Monday, March 19, 2012

An Instance Of The Fingerpost -- Iain Pears

If you're a avid fan of the BDB (the Big Damn Book --- as in "wow, that's one big damn book!"), then this one may be for you. I say may, because I will say right here and now this book will not be for everyone. I daresay some may even find it a bit isolating in that it's clearly written for the heavy duty science and history fans. I consider myself a pretty major history junkie, and this book even featured the topic of the early days of medicine (or Physik, as it's called in this book), another interest of mine. Still, I got bored in parts. But I read many reviews claiming it paid off in the end so I pushed myself over the hump.  I now join the ranks in saying that it did, in fact, have an interesting ending that made up for the dull part in the middle.  This story, as a whole, had a nice mix of history, science, mysticism, and what I would call an "almost romance".

I wasn't a fan of all the Latin phrases tossed around, as Pears makes no move to translate within the dialogue. That's on my list of peeves as a reader. To me, if  translation is not offered within the dialogue,  and the author knows they are referencing an obscure or dead language, then it just comes off as the author showboating. If we're talking about the early days of lit. when everyone was taught Latin basics with their regular English lessons then yes, I can understand the absence of explanations in books that date back to that period (because, quite frankly, back when Latin was in the school books, the average American's edumacation was just seemed more extensive than what students are given now). In modern times, knowing that Latin is not commonly taught in schools, not offering to help your readers out some just screams "I know something you don't know!" **Excuse the soapbox but what is a blog if not a virtual soapbox ;-)**

I doubt not that posterity will verify many things that are now only rumors. In some age it may be that a voyage to the moon will not be more strange than one to the Americas for us. To speak with someone in the Indies may be as usual as a literary correspondence is now. After all, to talk after death could only have been thought a fiction before the invention of letters, and to sail true by the guide of a mineral would have seemed absurd to the ancients, who knew nothing of the magnet

ANYHOOO... so how much of BDB is this? Not as much as some out there today but bigger than your average modern novel -- it falls just under 700 pages. Checking out the Shelfari reviews, I saw that a number of people who picked this up gave up about halfway through, so I made a little mental goal for myself to try to get to the end (though typically I'm not big on setting any major reading goals, I just go where my inclinations lead). I'm happy to say I did make it to then end though I will say that there was some uphill pedaling needed around the halfway point.  The story is that of a murder of a prominent English professor in Restoration England (the 1600s - 1663 specifically). Pears reveals the details of the murder from the vantage point of 4 different characters (the story is divided into 4 parts, each part being one character's story in first person -- each character gives their take on the last character's version and points out where they think the other people are lying).  There are numerous other characters throughout the story, a mix of fictional and real life historical figures, which helped make for fun reading, seeing some familiar names in history, learning about new ones.

Pt. 1 = Marco da Cola (fictional)
Pt. 2 = Jack Prescott (fictional, but based on real-life person Sir Richard Willys)
Pt. 3 = John Wallis (real person)
Pt. 4 = Anthony Wood  (real person)

~~There is a sort of 5th point of view, that of Sarah Blundy. She doesn't have her own section but her own story runs through all the other stories. Sarah Blundy is a fictional character, but the inspiration for her came from the little - known historical figure Anne Greene.

Much of the book moves around Marco da Cola, an Italian man from Venice who comes to England, so he says, for business, acting as a representative for his father's company. But is that so? Who is Marco really? Is he the innocent bystander he makes himself out to be? That's part of the mystery of the story! His fellow storytellers scream "Liar! Liar!" or at the very least claim he's gilding the truth with some wild embellishments. Through Marco's telling, we learn he goes to England, moving through famous streets like Drury Lane and Christ Church Street (a locale mentioned in some of Jane Austen's works), taking daddy's money, "makin' it rain!". Eventually, out of financial desperation, he randomly decides to enroll in medical school (basically because he thinks to himself, "Doctors make some serious money, don't they?"). He's looking for a career to bankroll his pasttimes but tries to act as if his intentions are noble. Either way, he meets up with some real life science legends (Descartes, Newton, Anthony Wood, Francis Bacon and John Locke are just a few of the notable names to pass through the course of the story), most of these meetings occuring in local coffehouses (scroll down to the coffeehouse pic below to see Pears description of an English coffeehouse in the 1600s - doesn't sound much different from Starbucks today!). The friendship most developed throughout the book is that of Marco da Cola and real-life physician, Richard Lower. Lower also has a friendship with Locke that Cola seems to feel threatened by.

And so I followed Lower back to New College, and the warden's lodgings, a large pile which occupied much of the western wall of the quadrangle. We were taken by the servant into the room in which Warden Woodward received guests, and found Locke already there, stretched out in conversation by the fire, as easy as if he owned the place. There was, I thought, something about the man which could always inveigle his way into the good graces of the powerful. How it was, I do not know; he was neither easy of manner nor particularly good company, and yet the assiduity of his attention to those he considered worthy of him was so great that it was irresistible. And, of course, he carefully crafted his reputation for being a man of the utmost brilliance, so that these people ended up patronizing him and feeling grateful for it. In later years, he went on to write books which pass for philosophy, although a cursory reading suggests that they do little but carry his bent for flattery onto the metaphysical plane, justifying why those who patronize him should have all power in their hands. I do not like Mr. Locke.  ~~ Marco da Cola

Marco, with occassional help from Richard, takes on a patient (despite still being a medical student). He meets Sarah Blundy, an impoverished housemaid who tries to seek help from another doctor (the one that ends up being the murder victim that propels the plot) for her mother who has a broken leg that appears to be going septic. Marco witnesses Blundy being denied help from that doctor, and perhaps out of pity or mere curiosity (since Blundy is suppose to be a major hottie), he agrees to help her.

Richard and Sarah were my favorite characters in the book. Richard was darkly funny, theatrical with maybe a twinge of undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Dark and funny is my favorite combination in any sort of book character :-) Sarah was admirable in that she was desperately poor but didn't use it as a crutch. She worked hard and she refused to be bullied by any higher class people. She was smart, sassy but also deeply spiritual on the inside.  A glimpse at Sarah's character is displayed in this conversation between Marco and Sarah's mother:

"Your daughter does not earn enough?" (Cola) 
"Not to keep us out of debt, no. She has trouble with her work, for she has a reputation for being fiery and disobedient. It is so unfair, a better girl no mother ever had." 
"She is sometimes more outspoken than a girl in her position has a right to be." 
"No, sir. She is more outspoken than a girl in her position is allowed to be."
Sounds like she takes after her mother!

busy English coffe house
At this time, coffee in England was something of a craze, coming into the country with the return of the Jews. That bitter bean had little novelty for me, of course, for I drank it to cleanse my spleen and aid my digestion, but was not prepared to find it so much in fashion that it had produced special buildings where it could be consumed in extraordinary quantities and at the greatest expense...The clienteles of coffee houses choose themselves carefully, unlike taverns which cater to all sorts of low folk. In London, for example, there are Anglican houses, and Presbyterian houses, houses where the scribblers of news or poetry gather to exchange lies, and houses where the general tone is set by men of knowledge who can read or pass an hour or so in conversation without being insulted by the ignorant or vomited on by the vulgar... the company of philosophers supposedly in residence did not leap up to welcome me, as I had hoped. In fact there were only four people in the room and, when I bowed at one of them -- he pretended no to have seen me. 

Okay, who hasn't come across such a snooty-pants in their local Starbucks ;-) 

The element I loved most about this book was the mix of darkness, the battle of science versus religion (the case of Galileo being imprisoned for claiming the earth rotated around the sun is discussed), the subtle humor and all the famous faces of history popping in and out of the story, coming alive in a sense. I realize this is all fictional, but it gives the reader an idea of what the person, in reality, might have been like. Case in point, Anthony Wood,:

Anthony Wood

I have never met a more ridiculous creature than Anthony Wood. He was a deal older than myself, perhaps thirty or thereabouts, and already had the bowed back and sunken cheeks of the bookworm (bookworm haters even in the 1600s :-P). His clothes were monstrous -- so old and parched it was hard to see how out of fashion they were -- his stockings were darned and he had the habit of throwing his head back and whinnying like a horse when he was amused. An unpleasant, grating sound which made all in his company suddenly grave, lest they say something witty and be rewarded with his laughter. 

 So basically he sounds like that awkward friend in a group of friends, the one that makes everyone say WHY does he do that??? . People in Woods' group claim his intelligence can prove useful despite his social indelicacies, so I guess that's what keeps him at the "cool table". 

But by far, the humor underneath everything is what kept me reading. Instance is for the most part a dark, serious murder mystery, but the witty observations by the characters throughout are great! My favorites:

Jury Duty 

One would have thought that a learned judge would have been sufficient as it is everywhere else, but this is not the case. For, having appointed such a person, they give all his power to a group of twelve men, chosen at random and utterly ignorant of all law. What is more, they are inordinately proud of this most bizarre system and hold this jury in awe as the bedrock of their liberties.

Famous Mathematicians

It is generally known that, until Mr. Newton eclipsed him, Dr. Wallis was considered the finest mathematician this country has ever produced, and this reputation has obscured his occult activities for the government and the malice of his character. Frankly, I have never been entirely certain what either of them do that is so wonderful; I can add up and subtract to get the estate accounts in order, and I can place a bet on a horse and calculate my winning, and I cannot see why anybody should need to know more. Someone once tried to explain Mr. Newton's notions, but they made little sense. Something about proving that things fall. As I had taken a bad drop from my horse only the previous day, I replied that I had all the proof I needed on my backside. As for why, it was obvious that things fall because God made them heavy. 

Attempted Murder

"Do sit, sir," he said, after another silence when he had again examined me carefully, for I had, with my normal politeness, jumped up to bow to him when he entered. "And please be careful you do not impale yourself on your dagger."
All this he said with a wry smile, and I blushed and stammered like a schoolchild caught throwing things in class.
"What is your name? I believe I know your face, although I see so few people now that I trick myself into recognizing total strangers." He had a soft, gentle and educated voice, quite unlike anything I had expected.
 "You do not know me. My name is Prescott."
"Ah. And you have come to kill me, is that right?"
 "It is." I said stiffly, feeling more and more confused.
There was another long pause, as Thurloe sat, marked the page in his book, closed it and laid it neatly on the table. Then he placed his hands in his lap and looked at me once more.
"Well? Go ahead. I would hate to detain you unnecessarily."


She is a good woman, everything a wife should be, and brought me an estate, yet I wish I had never been constrained to marry. The services a woman provides in no manner compensates for the inadequacy of her company, and the liberties she curtails. 

"The Honeysuckle Bower" by Peter Paul Rubens
(a self portrait of him and his wife)

WOW. LOL that line still gets me. Yeah, I should probably mention that there are parts of this book that will come off as degrading to the female race in general. Keep in mind though, it takes place in the 1600s. Not the easiest time for us ladies! It was hard to read at times, but not because I was offended, more that it made me think of the women who actually had to live through that time and that kind of mentality. Pears including such details though, I thought, added a nice dose of realism. Alotta history ain't all that pretty! It's good to have a reminder from time to time.