But it was Mendel’s Dwarf that saw him come into his own as a writer. A dozen years on, his voice still lifts when he talks about it. The novel—which tells the story of the molecular biologist Benedict Lambert, great-great-great nephew of Gregor Mendel, who suffers from achondroplasia (dwarfism)—tackles science with tools that have become hallmarks of his writing: multiple timelines; an exploitation of the slippages and spaces between languages; a fascination with memory. ‘I’m distant enough from it now to say it’s a bloody good book,’ he grins. ‘I was fascinated by Mendel, but he led a fairly dull life, if intellectually extraordinary. So I had Lambert tell Mendel’s story while telling his own. It clearly wasn’t going to be a biography . . . I’m a novelist. I don’t want to tell the truth. I want to manipulate things as I choose. I want to lie.’
Photo: HN – Lukáš Bíba
Mendel’s Dwarf is an unusual piece. It’s a work of science fiction in the strict sense, but without any of the familiar traits of the genre. It is scientific literature in the literary sense but not the scholarly one; it’s a novel with footnotes that is in a hurry. Its narrator annotates his text with references because he is a scientist and that is how scientists write. But they do not write with the overtone of horror, and the unmistakable implication of looming disaster, that Simon Mawer sustains throughout his story.
It is a curious story I have to tell, one not easily absorbed and understood, so it is fortunate I have the words for the task. If I say so myself, who probably shouldn’t, for a girl my age I am very well worded. Exceeding well worded, to speak plain. But because of the strict views of my uncle regarding the education of females, I have hidden my eloquence, under-a-bushelled it, and kept any but the simplest forms of expression bridewelled within my brain. Such concealment has become my habit and began on account of my fear, my very great fear, that were I to speak as I think, it would be obvious I had been at the books and the library would be banned. And, as I explained to poor Miss Whitaker (it was shortly before she tragicked upon the lake), that was a thing I did not think I could bear.— John Harding, Florence and Giles (Blue Door, 2010), p. 5
She’s coming to life under my hands. The dark, untidy mass of her hair, the bright eyes, the frill of her white dress, her sash, her parasol. She’s floating in the liquid, becoming more and more real. I jiggle the tray and peer closer. She is ready no; finished; perfect. I lift her out, shake the paper, peg it up and let it drip. I sit down on the stool in the dark room and gaze at her.— Gaynor Arnold, After Such Kindness (Tindal Street, 2012), p. 1
John Harding: ‘[Florence and Giles] was inspired by Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw”. The book was made into an opera by the 20th-century British composer Benjamin Britten and on my way home from watching the opera I began to think it would be interesting to tell a similar story, only this time not from the point of view of the governess as it is in the Henry James book, but from the viewpoint of one of the children. I’ve always loved stories like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and I loved writing in the genre. So much so that when the book was a huge bestseller and people in the UK and Italy and Brazil kept asking for another book in the same genre I decided “Why not” (Perchè no?)’
As a working-class girl from Cardiff, she knew more about that world than many of her contemporaries. She was brought up in a rented Victorian house, an only child living with grandparents as well as parents. Her mother and father were both shop assistants for local grocers. ‘My dad used to bone sides of bacon,’ she recalls. ‘He died when I was 11, giving me the opportunity to feel sorry for myself as a semi-orphan. Around that time, I first read David Copperfield and immediately identified with the lone child hero.’
It was the most autobiographical of Dickens’s novels, and Girl in a Blue Dress is another fictional take on an aspect of his life, albeit under the name of Alfred Gibson and set in the period immediately after his funeral. The central figure is his wife, Dorothea Gibson—alias Catherine Dickens—who is neither invited to the funeral nor favoured in the will. By the time of Dickens’s death, aged 58, they had been separated (though not divorced) for 12 years. She had been given a home and an income, while the famous writer kept their 10 children and had more time to spend with his much younger mistress.
A report by Caleb Sivyer on the first BookTalk of the 2015/16 season, which took place on 19 Nov 2015: a “dark listening” of Emile Zola’s turgid tale of sexuality and insanity, La Bête humaine.