A Terrible Beauty

Published in 2000, A Terrible Beauty is defiantly a pre-internet book(1). In under 850 pages (under 775 if you discount the index), it gives the reader a history of the twentieth century’s defining ideas, from Marxism to Nazism, from Feminism to fusion. Not just the ideas, but the people too – Satre, Picasso, Orwell and Janet Leigh and thousands more. In the words of its own subtitle, it is a history of ‘the people and ideas that shaped the modern mind.’ The idea of any book – any mere bundle of paper – attempting to do that thing now would seem weirdly futile.

Yet it’s the reason why this is the case, the one that’s on the tip of your tongue – yes, Wikipedia – that reading A Terrible Beauty brings to mind. The book is divided into four parts, and within these, 42 themed chapters. They are roughly chronological, but if a later development, discovery or idea fits a theme, it will be mentioned ahead of time, giving a beautiful sense of the uneven march of history. That said, so far, so traditional narrative. What’s very Wikipediary (!) about the book is that the people mentioned are all picked out in bold type when they first appear, enabling you to zip through the text and start reading when someone’s name catches your eye. Despite the fact it all ties together very well when you’re reading sequentially, it’s startlingly easy to just open the book and start reading. That’s how I first got into it; I was staying at a friend’s house, and it sat on the bedside table in the spare room.

The page I opened it at was 530, with its piece on Germaine Greer, immediately presenting one of Greer’s killer lines:

“Her book, The Female Eunuch, did not neglect women’s economic condition, though only one of its thirty chapters is devoted to work. Rather it drew its force from Greer’s unflinching comparison of the way women, love and marriage are presented in literature, both serious and popular, and in everyday currency, as compared with the way things really are. ‘Freud’, she writes, ‘is the father of psychoanalysis. It had no mother.'”

So it continues, brisk but not hurried, economical without being threadbare:

“Greer is withering in her criticisms of how men are presented as dominant, socially superior, older, richer, and taller than their women (Greer is very tall herself). In what is perhaps her most original contribution, she demolishes love and romance (both given their own chapters) as chimeras, totally divorced (an apt verb) from the much bleaker reality.”

The conclusion to this section has stayed with me since I first read it, a sentence that completely embodies the book’s title:

“As with all true liberation, this view is both bleak and exhilarating.”

It was this line that came to me today as I read two pieces about the future of computing and the internet.

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David Mitchell on ideas and characters in his new book

Just been to see David Mitchell read from his new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet at Shoreditch House.

Readings are always a little weird, bits of text disenfranchised from their home-novel, and the author never seems to know whether to show literary firepower with big bits of description or to create motion with some dialogue; whether to play it all for laughs or not, if they should commentate as they go along.

But these are difficulties inherent to the form and it doesn’t stop readings from being enjoyable, particularly as in this case, I’m a big fan, Mitchell’s a great writer and Deijima is a great setting.

Couple of interesting points from the Q&A afterwards:

On why he’s going back to Japan now:

Mitchell stumbled upon a Dejima museum in Nagasaki in 1996 because he “couldn’t read the street signs.” Writers he said, in a lovely similie, have a “Geiger counter built in that goes off when you’re around good material.”

Interesting settings and ideas are saved; they “circle like planes waiting to land at Heathrow… [and] it was time to bring this one in to land.”

Great image, no wonder people were applauding.

On the way characters from his previous books appear in later ones:

“I think of it like the dole, the DSS. There’s this room where the old characters wait, looking for work… So I go in there and see if there’s anyone who can do the job.”

So well put. He also revealed the next novel he’s writing is set in the present day and features, in some way, a character from Thousand Autumns.

Can’t wait for the book itself – it’s out in May.

(Bear in mind I was there for fun, not taking proper notes, so the above is paraphrased).