Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Baroque Cycle

Quicksilver: The Baroque Cycle The Confusion The System of the World
Ah, holidays. Time to claim a little space of one's own, and sink into a good book. We're about to go on a long trip, which takes me back to the last long trip we made. Five years ago, we spent a couple of months pottering around Italy. I was still so shocked at the constant presence of my first baby, then eight months old, and so desperate for time alone, that I would wake automatically most nights at midnight, walk on the cold tiles through to the small loungeroom, and lie on the couch reading until 3 or 4 am in the morning, lost in the story and revelling in the blessed peace. Then I'd take myself back to bed, sleep for a few more hours, and get up to face the day.

Question: What books could impel me to dispense with infinitely precious sleep and keep me awake until the wee small hours? Answer: Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle.

The Baroque Cycle consists of three enormous novels (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World), or eight sub-books immersed within the whole, or almost 3,000 pages; in other words, a whole lot of reading. And the reading is thrilling.

The books chart the evolution of modern science through the antics of the Royal Society and the development of the calculus; the evolution of the modern money markets through German mines, London moneylenders, the development of futures markets, and the endemic tampering with coins; and the evolution of modern government through the power plays of the the rich and powerful. Incidentally, we read about the Plague, the Great Fire of London, and Christopher Wren's vision for a modern London; the Spanish Inquisition and slavery in the New World; Puritans and Barbary slave galleys; the many uses of the Tower of London; and the customs of mudlarks at Tyburn Cross.

It's an immense series, sprawling, endlessly fascinating, and hilariously funny. Stephenson is a natural storyteller with a terrific eye for character. The books are peopled with an enormous cast, real and imagined, yet each person is fully realised and developed. The linch pins are Half-cock Jack, the Vagabond hero, who creates mayhem and havoc wherever he goes; Daniel Waterhouse, Isaac Newton's College roommate, who provides regular insights into the Royal Society and the vicious dispute between Newton and Leibniz over the development of the calculus, as well as engaging in political intrigue; and Eliza, rescued by Jack from the Ottoman harem during the siege of Vienna, but slowly ascending to grace the French Court at Versailles. Meanwhile, dozens of major European figures in science, politics and architecture make their appearances in all their glorious eccentricity.

Stephenson writes about everyday aspects of Baroque life well - the collection of human urine to make phosphorus; people dropping of the Plague in crowded markets; the elaborate negotiations required for every monetary exchange, as the coinage changed so often and was compromised so regularly that currency was always negotiable; the terrible impact of kidney stones; the rampaging Press Gang; the dogs, rats and feces that filled the London streets; the use of feathers and whalebones to induce vomiting and balance out one's humours; the power of the elite over all aspects of human life; the society of coffee houses; the effects of smallpox and French pox - that the reader gains a rich, almost visceral, sense of daily life so many years ago.

The books are an education. Ideas which I had previously had no understanding of or interest in, such as the buying and selling of futures, were clearly explained; even some of the machinations of politicians and royals became intelligible. Yet interwoven into this crash course in history, science and politics are characters so vile, events so dramatic and conversations so hysterically funny that the reader is completely engaged from beginning to end. It is worth setting aside a year, or some very long holidays, to read them. They are absorbing, nourishing, and enormously entertaining.

While we were in Tuscany, we had the first two books with us. The third was released in London during our holiday; a friend purchased it there and brought it with him. I had a week in Venice to read it before he took off home again. It was the perfect location, as the city evoked so much of the story. I remember days and nights in 'our' apartment, curled in an old armchair overlooking a canal, completely immersed and interrupted only by excursions to the Venetian islands, glances at the medieval buildings opposite, and meandering walks through narrow alleys to the fish market, cheese shop and Doge's Palace. Happy days.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The daily round

Quotidian Mysteries
Half a lifetime ago, long before I had any kids or had even met my husband, I picked up The Quotidian Mysteries, a slender book by Kathleen Norris. I was on an extended lazy holiday, and remember devouring the book in one gulp, along with a few too many coffees, deep in an armchair at a coffee shop as heavy rain pounded the footpath outside.

The book was a turning point. I had always thought of lives as measured by big projects: achievements, awards, titles, publications. And yet I was most of the way through a university course that I wasn't enjoying, working in administration which I never loved, and had no idea what to do next. According to my own ideals, my life was quickly becoming a failure or, at the very least, nothing to write home about.

Yet this little book suggested that every action, no matter how mundane or domestic, might have significance. Even the most repetitive tasks of running a household could be performed graciously, as the necessary and concrete acts which enable a household to function and bind its members together in love. We need to eat, to clean, to do the washing; this work is not mere drudgery to be escaped, but part of a daily ritual which includes work, play and worship. Even more, Norris suggested that we could perform these tasks attentively. We could watch for God's presence with us in even the most everyday tasks; we could perform them as an act of worship; we could use the mindlessness to achieve the meditative state into which God's voice might speak.

Housework and worship have much in common, she claims. They can both be tedious and boring, something to get through - and yet both affect us even when we perform them in the most perfunctory manner. They are both part of the daily round, particularly in monastic circles. And they both reflect serious commitment, the sort of commitment that one makes without understanding the depth of the promise. We have a baby without any concept of what is involved; we become Christian without understanding what will be required of us. Both work and worship, she argues, are about transformation, and transformation is only possible for humans in the daily round.

These ideas have stayed with me ever since, and sustained me through the neverending demands of parenting and housework. But after six years, I thought it was time to revisit the book, to take a refresher course so to speak.

What was interesting this time was to read it with three kids in the background, one still in nappies, toys all over the floor, laundry on the line waiting to be brought in and folded, dinner needing to be cooked - and knowing that Norris is childless.

Ah, those pre-child days. I could sit in an armchair and read a book in a gulp; we ate out for lunch and dinner most days; nobody dropped their breakfast cereal on the floor or rubbed it in their hair. I recall groaning at having to sweep the floor once a month. We're neat people, we ate out a lot, we had no pets; the only thing that happened to our floor was that it got a little dusty sometimes. And now... well, now I sweep the floor twice a day, sometimes more, and it's still usually crunchy underfoot. I do loads of washing every week, and fold washing every afternoon. My bathroom is putrid, especially since my three year old decided to clean the mirror with a soapy toothpasty sponge and I can't be bothered scrubbing it all off; and someone has managed to smear a little poo on the toilet pedestal. When I finish writing this, I'll go clean it.

The other night as I was tidying up prior to family coming over for dinner, someone emptied all the plastic containers onto the floor THREE TIMES in an hour, and dumped all the Duplo out too for good measure. In between picking up several hundred small plastic objects, I cooked dinner for nine. (Yes, I am a goddess.) I have a theory that if you can't tidy it up, you can't play with it, but it doesn't work with a highly inquisitive fifteen month old. She can reach high, and climbs to reach even higher, and she leaves a trail of scattered books and papers and pens and toys and clean nappies and shoes and colanders and leaves and raisins wherever she goes. And when she's not doing that, she's sitting, plump down on the kitchen step beaming at me, and I can hardly get cross at her for being a messy curious baby.

Anyway... let's just say that it's rather vexing to have a childless woman, WHOSE HUSBAND COOKS (yes, I shouted that), suggest that I find dignity in the daily round, and go on to comment that "young parents juggling child-rearing and making a living" should, "if they are wise... treasure the rare moments of solitude and silence that come their way, and use them not to escape, to distract themselves with television and the like." Well, if I wasn't completely and utterly exhausted two nights out of three - having prepared, served and cleaned away three meals and one or two snacks, much of which dropped onto the floor and some of which was subsequently stepped on - I probably wouldn't watch any television; but I am, and I do, and I'm unapologetic.

And yet, I have to admit that she's right, of course. I am infinitely happier and more refreshed when I spend quiet time just being quiet, or reading, writing or making something; and when I have the energy, I do just that.

And overall, I am still grateful for the book. Her words have rippled through the eleven years since I first read it, and have sustained me through the chaos of raising three young children thus far. Norris reminds me of my love of laundry, even if my laundry is a mountain compared to hers; I hang it on a line outside above the lavender bushes, and when I bring it in, the scent of lavender and sunlight thread through the house. And her insights into worship were part of my journey to a church congregation which focuses on liturgy, which has enriched my life immeasurably; I carry the words and songs of the liturgy with me in whatever I do.

Living attentively, and understanding the daily round as an act of loving service and an opportunity for reflection, is vitally important if those of us who perform it are not to go right out of our minds. This little book lends drudgery a little dignity, and even helps us find joy in it; it is a great gift. Those of us with young children might just have to be gracious enough not to snarl at the writer when she makes suggestions about parenting that grate.

> Kathleen Norris The Quotidian Mysteries. Laundry, Liturgy and 'Women's Work'. 1998 Madaleva Lecture in Spirituality. (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1998).