May 12, 2022
This tale of a Soviet mathematician working in rural 50s Ireland is bogged down by a lack of narrative impetus
For anyone who’s ever bemoaned the parochialism of contemporary literary fiction – its preponderance of writer protagonists, thinking and doing the things that writers think and do – here is a corrective: a novel about the mechanised harvesting of peat in 1950s Ireland, told from the perspective of a mathematician. Its eponymous narrator is a Russian emigre hired by Bord na Móna, an Irish state-owned company based in Kildare, to help measure swathes of land set for drainage. After weeks spent tracing vast triangles across bogs, swamps and pastures, he receives an ominous letter summoning him back to the USSR; unnerved, he decamps to a small island on the Shannon estuary in order to lie low.
The Geometer Lobachevsky is light on plot but heavy on ambience. Adrian Duncan’s narrator registers a succession of sensory impressions with the bland officiousness of a surveyor’s report: the lowing of cows and lapping of waves; the comings and goings of gannets and gulls; downpours of varying intensity; sunlight glistening on jars of marmalade; “the quiet but busy rumble of carts, cars and tractors”. The narrative voice is almost compelling in its studied dullness. A typical sentence reads: “I walk towards the tripod to see, with the evening sun breaking through a row of poplars edging the field, what the visibility through the theodolite is like.” This monotone is intermittently thrown into relief by the lively, colloquial dialogue of various Irish characters. Continue reading...
Apr 21, 2022
This exploration of how to make diverse democracies work offers a political warning where none is needed
Speaking on German television in 2018, the liberal political scientist Yascha Mounk remarked that Germany was “embarking on a historically unique experiment – that of turning a monoethnic and monocultural democracy into a multi-ethnic one”. He was immediately deluged with emails from far-rightists who felt his comment corroborated their belief in a conspiracy to eradicate the white race. This might have prompted Mounk to reflect that the “experiment” metaphor, which carries certain negative connotations, was perhaps a less than optimal way to characterise mass migration and its consequences. Instead, he went away and wrote an entire 368-page book organised round this very theme.
The Great Experiment promises to show us “how to make diverse democracies work”, but contains very few actual policy proposals. For the most part it’s a mishmash of general principles, political truisms and syrupy platitudes, delivered in a register somewhere between a TED talk and an undergraduate dissertation. Mounk draws on social psychology to tell us what we already know: that, on the one hand, human beings have “a tendency to form in-groups, and discriminate against those who do not belong to them”; on the other, the “intergroup contact hypothesis” suggests people from different backgrounds are more likely to get along if they spend time with one another. The ideal diverse society should be neither “unduly homogenising” nor so fragmentary as to give rise to “cultural separatism”. Continue reading...
Feb 18, 2022
A philosopher’s ostensibly reasonable call for compassion veers towards the reactionary
The philosopher Nina Power believes men are under attack. Western society has done away with “the positive dimensions of patriarchy”, that is, “the protective father, the responsible man, the paternalistic attitude that exhibits care and compassion.” In her new book, What Do Men Want?, she expresses the hope that, “following a great deal of bitterness in recent years, men and women can reconcile on the basis of a renewed and greater understanding of one another” and advocates a return to “old values and virtues — honour, loyalty, courage”; rather than being made to feel guilty for their gender privilege, “Boys and men must be allowed to be good, to become better.”
These are worthy sentiments, but the underlying premise is doing a lot of heavy lifting. Just how prevalent is “the current demonisation of men”? Have compassion and virtue really been abolished? Are boys not presently allowed to be good? The sweeping, simplistic and vaguely sour tone recalls the handwringing “culture wars” opinion pieces that have proliferated in recent years. They invariably follow a template: an obscure incidence of arguably overzealous identity politicking – usually involving a university campus – is held up as evidence of a deep civilisational malaise. The alarmist register can make for compelling clickbait, but whether it can sustain a serious, book-length work is another matter. Continue reading...
Jan 07, 2022
A neuroscientist attempts to reconcile psychoanalysis with modern science in a fantastical romp through the history of dreaming
In 1953, scientists at the University of Chicago observed that people dream much more frequently during certain deep phases of sleep characterised by “rapid movements in both eyes, choppy breathing, irregular heartbeat and fast brain waves”. As the Brazilian neuroscientist Sidarta Ribeiro explains in his new book on the history of dream research, the discovery of what became known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep had profound implications. Where Sigmund Freud had postulated that dreams are an articulation of our deepest desires, neuroscience seemed to suggest they are in fact “purely random by-products of a strictly physiological underlying reality, and therefore of no psychological significance”; as such, the work of understanding dreams lay beyond the purview of science, “a matter for charlatans, fortune-tellers, priests, psychoanalysts and other professionals in the metaphysics business”.
Ribeiro looks to bridge the gap between neuroscience and psychoanalysis by drawing attention to various studies that suggest a scientific basis for psychoanalytic dream theories. Electrophysiological experiments carried out on rats in 1989, for example, showed that neurons activated while awake were specifically reactivated during subsequent sleep, which supports the idea, advanced by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), that dreams constitute a “day residue” – a revisiting of memories and emotions experienced during waking life. Research by the South African neuropsychologist Mark Solms has demonstrated that the brain’s dopaminergic reward system is activated during REM sleep, leading Ribeiro to deduce that “the Freudian proposition that desire is the motor of dreams is much more factual than its critics would acknowledge … Dreaming ‘is’ desire because both ‘are’ dopamine.” Continue reading...
Dec 29, 2021
Gendrot’s account of his time undercover as a support officer in France reveals a force beset by racism, machismo and misogyny
When Valentin Gendrot applied for a job with the Paris police in 2017, he didn’t expect to get through the vetting process. A thorough background check would have revealed that Gendrot, then aged 29, was an investigative journalist who specialised in exposing dubious working practices: he had previously worked undercover at a call centre, a debt recovery agency and a car plant.
His application was, however, successful and he began a two-year stint as an adjoint de sécurité (ADS), a position roughly equivalent to a police community support officer in the UK. Things got off to an underwhelming start when, on completing the obligatory three months’ training, he was assigned to a dreary posting at a mental health facility, charged with transporting patients from one psychiatric unit to another. After 15 months in this role he earned a transfer to Paris’s notoriously restive 19th arrondissement, where he was finally able to experience front-line policing. Continue reading...
May 07, 2021
A poet confronts his anxieties about becoming a parent in this free-wheeling meditation on the theme of uncertainty
About three years ago, the poet Jack Underwood became a father for the first time. The responsibility weighed heavily: he recalls “feeling that there should have been more paperwork. We signed a form or two and then they just sort of let us take you away. A human child.” A few months later, he started having panic attacks – his love for his daughter had rendered him “utterly fucked with worry”. He decided to write about it, which helped: “my breathing regulated, my thoughts took shape, giving direction to my feelings; finding my thinking voice was like opening an enormous valve.” The resulting book is a thoughtful essay-memoir on parenthood, in which Underwood recounts how he learned to manage his angst – “to live within the fear” – by embracing uncertainty.
Underwood’s dread gave way to a sanguine sense of purpose and self-sacrifice Continue reading...
May 01, 2021
The emphasis is on atmospherics in these dark short stories from the author of The Gallows Pole
Benjamin Myers’s fiction is concerned with people at the margins of society. His portrayal of Traveller culture in his 2012 novel, Pig Iron, won the inaugural Gordon Burn prize; 2017’s The Gallows Pole, about a band of counterfeiters in 18th-century Yorkshire, won the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction. Male Tears, his first short-story collection, is likewise populated with outsiders and ne’er-do-wells. One story tells of a farmer’s bitter hatred of townies, while another features a sadistic gamekeeper who tortures animals. In “The Whip Hand” a fairground impresario gets mangled to death by his own waltzer; his psychopathic son assembles a posse of forced labourers – “a motley menagerie of men in various states of drunkenness and disrepair”, recruited in “smoky back rooms, parole-board halfway houses, gambling dens” – and has them build a monument in his memory.
Elsewhere a hyper-masculine ex-convict turns out to be a secret cross-dresser, and a man covers himself in paint after a row with his girlfriend – a weird cry for attention that backfires horribly. Other stories are slightly less lurid. Myers, a former music journalist, revisits his younger self in “The Folk Song Singer”, about an encounter between a journalist and a veteran pop star. Sizing up the critic, the singer observes: “They never change … Nervy and earnest … their conversation always undercut with a streak of almost confrontational pedantry.” The protagonist of “Saxophone Solos” is a washed-up writer who “clung on to his reputation … quite unaware that his readership had grown up and moved out of the city … while he festered in a damp house south of the river”. Continue reading...
Jun 10, 2020
A forgotten black modernist poet is the spark for a debut novel that acts as a rallying cry against Eurocentrism
The narrator of Shola von Reinhold’s debut novel is obsessed with various eccentric literary socialites from the 1920s – figures such as Stephen Tennant, Nancy Cunard and Edith Sitwell. Like many a young wannabe, Mathilda Adamarola cultivates affectations in order to emulate her heroes. Ordering food in a restaurant, she selects at random from the menu “with theatrical languor”. “Consequently, I dined on oysters chips and Cointreau – a very strange combination, but not at all awful.” While on a work placement at a gallery, Mathilda – who is black, working-class and gay – comes across an old photograph of a forgotten black Scottish modernist poet called Hermia Drumm, and becomes fixated. Mathilda applies for a place on a conceptual arts residency in a small European town because Drumm had once lived there, and is accepted after winging a telephone interview. Mirth ensues.
Mathilda hates the residency: her penchant for all things gaudy and florid clashes with the institution’s minimalist sensibility. She dismisses her fellow residents as “a medley of the most woebegone drips I have ever encountered”, and befriends a local weirdo called Erskine-Lily, whose flamboyant attire identifies him as a kindred spirit. They bond over a shared interest in black history and wallow together in boozy, disaffected idleness. One particularly memorable scene depicts Erskine-Lily topping up his wine supply: rather than carry the crate up the stairs, he drags it behind him on a sleigh – a vision of effete dissipation worthy of Withnail & I. Continue reading...