part one, he’s just got to terms with how to live as a doctor: working 100 hour weeks; living with the responsibility of being a good doctor; working proximate to death and how to meet a patient “in a space where she was a person, instead of a problem to be solved“. Then, feeling he has learnt how to live, he then finds out at the age thirty six that he’s going to die of lung cancer.

“Be vague but accurate.”

Time, how it speeds up over a lifetime and how best to use it, is, is (unsurprisingly) a central concern. Accurate but humane uncertainty is promoted over the false satisfaction of giving a patient an exact amount of time to live (“I came to believe that it is irresponsible to be more precise than you can be accurate“).

Kalanthi returned to work after his tumour shrunk enough to hope more time may be meted out to him. He goes back in order to complete residency, resting between operations and swallowing handfuls of antiemetics and pain medication to get through his first week. Then he sleeps for forty hours straight.

“The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out…you may decide you want to spend your time working as a neurosurgeon, but two months later, you may feel differently. Two months after that, you may want to learn to play the saxophone or devote yourself to the church. Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.” This sense of values shifting would be familiar anyone who has lived close to someone terminally ill. It is well captured here and brought to mind Marion Coutts’s The Iceberg. Kalanthi wanted to spend 20 years working as a surgeon-scientist and 20 writing. In the end, he wrote for one year only and this book is his account of choices made and accepted.
Hannah Joll

Book Club Spy (extended redux): Between the World and Me

Between-the-World-and-MeTa-Nehisi Coates, Between The World and Me

This book has been described as a form of love letter, but it sits in the gut more heavily than one of those halcyon glimpses into someone else’s adoration. There is reverence in Coates’ words, but there is also much controlled, lyrical rage throughout Between The World and Me that fizzes, lingers and grips you. Watching the news and reading about police brutality affecting the black population in America, or being a regular visitor to America will not even vaguely prepare for you this book. An article on tap dance (honestly) in the New Yorker ran through my head while trying to write this (and indeed debating whether I should even try): “This tangle of emotions – who wants to take it on”. Coates would not describe it as a question of desire. Reading his work raises questions of compulsion – or obligation – placed upon you by a writer who has described “the machinery of racism” as “the privilege of being oblivious to questions”.

The novel reads slightly like a padded out essay; unsurprising given that long form journalism is how Coates made his living for years in ‘The Atlantic’, many of his articles are quoted below. The framing device for the book’s structure was his 15-year-old son Samori’s reaction to Michael Brown’s killer being acquitted: “you were young and still believed. You stayed up until 11pm that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room, and I heard you crying…I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay”. He wants to tell his son that he must find a way “to live within the all of it”, that still no one bears responsibility for the continual degradation of black lives, and that is the reality, despite progress in equal rights. Despite this fatalistic resignation, he repeatedly expresses his desire to “unshackle my body and achieve the velocity of escape”.

Coates acknowledged this progress in ‘The Atlantic’ in June 2014, in “The case for Reparations”: “The lives of black Americans are better than they were half a century ago. The humiliation of WHITES ONLY signs are gone. Rates of black poverty have decreased. Black teen-pregnancy rates are at record lows – the gap between black and white teen pregnancy rates has shrunk significantly. But such progress rests on a shaky foundation, and fault lines are everywhere”. He goes on to cite the income gap, the disparity in overall household income and higher education disparities between whites and blacks in America today. Between the World and Me is indeed a love letter to his son – this gleams from the pages – but also to education, specifically to reading. Although “Schools did not reveal truths, they concealed them” – Obama has described black shame against educational achievement: “I don’t know who taught them that reading and writing and conjugating your verbs was something white”. Coates’ natural curiosity and encouragement by his family to reject second hand answers gave him the means to escape. He claims not to have been a good student at Howard University (his ‘Mecca’), but read as though he wanted to drink the libraries dry.

Coates distinguishes between race and racism: “we can see the formation of “race” in American law and policy, and also see how formations differ across time and space. So what is “black” in the United States is not “black” in Brazil”. He explores examples of these policies include redlining (“Blacks were herded into the sights of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and for sport”), Jim Crow and GI bills. He defines racism as hierarchical “false naming”. The argument itself “is corrupt at its root, and must be confronted there”. Encountering James Baldwin in the Mecca was a Damascene moment for Coates, in “On Being White…and Other Lies”, Baldwin outlines the mistake white people made, in “this debasement and definition of black people, they have debased and defined themselves. And have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white. Because they think they are white, they dare not confront the ravage and life of their history”. So, the key is confronting this head on, cutting out the corruption at the root and asking where did this come from.

The term racism being inherently flawed, Coates turns to what can be done: “What is needed is a healing of the American psych and the banishment of white guilt”. He sees white supremacy (a term preferable to racism as it is a super structure rather than a series of personal acts of opinions) as a central organising force in ‘congenitally racist’ American life. He outlined the “progressive approach to policy which directly addressed the effects of white supremacy is simple – talk about class and hope no one notices”. He does not touch on white guilt for long, except to say that “white supremacy is not an invention of white people; white people are an invention of white supremacy”.

He admits in the book to not knowing any white people growing up; everyone in his neighbourhood was afraid: “as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs”. The only incident featuring a white person in the book is one pushing his son in a cinema. He admits to overreacting, partly because a white man springs to the woman’s defence. Did it matter that she was white? Was it more significant that they were in ‘her’ part of town? It seems that her actions towards a child who happened to black were the crux, or it may have been that she was simply rude. In Coates’ definition of the word, she seems to have been Dreaming, and so never had to learn what it is to be afraid.

The concept of what black and white are is in itself much of the problem: “we should not seek a world where the black race and the white race live in harmony, but a world in which the terms black and white have no real political meaning”. Many people who think they are white are not, and the question of what black is is a huge one. Coates wishes to emphasise that those who are mistaken are part of the ‘Dreamers’ – those who do not and will not know the truth of life in America today, and anyone who has bought in the rotten lie is therefore not fully awake and living in the present reality. Coates does not want this Dream projected onto him. Perhaps the most quoted passage of his novel is his pitiless 9/11 passage: “They were not human to me. Black, white or whatever, they were the menaces of nature”. The Dream is innocent, and too much has happened to allow that in Coates’s eyes: he wants the nation to mature and open its eyes (“You must never look away from this”), to acknowledge its collective heritage and to reset the road map in order to truly consider how to live freely.

The nebulous racial lines – if indeed, any can still be drawn – become clearer when it comes to the question of who fears for their personal safety. When it comes to the matter of the black body being hurt, Coates describes the use of his father’s belt used almost prophylactically so that it is he with his hands on his son, rather than a policeman as a matter of course, almost. This is reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Beloved and therefore of Medea – albeit at a different point on the scale of violence – where a mother would rather take her children’s lives than allow them to be taken into slavery. It is a way of appropriating that fear, of diverting the cycle of violence (“Either I can beat him, or the police”) rather than breaking it. Racism “as we know it, is basically a product of the slave trade, which is to say the seizure of power”.

Reviewing Between The World And Me in the LRB, Thomas Chatterton Williams asks the question “At what point might an oppressed group contribute – perhaps decisively – to its own plight?” However, Coates does acknowledge that no people have ever liberated themselves through their own efforts. It must be a collective exercise.

What is less clear is what he wants his analysis in this case to achieve – what does he hope for beyond the liberation of his son from fear for his body’s safety? Does he now live in Paris as he believes life as a black American is irredeemable, in his lifetime? He writes that it is because he wants Samori to grow “apart from fear”, though he admits “Home would find us in any language”. On his first trip to Paris, he describes sitting in a public garden for the first time in his life: “I had not even known it to be something I’d want to do”.

Coates has created a song that must be listened to, if only to continue to ask questions. He certainly will.

The Editors

Gomorrah (or Naples, Part One)

GomorraRoberto Saviano’s account of Camorra criminal activity in and around Naples in his book Gomorrah was so unstintingly revealing that he now lives in hiding, avoiding death at the hands of mob boss Guiseppe Setola. He wrote in The Guardian earlier this year that after “eight years under armed guard, threats against my life barely make the news. My name is so often associated with the terms death and murder that they hardly register. After all these years under state protection, I almost feel guilty for still being alive.” These three phrases encapsulate his ponderous prose style, while at the same time telling such an enthralling story that the reader is appreciative of what he has sacrificed his peace of mind for.

He went on in a wounded fashion: “I’m either at the Nobel academy having a debate on freedom of the press, or I’m inside a windowless room at a police barracks. Light and dark. There is no shade, no in-between. Sometimes I look back at the watershed that divides my life before and after Gomorrah…Naples has become off-limits to me, a place I can only visit in my memories.” The idea for this series of posts is to take the stark Naples depicted by those Saviano memories, and contrast it with that of Elena Ferrante’s Naples tetralogy (in Naples, Part Two).

Gomorrah’s opening gambit of corpses spilling from an open shipping container cannot help but grab the reader’s attention, but it is the subsequent image of the crane driver responsible covering his face with his hands and peeping at Saviano through the gaps that takes the fragment from Hammer House of Horror into the human realm. One of the reasons why his tone slips from scholarly to hysterical – aside from the fact that it is a deeply personal account – is perhaps that this story is being told for the first time in this way: not as bedtime stories, whispered rumours of urban myth at ground zero, or academic circles. In making this an accessible product, it was perhaps inevitable that something would be lost in the transition. The surreal is captured, but there shouldn’t be such a note of the inauthentic.

This account is most compelling when Saviano does not heap lists of family names and bodies on the reader, or even worse, try to inject pathos, when nothing further is required. The account is so extraordinary in its own right that he (and his translator) needn’t have bothered. It is the flashes of insight he allows through that seem the most arresting, as they are indisputably his without him messing around with ‘style’: “to get a job mixing cement, all I had to do was let the contractor know where I was from. Campania provided the best builders in all of Italy – the most skilled, the fastest, cheapest, the least pains in the ass.” The equivalent simply does not exist to my knowledge in the United Kingdom: the idea of a man appearing and announcing he is from Ipswich and that being sufficient to land him a construction job is incredible. However, Saviano himself is deliberately a black hole in the narrative, providing very little by way of personal context, when it is these moments that lift the narrative.

He goes on to layer in detail about exhaust fume dust and other waste being hidden within the cement, as everything criminal seems to end up in construction or waste disposal. Anything incriminating is covered in topsoil or a thin layer of cement, only to grin through just when the surface appears to have calmed. The explanation for the book’s title comes with a eulogy to a murdered Priest, Don Peppino, from Saviano’s neighbourhood: “Don’t you see that this is Gomorrah, don’t you see? Remember. When they see that the whole land is brimstone, and salt, and burning, and there will be no sowing, no sprouting, no grass growing”. Saviano tells of bones, chemical waste and even shredded currency forced into the soil, poisoning it beyond repair.

Gomorrah is such a laundry list of death (Naples has one of the highest murder rates in the world) that it is hard to discern why some incidents are singled out in outrage – the death of a female teenager is one of the multiple teen deaths which are often collateral damage. It does not appear to be her gender that made it so upsetting for Saviano, but the poignancy of her friend calling her mobile phone while it is placed on top of the coffin. The only jarring note in a tragic interlude, was the fact that this appeared to affect him the most.

Steeped in horrors as he is, the two most appalling moments Saviano witnessed were a ‘guinea pig’ addict used to test the drugs sold by the clans by being injected in the neck with cocaine, killing him outright, and the HIV-free zones where prostitutes receive medical care in order to ensure the clan do not have to wear condoms when they visit. These, added to the realization of the Camorra’s sheer sprawl, will endure. The shudder of fear generated by the realization that this is no pocket of power in a chokehold, but a network with considerable global reach, drags this story from beneath the bed. There are links with the Russians, of course, a surreal Aberdeen connection, links with China, a presence in Australia, and the clan are influential throughout Europe and Latin America (including the most ruthless of all, the Mexican cartels). Saviano also describes an attempt to organize the Gypsies of southern Spain into a criminal group.

In this way, Gomorrah depicts a huge, constant, and filmic level of threat: “some people went round to the senator’s brother’s trout farm and scattered the fish around, leaving them wiggling on the ground to die slowly” (before adding “suffocating in the air” as though there were many other ways). We learn that the horse’s head is small fry, relatively speaking, when it comes to making a point in Naples. Life also imitates film in the passage where Saviano describes how the female Camorra bosses dress their security detail in yellow tracksuits like Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Saviano himself references his own awareness of Scarface when he walks around the abandoned villa belonging to one of the bosses, helpless with rage and pissing into the bath (before conceding that this was an idiotic thing to do). This concession, together with the anecdote of an economics graduate “brought into the clan to handle the distribution of certain brands of coffee in the area bars” provided a rare note of humour. Such is the importance of coffee distributors in local commerce to the bosses. Less charming is learning that the same graduate tried firing an AK47 after the neighbourhood capo insisted everyone on the payroll had to learn how to shoot. He is ecstatic about having fired something so well designed, and becomes obsessed with meeting Kalashnikov himself. This is all very diverting, until Saviano strays into predictable stereotype when describing Kalashnikov with “the trace of vodka on his breath”.

Gomorrah is almost an unbelievable story, so it is perhaps appropriate that it is written in such an over the top fashion. Saviano is a better investigator than he is a writer; he is nonetheless exceedingly courageous to have written and talked at all, and long may he go on doing so. These tales clearly needed to be told in all of their savagery and breath-taking casualness for any life that attempts to exist alongside and apart from the Camorra themselves. Which is of course where Elena Ferrante comes in.

The Editors

Book Club Spy Abroad Part Two

vivEdinburgh Book Festival: Viv Albertine interviewed by Ian Rankin

To promote her autobiography Clothes Music Boys [which contains the sentence: “Everyone who writes an autobiography is a twat or broke; I’m a bit of both”] Viv Albertine opened her talk at the Book Festival with an anecdote of her band The Slits performing “I’ll do the split And shit on it”.  Viv herself counted in the start of the song “1234!” as fast and as loud as she could. Mick Jones of The Clash, her boyfriend at the time, had to inform her later on that this was intended to set the speed and volume of the song, it wasn’t just something you bellowed out in as rock n roll a way as you could. The Slits played their first gig in Edinburgh (this was also the first time any of them had stayed in a hotel). Everyone played at their own speeds in the hope that they would all end up coincidentally meeting in the middle and finish playing at the same speed. They didn’t.

Albertine vividly (ha) described the extent to which they were spat on by the audience. She couldn’t keep her grip on her guitar due to the volume of spit, and Ari Up, the lead vocalist was spat upon into her open mouth as she performed. Viv’s response to this was to hit the perpetrator over the head with her guitar, followed by the sentence: “This was every gig.” She is, in this way, wonderfully wry, and refused to write about anything she “wasn’t in the room for”.

They were equally threatening to feminists and punks: “we got letters from Swedish feminists who hated us as well….we never got done” (meaning they never got arrested) but had more than their fair share of violence: “we got stabbed and attacked on the streets of London…Ari got stabbed twice”. Ari was 15 years old at this point.

On getting started and actually learning how to play a musical instrument, Albertine proclaimed that: “back then you either played the recorder or the flute or you were a twat”. When she bought her first guitar she asked “can I have a red one, and why isn’t there a mirror in the shop?” She couldn’t get Mick Jones to teach her: “Once you’ve shagged a guy they never want to teach you anything”. I found this depressing, if wittily delivered. She recalled walking down Portobello Road holding Jones’s hand when they encountered Johnny Rotten – at which point she dropped his hand as it wasn’t very punk to show affection in public – and announced she was putting a band together before she had a guitar, any idea how to play or anyone else to play with . Fortunately, Rotten had a friend with him called Sid Vicious who offered to be in her band (despite this being their first meeting). Slightly less fortunately, they played together for a summer and it never actually led anywhere.

She was obsessed with music but there were not many women playing it in the 70s; girlfriends and wives tended to be thanked on album sleeves. She saw a female drummer in Kocomo perform and it sparked her to make the mental leap to get guitar lessons from Keith Levene.

Patty Smith’s album ‘Horses’ was another turning point, as the sight of the cover lead to her to plead that the content live up to such an image: a girl and a boy in one, the visual rendering of what Albertine was looking for. She claims the 70s were more like the 50s morally, and ‘Horses’ was the first time she realized girls made appreciative noises during sex.

On actually joining the band, she initially resisted the invitation from a 14 year old wearing a belted bin bag, but changed her mind when she saw Ari perform, screaming her head off. Their iconic album cover of them wearing only loincloths and mud has scared generations of men, mostly due to the expression in the women’s’ eyes.

She blames Thatcher’s Britain for the band falling apart, saying it all became about “manicures, pedicures, working hard, all very un-British”. She dealt with this disappointment by becoming one of Britain’s first aerobics instructors, having been taught by none other than Jane Fonda. This transition hardly appears to have been intuitive, however Albertine claims this was not that a big leap given she was wed to the message rather than the medium, that it was about female pioneering as women did not do any sport at the time, they sat on the side-lines. Fonda advocated joining in and Albertine felt part of the “revolution of physicality”. She was endearingly excitable on this point, which was just as well as she became noticeably more deflated when recounting her later career as a director for the BBC, her struggle to conceive with her husband, the collapse of her marriage and struggle with cancer.

However, with what appears to be characteristic persistence she had a daughter after 7 rounds of IVF and 2 miscarriages. She also recounted her triumph at managing to sleep with someone before her ex-husband after the divorce, “even if he did look like a cab driver”.

Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood taught Viv Albertine to ‘play with life’ at a very young age and she took that message quite clearly to the core. The Slits’ cover of “Heard it Through the Grapevine” (arguably their best known song) was a happy accident from playing around in the studio, they never set out to be punk, no one knew what they were until post-punk came out years later. She fell into a group of utterly fearless girls who were screaming to get started, challenging all comers and did things completely differently by acting on instinct. Clothes and boys ultimately didn’t seem to have that much to do with it.

The Editors

Logicomix 2: the fine line between insanity and genius


“Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked.” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Following on from last week’s post on Logicomix, it occurs to me that I failed to deal with one of the key themes of the graphic novel: the relationship between logic and madness. The authors openly make a big deal out of this (i.e. they discuss it as characters in the book), mainly because there seems to have been a disproportionately high incidence of mental illness among the great logicians. As noted by Gian-Carlo Rota:

It cannot be a complete coincidence that several outstanding logicians of the twentieth century found shelter in asylums at some point in their lives: Cantor, Zermelo, Gödel and Post are some.”

The purported link between insanity and genius is, of course, a well-trodden theme in popular culture; we need only think of Russell Crowe’s portrayal of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, or of Dustin Hoffman in Rainman. As a result, the ‘mad genius’ trope does set alarm bells ringing, particularly because the causative connection between mental illness and the work of logicians has been persuasively challenged (see, for example, this blog post). This raises the question of the extent to which the mad genius cliché is really just used to ostracise or at least stigmatise part of the intellectual community. After all, it is much more comfortable for people generally if high intelligence and the study of complex mathematics is confined to a category of the population with personality disorders.

Notwithstanding the above, the idea that many great logicians were driven insane by an obsessive dedication to their work does make for a compelling narrative. In many ways, madness represents the polar opposite or obverse of the coherent framework these thinkers were trying to achieve. To this extent, the fear of insanity must have been very real. In Logicomix, Bertrand Russell is the vehicle for expressing this fear, and he is shown as tormented not only by his encounters with mad logicians, but also by the knowledge that his family has a history of mental illness. And yet, Russell is also presented as the most human of the thinkers engaged in the quest for foundational mathematics. He fervently protested against what he saw as the madness of the First World War, had numerous passionate relationships with women, and was involved in several radical experiments in education. In this way, Russell becomes a sort of human conduit to the netherworld of foundational mathematics, a twentieth century Virgil tasked with guiding the reader towards an understanding of what the quest was really all about.

Interestingly, the narrative is framed as a talk given by Russell at an American university entitled “The Role of Logic in Human Affairs”. Moreover, the talk is given on 4 September 1939, the day the UK declared war on Germany after the invasion of Poland. As a result, Russell is confronted at the gates of the university by a crowd of anti-war protesters advocating that the USA play no part in the escalating European conflict. Russell invites the protesters to hear the lecture he is due to give, noting that “I will be speaking about reason, in its highest form: logic!” Of course, in introducing his lecture audience to the foundational quest for mathematics he does the same for the humble reader, thus acting as a guide both within and outside the text. In this way, Russell becomes a narrative symbol for accessibility, which is surely the overriding objective of the book as a whole. Of all the ways to be introduced to the work of the great twentieth century logicians, Logicomix as a graphic novel must be the most approachable.

The Editors

Logicomix and the quest for a quest

Logicomix_coverLogicomix: An Epic Search for Truth – Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou

Logicomix is a graphic novel, no less, that sets out to tell the story of the foundational quest for mathematics. The superhero in question is Bertrand Russell, the British mathematician cum philosopher whose life we follow from austere upbringing to his role as one of the protagonists in the attempt to root the whole of mathematics in a logical framework (more on which below). The attempt to portray this quest in graphic novel form is itself, of course, a highly ambitious project, and the authors reflect this by building their own artistic quest into the narrative. In this way, we are presented with two parallel quests (or a quest within a quest): the foundational quest in mathematics, on the one hand, and the attempt to tell the story of that quest in a 300-page comic, on the other. When I started reading I found this format both slightly irritating and slightly patronising, but actually it works very well as a means not only of showing the difficulty of navigating an artistic project on this scale (involving at least five major players), but also of defusing the tension created by the inevitable liberties that the authors take with some of the events they depict.

The foundational quest in mathematics, for those who like myself had no idea that such a quest even existed (it is apparently also known as the foundational crisis in mathematics), was the concerted effort to find a rigorous logical and philosophical basis for mathematics. The quest started towards the end of the nineteenth century with the growing awareness of so-called “foundational issues”, including inconsistencies between the main branches of mathematics. The goal of finding a complete and consistent set of mathematical axioms from which everything in mathematics can be derived is also known as Hilbert’s programme, after the logician David Hilbert, who identified it in his famous list of problems in mathematics.

Bertrand Russell joined the quest after becoming frustrated with what he saw as unproved assumptions underpinning the study of mathematics. In 1900, he attended the Congress of Philosophy in Paris where he was introduced to the work of Giuseppe Peano, who was busy developing Georg Cantor’s principles of set theory. Russell’s personal attempt to achieve the Holy Grail of foundational mathematics is reflected in the enormous Principia Mathematica, which he co-authored with Alfred North Whitehead and which was eventually published in 1910. Unfortunately for both of them, and for foundational mathematics as a school of thought, Kurt Gödel’s two incompleteness theorems of 1931 proved that for every set of mathematical axioms, there are mathematical statements whose truth cannot be derived from the system itself. The presentation of the two theorems led another great mathematician, John von Neumann, to declare: “it’s all over.”

The rise and fall of foundational mathematics, and the consequences for those involved, is really at the heart of Logicomix, and the authors struggle to find the best way of portraying this in narrative form. The main point of difference between Doxiadis and Papadimitriou is over the issue of whether or not to depict the quest as essentially tragic. Broadly speaking, Doxiadis (a novelist) thinks that it must be seen as a tragedy, whilst Papadimitriou (a computer scientist) disagrees, pointing to the importance of the work of these mathematical crusaders in leading to the development of computer science:

Follow the ‘quest’ for ten more years…and you get a brand-new, triumphant finale…with the creation of the computer, which is the ‘quest’s’ real hero! Your problem is, simply, that you see it as a story of people!

As Papadimitriou notes above, the issue is really about whether the quest is seen in personal or impersonal terms. For Russell, the quest in its purest sense was a failure, even if he did live to see his work and that of other logicians inspire Alan Turing’s prototype computer, the theoretical “machine”. Papadimitriou, on the other hand, takes a wider (more contentious) view of events and, understandably perhaps as a professor of computer science, sees the computer as humanity’s great hope for freedom and democracy. To this extent, Russell’s failure was part of the “greater good”. I’m naturally inclined to side with Doxiadis on this one, probably because as a reader of novels I’m drawn to the human aspect of the narrative, and Bertrand Russell makes for a fascinating protagonist. However, the way the schism is ultimately reconciled via a dress rehearsal of Aeschylus’ Oresteia is cunningly staged, and ties in well with the Athenian backdrop. Having said that, perhaps more could have been made of the human/non-human divide, particularly because the limits of mathematics and by extension of human reasoning seem to have led indirectly to the ‘shadow’ humanity that is the world of computing that we have become so accustomed to. After all, without Turing and von Neumann this computer, let alone this online blog, would almost certainly never have come into being. [Ed: I’ve now been advised that this is a whimsical historical counterfactual that doesn’t stand up to rigorous philosophical scrutiny – apologies.]

Finally, it would be wrong to write anything about Logicomix without mentioning the stunning artwork. The two artists, Alecos Papadatos and Annie di Donna, do a fantastic job of recreating scenes from Russell’s life and more generally from the history of mathematics. I was also struck by the depictions of modern-day Athens, which is shown basking under a perpetually clear-blue summer sky. Even when Papadimitriou notes at one stage how much the city has changed in recent years, it still seems like an ideal place from which to write/draw a graphic novel. Inevitably, thinking of Greece nowadays immediately conjures images of queues outside banks and Alexis Tsipras sweating as he attempts to negotiate another bailout package with troika bureaucrats. However trite it may seem though, Logicomix reminded me of the enormous intellectual and artistic debt the rest of the world owes the country.

The Editors

Book Club Spy: Do No Harm

Do No HarmDo No Harm – Henry Marsh

After a considerable hiatus, we reconvened to discuss this autobiographical account of neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s career. The book is essentially a series of episodes spanning several decades of practise, and the most immediately disconcerting thing about a fairly unsettling book all round is Marsh’s tone. He veers between brutal honesty, peevish rebellion and didactic pomposity, and everywhere in between. The idea of an egotistical surgeon is as entrenched as our acknowledgement of the job as fairly technical and demanding: on Radio 4 on 30th June, he described himself as “jolly clever”, whilst at the same time being keen to debunk the idea of the surgeon as a solo “Michelangelo genius”.

He partially dispels the latter notion with his description of his entrance into the medical profession, which would be impossible now. He is quick to describe himself as middle class, but the story of him meeting one old boy and discussing fly fishing in order to gain a place at medical school (despite only two science GCSEs) suggests he is rather grander than that.

However, there are moments when he confirms every assumption surrounding the medical profession I have ever had, especially regarding his personal relationships, about which to be fair he is very discreet. I felt deeply sorry for his first wife – about whom he respectfully mentions very little besides the fact that his work contributed to the breakdown of the marriage – but his few explosions of temper/ego in the book are all compared to his younger episodes and found paltry by comparison, so he must have been a terror in the 90s. He refers to the nervous breakdown he had as a young man – necessitating a year out from Oxford – as silly. He glossed over it on the radio as he does on family matters in his book – as long as he is calling the shots on which episodes of his life to expose he is far more detailed, just very selective, as is his right.

Marsh claims the idea of surgeons needing to have steady hands is a myth, but the idea of an inexperienced wobbler operating on you or a loved one is not going to inspire many with confidence. Everyone is keen on training new doctors but no one wants to be the one experimented on, as it were, especially his story of a man being paralysed when a normally able, confident trainee snipped a vital nerve in his spine. The description of that white thread flopping where it is not meant to be is utterly desolate. It is one of the reasons Marsh hates training junior doctors.

He is not sentimental about his patients: he is gleeful when an outpatient has recovered sufficiently to say to him: “I hope I never see you again.” There is no Grey’s Anatomy schmaltz here. He claimed on the radio never to have had his mind changed by a patient – occasionally he has advised against operating in order to prevent spinning someone’s painful life out and has clearly expressed his views on avoiding a painful end for patients and families. He would, however, encourage patients to get second opinions on riskier surgeries – this is the culture elsewhere and he claims that in this country there is too much of a tendency to defer to a medical opinion rather than question it.

He has experienced surgery in Iran and Ukraine on several occasions and so is qualified to make some comparison. One reader questioned his motives for going to Ukraine to perform surgeries: was it because these extreme, neglected cases were interesting to him, and a coup if he pulled them off (he is much less accountable there if he doesn’t) rather than doing something genuinely altruistic? Another quibble was his account of bringing second hand medical equipment from England to perform these surgeries, as if everything provided for Ukrainians was second best. The ‘better than nothing argument’ is never sexy. He bought said kit with his own money. The patients he saw would certainly have suffered more without him, so on balance it seems to have been a good thing. The same sceptic questioned whether he should go back to Ukraine having retired to operate. Again, less than ideal to know an elderly gent is operating, but I would choose one of the most accomplished brain surgeons in the UK over none at all, personally.

His parting, reedy comment regarding his expertise on Radio 4 was that he finds neurosurgery crude. It is particularly interesting that he compares it to butchery when the practise is comared to the complexity of the brain, which no one completely understands. The book opens with his painfully vivid description of an exposed brain, with its jelly-like surface encased in silvery strands like a spider’s web. Brain surgery is only every chopping bits out of the brain – he is especially good at describing tumours: soft, uckable-out ones and hard ones that have to be collapsed in on themselves. Herein may lie the tension inherent in the profession at which he is so clearly proficient: he likes making things and admiring in them in their entirety, yet for thirty years he has had to remove and break things, never adding to the whole of the brain. Perhaps as a result, his retirement plans are to make things: furniture and houses while taking care of his own health. At the age of 65 he claims: “I am taking nothing for granted”. Except perhaps the publishing world, as he is planning a second book.

The Editors

Justice for Thomas Cromwell

JUSTICE “Law & Literature” event – 11 February 2015, Great Hall, Middle Temple, London

Three months agCromwello, JUSTICE hosted their third event in what seems to be the increasingly popular “Law & Literature” series, and surely there was no better venue than the Great Hall of Middle Temple for Hilary Mantel to read from her new, as yet unfinished novel, The Mirror and The Light, the third in the trilogy featuring Thomas Cromwell as its protagonist. Up to this point in the series it was noticeable that JUSTICE had carefully selected their authors based on some sort of affinity with the law and, understandably, justice. The first event featured Julian Barnes discussing his novel Arthur & George, which revolves around a well-known miscarriage of justice, and that talk was followed by another given by Robert Harris on An Officer and A Spy, also about a notorious miscarriage of justice (l’affaire Dreyfus). Although the theme of righting wrongs was not so immediately obvious with Mantel’s trilogy of Tudor-age tomes, all doubt was cast aside at the entry to the event, where the title of the reading was unveiled as “Justice for Thomas Cromwell”, slightly giving away the plot of the third instalment in the process. Of course, Cromwell himself was also a lawyer, among many other things it seems, if we are to believe Mantel’s retelling of his life and times as one of Henry VIII’s closest consiglieri.

Mantel’s is certainly not what you would call a booming voice, and the size of the venue meant that the audience had to lean forward as one to catch everything she said. Again, perhaps given the high proportion of lawyers in attendance, she was quick to point to the legal mechanics underpinning the history of the novels: England’s break from Rome was about “jurisdiction not ideology”. In other words, the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church was not about a disagreement over religious doctrine, but rather about sovereignty and the right to self-determination. In that sense, certainly, it could be said to anticipate by half a millennium the current political tussle over the Human Rights Act/European Court of Human Rights, which also seems to have little to do with legal philosophy and everything to do with perceived foreign interventionism and the fact that politicians never like to have their power challenged. I suspect that the organisers of the event at JUSTICE may have made that connection before inviting Mantel to be a speaker.

Mantel said she was less interested in the formalities of history and power than she was in the behind-the-scenes wrangling that actually leads to agreements being reached between kings and countries. To this extent, her interpretation of Cromwell is as the ultimate manipulator of events (almost like a slightly more benign 16th century version of Frank Underwood), whose pragmatism stands in marked contrast to the ivory tower intellectualism of Thomas More. In Mantel’s world, less gets done in the great halls of power than in its courtyards, corridors and kitchens; one would imagine that little has changed over the ages in this regard. However, it is these interstitial spaces between what we know as history that Mantel has made herself master of. It reminds me of something Julian Barnes once wrote about his aversion to famous dates; he said he was less interested in 1492, for example, than 1493 – i.e. what happened when Columbus got back to Europe and took all the credit for finding the new world? The answer is that things continued very much as they had been before, except that the man who actually first sighted America wound up as a gunrunner in north Africa.

I think it is Mantel’s eye for detail and nuance, her ability to humanise historical characters by revealing both their strengths and their weaknesses, that accounts to a large extent for the incredible success of her novels. However, it is also her immense skill at filling in the void between what we think we know actually happened at the time. To this extent, I pity historians of the period who must be unable to read Mantel’s novels without a considerably heftier degree of scepticism.

The Frozen North

the expedition bea uusmaThe Expedition – by Bea Uusma

A Swedish doctor who has been obsessed for over fifteen years with the story – known to all Swedes – of the doomed attempt to reach by the North Pole by hot air balloon, has written her own account. She describes her attempts to venture out to the White Island (where the ballooner’s bones were found) four times only to turn back as the ice had never thawed enough to allow the ice breaker ship through. Usma returns to her cabin to watch the frozen North, and quiets her disappointment by taking the reader meticulously through the facts.

Three young engineers boarded their hot air balloon in Stockholm, 1987, totally unprepared for the demands of such a journey: their donning of monogrammed woollen stockings was not an encouraging sign. They thought it would take six days by air, having inflated the balloon by dissolving iron filings with liquid sulphuric acid and loading the basket down with port and champagne, plus more essential stores for several years. The balloon started to leak after a few days, and came down without incident but very far off course. They started to walk, dragging hugely overloaded sleds, against the direction of the flow of the ice floes. It took them days to realize that they were barely managing to stand still, let along gain ground, shedding ballast as they trudged.

Perhaps one of the saddest sentences in the recovered diaries – which extend from 11 July 1987 to 3 Oct 1987 – was that “the homing pigeons are all dead.” That, and their consumption of the champagne they had dragged for miles while they withered with cold and hunger. Once the diaries were recovered, the fiancée of the now deceased Nils Strindberg had the singularly strange experience of being informed that he had died – when she had suspected as much and therefore been married to someone else for decades – and was told his last words were addressed to her. Her name was Anna Albertina Constantin Charlier – a name which, Usma informs us, “means hydrogen balloon in French.”

They survived for almost four months on White Island, where their bodies were not found for thirty years. When they were found, it was by accident. At the time, there was no conclusive evidence with the technology then available, as to the cause of death. The bodies were then cremated, destroying any chance of later study. Usma was desperate to return to the site in order to search for some clue, as she was tired of reading theories about trichinosis and death due to an excess of vitamin E in eating polar bear and seal liver. She is wonderfully open about her obsessive attitude, and the book is written in the most lucid, detailed fashion without succumbing to opaque fact or passages moaning about the fragility of human life on the frozen wastes. It is also rather beautiful, with wonderful photographs and excellent formatting.

Those who are susceptible to the language of endless horizons, harsh conditions and impossible courage (in other words, the Scots) tend to be suckers for this kind of book. I have not enjoyed a book about ice so much since Francis Spufford’s Ice and the English Imagination.  For those that need to find out more, Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage is a free exhibition at the British Library until April 19th.  Next week: how to make your own pemmican.

The Editors

Spoken Word: Other Lives – Hilary Mantel in conversation with Harriet Walters for the RSL

Wolf Hall - MantelWolf Hall has just come off the London stage, and it is about to appear on ITV as a ten-part series starring Mark Rylance, adapted for the screen by Mantel, just as she oversaw the stage production. With Bring Up The Bodies finally edging off the bestseller lists, Mantel’s collection of short stories The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is on every top ten list predicting Christmas books. In short, Mantel is everywhere, luckily for us.

Before delving into her latest offering, her appearance in the Union Chapel with Harriet Walters for the RSL is definitely worth mentioning. It was a few months ago now, but the overarching conversation has lingered, centring as it did on the idea of wearing another’s skin on your back. Walters, an established character actress, described having to go “a long way” to meet Lady Macbeth, reassuringly. Mantel, in turn, described the process of acquainting herself with Thomas Cromwell as mediation, or more simply as the process of getting inside a character’s head. The way she explained this was to recall the first moment the reader encounters Cromwell, as a fifteen year-old, bleeding in Putney after a beating from his father. She could hear a voice floating above his head, feel the cobbles beneath his cheek, and taste blood.

She gleefully relayed Christopher Hitchens’s review of Wolf Hall (“you would never know it was written by a woman”) as a testament – as well she should – of how naturally she occupied Cromwell. She clearly delights in living unlived lives by writing as a man, much as she did for Robespierre in A Place of Greater Safety. She wears their skins well and has done it often, so she knows what it requires, and is conscious that if you encounter the actor playing Cromwell five minutes after the curtain, you cannot be entirely sure if they have yet made the “perfect conversion”. Something of the public Croydon’s thuggish self may remain, before the private core of the actor manages to reassert itself.

The power of the play (it will be impressive indeed if this translates to the small screen) is that watching it makes Cromwell inhabit the present, walk in your line of sight and live, of course, if only for a while. The two women agreed that when it really works, the production “pins you to the heartbeat and to the breath”. This would be harder for a more thoroughly cerebral Machiavellian character, perhaps, as Cromwell lashes out – lightning quick – to strike Wolsey; he paces, looms and threatens. Exposition and rubbing one’s hands together in a sinister fashion alone will not get it done.

Given that Mantel is a pleasure to watch as well as to read – she beams and laughs, and seems to enjoy herself – sinister is the word that describes some of her rawer home truths (“ultimately, we are all just alone in the dark”) as well as the creeping feeling of dread from reading her recent collection of short stories. She described on stage the presence of an unarticulated secret – like Bluebeard’s locked room – in a novel, and how this can change with contextual climate. For Wolf Hall, she cited the preconception of people who tend to watch Henry VIII as a wife killer, because this is how the Tudors are taught in schools. We learn his list of wives with the song in order to remember how they snuffed it, rarely dawdling on his accomplishments in poetry, music or foreign policy, let alone his relationship with the Privy Council.

In the same way, every story from The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher carries a patina of dread. While it is not as overt as the corpse stashed beneath the coffee table in Rope, it is much more than something stuck in one’s tooth or a fingernail split to the quick. Some of the stories are more overtly macabre, and ‘Harley Street’ is just plain upsetting as one cannot help but speculate it is based on Mantel’s own delicate health. They are all funny. On finishing the title story, however, it is difficult to shake that feeling of something starting to turn on a muggy day, or indeed get rid of the sand concealed under one’s own skin, like the rhino in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories.

The Editors