Posts Tagged ‘Primo Levi’

On maths and science

April 6, 2016

51F6wH7UHeL._AA160_ 51h6BFLBjiL._AA160_ 51PtUSpds0L._AA160_ 51r2u2D8-tL._AA160_I wouldn’t want any of my readers who is a mathematician or scientist (and I hope there are some of you!) to get the impression that these are subjects I am indifferent to, even though my knowledge is pretty scant: I do have O-Level Maths, and was one of the very first students to study what was called ‘modern maths’ in the sixties, and I also have what was quaintly known as ‘General Science’ O-Level (ie very basic).

Some of the most interesting conversations I used to have as a teacher were with science and maths-teaching colleagues; I am still proud of my abilities in mental arithmetic and calculation, and I’ve always found playing with numbers in my head fascinating, along with other connections I’ve been able to make between what I learned in school, and later life. As far as science goes, I’ve had a lifelong interest in astronomy – my primary school best friend and I used to fantasise about whether we could get to be the first men to land on the moon! – and my enjoyment of detective fiction means I’ve always liked reading about forensic science. However, I do have to admit that an awful lot of mathematical and scientific knowledge does give me a serious headache after not very long: my brain just doesn’t seem to be wired that way… I did actually get to the end of Stephen Hawking‘s A Brief History of Time, but please don’t ask me what it’s about.

Maths and science feature noticeably in my reading. I loved Norman Juster‘s The Phantom Tollbooth, a book for children that introduces one to the joys of playing with words and numbers, as Milo visits the cities of Digitopolis and Dictionopolis. And, as I thought about this post, I realised that I’ve liked science fiction ever since I was a small boy, perhaps beginning with the Lost Planet series by Angus MacVicar, and never looking back since. But I must then confess that it’s never really been the ‘hard science’ variety that’s gripped me, much more the speculative kind.

Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein plays with what scientists were exploring in her day, and she couples it with a powerful story and incisive reflection on the morality of what scientists can get up to, reflections which perhaps we would do well to remember nowadays. Just because we can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean we should…

I found the fictionalised travels of the eighteenth century polymath Alexander von Humboldt, in Daniel Kehlmann‘s novel Measuring the World so interesting that I then went on to seek out and enjoy (an edited version of ) Humboldt’s travel journals. And Primo Levi, a chemist who survived Auschwitz, though not much of life after Auschwitz, wrote a fascinating fictionalised autobiography called The Periodic Table; each chapter is named after an element, the last is carbon, and the ending of the book is both witty (in the best sense of that word) and masterly.

I like reading popular science from time to time, because it’s accessible; I’ve enjoyed Steve Jones‘ takes on Darwin and evolution, The Descent of Men and Almost Like A Whale, and have also found what I’ve read about science and medicine in the Islamic world during our so-called ‘Dark Ages’ very interesting. In the end, there’s plenty of approachable material out there for the non-scientists like me; if only there was the time…

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These I have (also) loved…

October 30, 2015

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(continuing the theme of literatures from other lands)

 It does seem a little unfair to put so many writers and nations together under ‘other’ but you will understand what I mean when I say that there is not enough time to read everything I would like to, and that some countries and authors will just have to wait for my next existence…

I’m glad I read Don Quixote once. I’m not sure I’ll have time to come back to him, but I did understand why the Spanish love him, and I learned quite a lot about the development of the novel in its early days.

The Portuguese writer Jose Saramago has intrigued me and I’ve read several of his novels; Blindness, which I believe had been made into a film and which I’m definitely NOT planning to watch, is one of the scariest and most horrifying novels I’ve read. Almost everyone is struck blind over the course of a few days, and the anarchy and human vileness which is released makes the world of Lord of the Flies seem like the Teddy Bears’ Picnic. It’s stunning, and fearsomely convincing. However, it’s Antonio Tabucci‘s Pereira Maintains that I have liked best from that country’s literature. He conveys the spookiness of the long Salazar dicatatorship very effectively indeed.

I’ve read several Italian novelists. Umberto Eco I’ve written at great length about elsewhere in this blog if you care to look, so no more about him. Primo Levi I have found very moving. He was an Auschwitz survivor who eventually committed suicide, but not before writing a powerful memoir, If This is a Man, and an intriguing, semi-autobiographical novel inspired by his life (he was a research chemist) called The Periodic Table, which I think is a masterpiece, especially the final chapter. And I love the lighthearted feel of The Garden of the Finzi Continis, by Gregorio Bassani, with the hidden undertones of menace in the background… but if I had to pick the very best, then I’d undoubtedly go for Giovanni di Lampedusa‘s The Leopard, a stunningly beautiful and lyrical tale of the emergence of modern Italy and the disappearance of an era seen through the eyes of a man who knows it must happen, wants it to happen and knows it makes him redundant, inescapably part of a past that has gone forever.

I also have to mention the Albanian Ismail Kadare. Older friends of mine will be acquainted with my fascination with the country, largely due to listening to propaganda broadcasts from Radio Tirana in the evenings. So when I came across translations – mainly into French, but some into English, of this astonishing writer, I was hooked. Broken April is set in the tradition of the kanun, or blood-feud, a historically Albanian thing, with all sorts of rules about who you can and can’t kill, and when. The Pyramid is an allegory of sorts about his own country under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, while telling the story of the building of the pyramids in ancient Egypt, and The Palace of Dreams creates a bureaucracy to rival Kafka‘s. And then there are realistic novels set in the Albania of the fifties and sixties as she fell out with the Soviet Union (‘social imperialists’)and came to ally herself with the Chinese, The Concert, and The Great Winter. He is a masterly chronicler of his times and his country, and an entertaining novelist.

I’m glad to have been able to get to know (I’m sure merely skimming the surface) the literature of so many other lands; I do think it’s sad how many people I meet who, though they may venture far from our shores on holiday, never do so in the realms of reading. What they have missed…

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