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.

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