WHAT A COINCIDENCE

Most good books tell you how to read them. In the case of Ciaran Carson’s Shamrock Tea, it’s on page 12, where the narrator, a fellow named Carson, muses on the philosophy of Sherlock Holmes: “To a great mind, says Holmes in A Study in Scarlet, nothing is little; and from a drop of water, he maintained, a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara, without having seen or heard of one or the other; for all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known when we are shown a single link of it.”

Shamrock Tea—a novel as mischievous and funny as it is smart—is just such a chain, with Carson using colors instead of drops of water to infer a universe populated by Christian saints and Roman gods, by his uncle Celestine and his cousin Berenice, by unicorns and bees, Napoleon, Augustine and Oscar Wilde, by Sherlock Holmes and his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, by the 15th-century Dutch painter Jan van Eyck and the 20th-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein,(1) by the neighbors in the narrator’s fractious Northern Ireland city and the thousands of insane inhabitants of the Belgian town of Gheel.

In 101 three-page chapters, each of which is assigned and somehow relates to an obscure or fanciful hue (“Doll’s Eye Blue,” for instance, or “Jaffa Orange”), Carson takes his narrator to boarding school, through a strange drug trip, and into the van Eyck painting The Arnolfini Portrait—literally. The result is a thrilling, dream-like quilt of history, memory, and imagination woven together by connections between all these people and things—connections both subtle and so fantastically contrived as to seem magical.

Of course, by their very definition, stories are governed by connections—coincidences small and large that artfully propel characters forward into some kind of resolution. But Carson, an accomplished poet and musician from Belfast, Northern Ireland, seems positively obsessed by connections and the meanings they can serve.

He’s not alone.

Two other novels published in the last year, while different in often striking ways, posit similar world views and undertake similar literary styles as Shamrock Tea. Like Carson’s book, Austerlitz by the late W. G. Sebald (he died in a car accident last Christmas) and The Horned Man by James Lasdun read like elaborate crossword puzzles, eloquent stabs at meaning in a world otherwise too cluttered with information and images.

As if to dramatize the ways in which we can so easily become lost—in the everyday world, in the world of our thoughts, in the world of knowledge—the first paragraph of Sebald’s Austerlitz wanders across 24 pages and is periodically elaborated by a footnote or embellished by a diagram or photograph. It introduces an unnamed narrator who tells of how, in 1960s Belgium, he met a man named Jacques Austerlitz. Educated, chatty, and contemplative, Austerlitz relates the story of his life in various conversations across various locales over the next 30 years, indulging in long, sometimes fascinating, sometimes tedious digressions on everything from architecture to the Napoleonic wars to moths.

In a manner that the German-born Sebald perfected over the years in such novels as The Emigrants and Vertigo, these digressions become the point. As the book opens, the narrator remembers the occasion of his first meeting with Austerlitz. He was literally wandering the city of Antwerp, “plagued by a headache and my uneasy thoughts.” He ended up in a zoo and, in particular, the Nocturama, populated by strange creatures of the night, like European hedgehogs, owls, Australian opossums, dormice, lemurs, and raccoons. He recalls “that several of them had strikingly large eyes, and the fixed, inquiring gaze found in certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking.”

The narrator says that he often confuses in his mind the memory of that Nocturama with the train station he visited next, fleeing from his headache and into a building he describes as “fantastical.” It is there he encounters the humorless stranger Austerlitz, who engages him at great length on the station’s architecture. Like the train station itself, this conversation is just a starting place, and before the book is through, Austerlitz has talked himself into an examination of his own mysterious identity and the fate of his Jewish parents during the Holocaust.

The insight is not new: that in the dark our eyes grow larger, struggling to make connections between unseen objects; that in this struggle to see and understand, we create from our imaginations a whole new world. But it is with considerable angst and rare elegance that Sebald dramatizes this harrowing journey.

According to Austerlitz, a particularly tragic figure can be found in the common moth, another nocturnal animal prone to getting itself lost:

“I believe, said Austerlitz, they know they have lost their way, since if you do not put them out again carefully they will stay where they are, never moving, until the last breath is out of their bodies, and indeed they will remain in the place where they came to grief even after death, held fast by the tiny claws that stiffened in their last agony, until a draft of air detaches them and blows them into a dusty corner.”

By contrast, Carson, in Shamrock Tea, finds hope in the honeybee, an animal steeped in mythological baggage. “The seething comb of black and amber bodies seemed without purpose, but he knew that this was far from the case: by dancing, by touch, by scent, by the vibrations of their wings, bees communicated a map of the immediate nectar-bearing countryside.” And they do all this, Carson alliteratively explains, with eyes that operate on “a high flicker-fusion frequency.” In other words, their vision consists of “isolated frames connected by darkness.” It’s up to the bee, then, to connect the dots.

By far the most intriguing animal for Carson, however, is the unicorn. That’s because the unicorn exists solely in our imagination, which surely is as vivid as the real world. It’s to this animal that British poet and short story writer James Lasdun leads the protagonist of his debut novel The Horned Man.

Englishman Lawrence Miller is a migraine-prone professor of gender studies at a small college outside of New York City. A mild-mannered if priggish sort (on one level, the book is a satire of academic political correctness), Miller inhabits his world with unusual fastidiousness. However, it all comes undone when, the day after idly losing himself in a passage from a book, he finds that his bookmark has moved. This single mystery sparks a fuse that flickers more in the fashion of a thriller than either the brainy Shamrock Tea or Austerlitz.

More than the narrators of these two books, Miller is skeptical of the connections he can’t seem to help but make—between the Bulgarian coin he finds in his office and the Bulgarian professor he hears about in meetings; between the play another professor takes his students to see and the Bulgarian professor and the woman who plays the lead in the play, a woman who also apparently played a role in Miller’s divorce.

“It sometimes seems to me that the mind—my own, at least—far from being the infinitely capacious organ one likes to think it is, is in fact rather rudimentary,” Miller observes, “possessing only a very limited number of categories for the things it experiences, and lumping all kids of diverse phenomena together on the basis of the most accidental resemblance. That would account for the way you realize from time to time that you have never made a real distinction between, say, the dog-owning neighbor in the town you were born in, and the cat-owning neighbor in the town you moved to later on. Both have simply been categorized as ‘pet-owning neighbors.’ It’s always a bit of a shock when you realize that the people or things you’ve fused together have nothing to do with each other at all.”

In that way, all three of these books might be seen as existential mystery novels—Sherlock Holmes for the really bookish.

An anonymous note written in Latin and left in Miller’s faculty mailbox leads him to his late father’s unfinished history of pharmacology. It is in this manuscript that his father hearkens back to ancient doctors’ belief that the unicorn’s horn was the essence of either good or evil. It all depends on the path of allegorical connection you make: through traditional Christ imagery or through the story of Noah’s Ark and Adam’s naming of the beasts.

In other words, it’s all in how you see it.

(At this point, you should hardly be surprised to learn that before The Horned Man’s surprising if uncertain conclusion, there is a digression involving a stolen glass eye.)

More than most writers, Carson, Sebald and Lasdun seem intent on conjuring dream worlds in which their characters, like the narrator of Shamrock Tea, struggle to extract meaning. “I still dream of Beatrice,” he confesses, referring to his cousin. “We float through cloisters of memory, looking for our waking selves.”

Shamrock Tea by Ciaran Carson (Granta, 320 pages); Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald (Random House, 304 pages); The Horned Man by James Lasdun (W. W. Norton, 193 pages)
Concord (NH) Monitor, July 2002

 

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1  Apropos of nothing, I suppose, but I ran across Wittgenstein in Jorge Semprun’s memoir Literature or Life (1997). Semprun was a 20-year-old philosophy student and a member of the French Resistance when he was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Buchenwald in 1943. After the war, he spent a lot of time with his friends catching up on philosophy and poetry. He recalls discussion of one particularly “trenchant, limpid sentence (the ultimate meaning of which, however, was uncertain) from the Tractatus of Ludwig Wittgenstein.”

Wittgenstein’s sentence translates to, roughly, “Death is not an event in life. Death cannot be lived.”

Semprun comments:

No doubt, I’d written three years earlier, in the black imitation-leather notebook, no doubt death cannot be a lived experience (vivencia, in Spanish): we’ve known this ever since Epicurus, at least. Nor can it be an experience of pure consciousness, of the cogito. It will always be a mediated, conceptual experience, the experience of a social, practical occurrence. Such evidence, however, is quite meager. In fact, to be rigorous, Wittgenstein’s pronouncement ought to be phrased like this: “Mein Tod ist kein Ereignis meines Lebens. Meinen Tod erlebe ich nicht.” In other words: my death is not an event in my life. I will not live my death.

That’s it, and it’s not much.

This sentence of Wittgenstein’s is nevertheless important for Semprun because he describes his experience as having participated in a kind of collective death. That he survived makes the experience no less real. Writing about Buchenwald, then, forced him to relive his death. He therefore found it necessary to quit writing, to quit remembering, in order to live. Hence his title.