Thursday, April 28, 2011

The laws of science and the mysteries of the human soul collide (Books - The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald)

Penelope Fitzgerald's The Gate of Angels might be called an intellectual romp, a flirtation of ideas. It's one part English novel of manners, one part novel of the intellectual zeitgeist of Cambridge 1912, and one part American screwball comedy directed by Howard Hawks. Quite the cocktail. I can imagine that Connie Willis might have taken a page from this book's style.
How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into the town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril? This was on the way into Cambridge, up Mill Road past the cemetery and the workhouse. On the open ground to the left the willow-trees had been blown, driven and cracked until their branches gave way and lay about the drenched grass, jerking convulsively and trailing cataracts of twigs. The cows had gone mad, tossing up the silvery weeping leaves which were suddenly, quite contrary to all their experience, everywhere within reach. Their horns were festooned with willow boughs. Not being able to see properly, they tripped and fell. Two or three of them were wallowing on the their backs, idiotically, exhibiting vast pale bellies intended by nature to be always hidden. They were still munching. A scene of disorder, tree-tops on the earth, legs in the air, in a university city devoted to logic and reason.
And this circus-of-a-paragraph brilliantly sets the scene, not merely for the novel's comic style and harried tempo, but also for the world of 1912. The gate of angels is a narrow gate, hardly ever opened, at St. Angelicus, a college at Cambridge. Fred Fairly, son of an English village rector and a Junior Fellow at St. Angelicus, begins to study physics, learn of the atom, and turn family tradition upside down. That is, until his bicycle crashes into Daisy Saunders's and Fred's infatuation begins. St. Angelicus has a strict policy of celibacy, so one could say that this episode opens its own little gate, letting in chaos.

The brief novel's four parts focus separately on the stories of Fred, Daisy, and Dr. Matthews, a medievalist and writer of ghost stories. Fitzgerald weaves them all together to explore the worlds of the humanities and the sciences as they collide in their own bicycle crash of sorts. Her cri de coeur in this novel is that scientific thought and ordinary everyday thought are not different, we just don't know enough to see how they are the same. It's an odd but a smart and, at the same time, very funny little book.

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