Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson

Volume One of the Baroque Cycle (2003). This is an amazing, literate, and intelligent historical novel. It is literate because of its style, even occasional poetic passages, and because of its concerns with the philosophy and morality of its time. It is intelligent because it vividly recreates the culture, the mores, and the history of Europe in the second half of the 17th century.

Its setting centers on London, but also includes Vienna, the cities of central Germany, Paris, Versailles, and major cities of the Netherlands. It covers the end of the brief Catholic monarchy in London, the rival French monarchy, very ambitious under Louis XIV, and the intriguing royal courts in both capitals. And 80 percent of the novel’s characters are persons of history.

Thus, significant, supporting roles are given to Isaac Newton and the German philosopher Leibniz, who contribute to the intellectual history of the era, while other participants are Christopher Wren, Samuel Pepys, John Locke, Robert Hooke, and Christian Huygens. Plus French king Louis XIV who hates the British, and William of Orange as he plots to become King of England.

But this is a work of fiction, even as it is a deep, philosophical, literary exploration of this moment of history. And the main character is the fictional Daniel Waterhouse, who graduates from Cambridge and becomes the secretary of the Royal (Scientific) Society of London, where he meets Newton and the other scientists and intellectuals of the era.

And yet a 916-page novel, almost by definition, requires more than one hero, and after Daniel dominates the first third of the novel we are introduced to Jack Shaftoe, an adventurous Vagabond who has no connection to Waterhouse. And admittedly, this change is confusing. Why has this character been introduced? Well, perhaps it is to expose us to more history, as he encounters Eliza, the book’s heroine, in a tunnel the Turks have built under Vienna to blow up its fortifications. And the second part of the book follows Jack and Eliza as they flee together across central Europe, encountering German intellectuals such as Leibniz, to the Netherlands, where they encounter more scientific and political heroes of history. Whereupon, in final section of the novel, they separate, and in Paris Eliza is made the Countess de la Zeur and dominates the concluding section—along with the return of Daniel Waterhouse.

But to go back to Waterhouse and the start of this novel. We meet him as an elderly man in Massachusetts in 1713. It is an intriguing opening, as he receives a mysterious message from a Princess Caroline, whom we will meet at the end of the novel when, years earlier, she is six-years-old. An old friend Enoch Root from England delivers this message to Daniel, which sends him off on a dangerous sea voyage back to London—a voyage that alternates with Daniel’s early life at Cambridge, where he meets many historic youths who will later ply a major role in science and in history. Indeed, this switching back and forth in time adds confusion, for we do not know if the emphasis of the novel will be on the events of Daniel’s youth, or what he is going back to.

As the second part begins, however, we see where the novel’s divisions lie. It has begun with Daniel’s youth in the 1660s and his Royal Society years the 1670s, when he also experiences the Plague and the Great Fire of London. Now, we continue with Jack Shaftoe’s trek across Europe with Eliza in the 1680s; and then the final third ends in the late 1680s with Daniel Waterhouse’s adventures in London as a Protestant king is restored, and then with Eliza’s adventures as the ambitious French king invades the German states.

The final chapters of this novel are somewhat disappointing, for three reasons. First, the author frequently resorts to long letters that do not dramatize the action but summarize it, no doubt because he needs to cover a lot of ground as he bring us up to date on the history of the times. This is climaxed by an especially long letter from Eliza that summarizes her adventures in giving birth, a private event that has no repercussions, at least in this novel.

And, second, this is followed by an unexploded bomb of a finale, when Daniel’s friends plot to arrange an operation on him for kidney stones. We know he survives, because he is living in Massachusetts many years later; and so this operation has no apparent significance except to offer at the end a cliff-hanger moment that leaves us in false suspense.

And, third, the most frustrating aspect of this novel is that it has no real ending, that it simply leads into the follow-up sequels of The Baroque Cycle. It is particularly frustrating because there is no outcome to the original set-up chapter, of Daniel being called back to England, and to agreeing to risk his life on a sea voyage. What added to my own frustration is that I did not understand, on first reading, the reason for Daniel’s return: as a go-between to help reconcile the dispute between Leibniz and Isaac Newton, and their followers, over the invention of calculus—a dispute that is holding back the development of scientific thought in Europe.

But despite all this, I found this novel to be amazing, mainly because of its vivid historic content. I was continually impressed by the details, all of them so pertinent to the story. Details about the geography, the means of travel, the rural life of the poor, and the contrasting wealth and dirt of the cities. Also details about the rivalry among countries, among monarchs, among cities, among various court factions. And explorations in depth of European culture, with the contrasts among philosophers, scientists, religious leaders, and the different social strata.

The richness of this novel is magnified by the philosophic, religious, and human contrasts it offers. Such contrasts include Protestant vs. Catholic, religion vs. science, England vs. France, power vs. conscience, status quo vs. revolution, free will vs. predestination, fresh ideas vs. conformity, free communication vs. cryptography, tradition vs. innovation, corruption vs. integrity, etc., etc.

Stephenson had to have done a tremendous amount of research, but the real accomplishment was to have the concentration to hold all of it in his memory bank until it was appropriate to use. And then, finally, weaving it naturally into his story, usually through the observations of his characters, although at times in those letters, a method that I became tired of.

There are some memorable scenes in this novel, although the Plague and the Great Fire have more a vivid presence than a dramatic effect. The most memorable scene for me was the rescue by Eliza and friends of William of Orange as he indulges in his usual morning ride along a Netherlands beach. Also vivid is Jack’s rescue of Eliza in the tunnel under Vienna. On the other hand, when Daniel is memorably imprisoned in the Tower of London, his rescue by Jack’s brother Bob seems quite arbitrary and coincidental.

What I do not accept from the critics is any categorizing this work as a science fiction novel, even if it did earn an Arthur C. Clarke Award. Perhaps past Stephenson works were science fiction, but for me this work is completely historic. Yes, a modern sensibility wrote it, which undoubtedly is why I enjoyed it. But this work explores the past, and internally it belongs to the past.

Steven Poole in The Guardian calls Quicksilver a “great fantastical boiling pot of theories about science, money, war and much else, by turns broadly picaresque and microscopically technical, sometimes over-dense and sometimes too sketchy, flawed but unarguably magnificent.” I would agree with everything except the suggestion of fantasy.

I have held this novel on my shelves for a long while, in part hesitating to start a 900-page novel and in part waiting to find the successor novels in the trilogy. Now, I wish I had fond those novels, so much have I enjoyed this one. And also because it leaves so much uncertainty about the future fate of Daniel, Eliza, and Jack.

We leave Jack, for example, as a prisoner in a pirate galley. Has he exited the book completely? One suspects Daniel will become the main protagonist, in part because some critics have seen in this work a commentary on contemporary culture; and at the core of Newton’s and Leibniz’ researches into numbers is the germ of what will become our computer age. And we must remember that his mission is apparently to be to reconcile those two figures. On the other hand, Eliza has become so adept at politics and numbers, perhaps she will emerge as the more significant character, especially because of her continuing emergence as a financial power-broker. In any event, I look forward to continuing this saga. (September, 2014)

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

This 1859 work is not the real Dickens, the classic Dickens. I wanted to return to a classic of my high school days, and I chose this work both because I recalled its strong narrative drive and because I still have an interest in the French Revolution.

But, while this work did not offer what I had expected, I found that from the beginning I was in the hands of a master. Dickens quickly proved himself in the control of his material, and he also exhibited a rich, rewarding style. His famous opening, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” certainly reflects this. Moreover, the initial focus on the English bank, Tellson’s, that does business in France, and the mysterious mission of Jarvis Lorry, a bank manager, both drew me into the novel and introduced the contrasting backgrounds of England and France, as well as a few of the main characters.

And yet as I moved further into the work, I sensed considerable preparatory work, such as the London trial of Darnay and his similar appearance to Sidney Carton enabling him to avoid sentencing. Dickens was also introducing here the power of the mob and the themes of innocence and injustice. Not to forget that the title reflected his wish to create similarities between a civil London society and a different, revolutionary French society.

I could also see him setting up his dramatic finale, especially when Sidney Carton, not a strongly drawn character, one of simple contradictions, swears his love and loyalty to the golden heroine Lucie Manette, whom Charles Darnay also loves. Indeed, for me, Darnay is the more interesting character, as a former French aristocrat who has rejected his cruel, arbitrary ancestors and turned English gentleman.

So slowly, this novel moved from a classic work for me to very rich historical fiction. This was Dickens using all his literary skills, but using them in the interest of his narrative. Most prominent is a resurrection theme, starting with Carton’s continual repetition of “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord,” as he commits himself to saving the life of Darnay. It is a resurrection theme that begins on the opening pages with the message, “recalled to life,” that Lorry sends back to his bank. It is also reflected in the rescue, and then revival, of Dr. Manette, Lucie’s father, as well as Darnay’s triple (London, Paris, and Paris) rescue from an evil fate.

Another prominent theme is sacrifice and redemption. By Sidney Carton, especially. But also Darnay, who has given up his wealth and title for a sense of justice. And just so for Dr. Manette, who sacrificed 18 years of his life. While a corollary suggests the sacrifice of one, Darnay, for the many, and the sacrifice of the many to satisfy the one, such as Madam Defarge.

Antonio Conejos has perceptively written: “The resulting irony is that while Darnay returns to save a common man (in the singular sense), it is the common man (in the collective sense) that will be the death of him…. Predictably the mob cares nothing for his noble ideals, the honorable nature of his trip or the fact that he has renounced his name and chosen to make his own way in England. The crowd must have all aristocratic blood, and Darnay is swiftly imprisoned upon his return….This conflict is the essence of the Tale of Two Cities. On one hand you have grand, ambitions movements, full of generalizations, abstract sentiment and vague rhetoric. On the other you have individuals who…are noble people…because they are sound enough to exercise their own proper judgment.”

Dickens himself wrote that he did not emphasize characterizations when he wrote this novel, that he wished the emphasis to be on the narrative. I would note, however, that his work is most effective when he keeps his characters in the foreground. The work is not nearly as effective, for example, when he leaves his characters in order to narrate certain historic moments, such as the storming of the Bastille. One feels he was writing then out of research then, rather than out of a personal interpretation of an experience.

One character continually cited by critics is Madam Defarge, whom they say outshines the other characters in her determination, her evil, and her characteristic knitting. She does dominate everyone in her scenes, especially her husband who once served Dr. Minette. But for Dickens, she balances the altruistic Sidney Carton, as the author contrasts the evil and the goodness to be found in both London and Parisian societies. Apparently, Dickens was drawn to this subject by the contradictions he saw everywhere in the lives of the wealthy and the poor, the powerful and the weak. And what happens when the poor become powerful and the wealthy become weak.

I would also note that, as dramatic as some of the chapters are, I often found it difficult to remember where the action left off when I returned to the novel. This suggests a lack of continuity, of one development leading inevitably to the next. Not least because this is a very complicated plot, and at times appears to be more the author moving on to a new development.

For example, when Darnay returns to Paris in order to save a colleague who has been arrested. This very arbitrarily sets up the long dramatic finale. There is also Carton fortuitously encountering a British spy, Solomon Pross, and blackmailing him into helping to save Darnay. Finally, there is Dr. Minette’s letter of long ago, found in the ruins of the Bastille. It suddenly appears at an (in)opportune moment, and is quite long for the circumstances under which it was written.

But beyond the narrative momentum, the lack of continuity may also reflect the creation of the novel, which originally appeared as 31 weekly installments. Which was typical of Dickens’ era, and particularly of himself.

To conclude, I should try more of Dickens before reaching any conclusions about him. This is out of his mainstream; it is not the personal story of a youth or of English society. Yet one can see why it was introduced into high school classrooms of the past: its history, its balance of good and evil, its strong narrative drive, and its resurrection theme. (August, 2014)