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.
The May BookTalk event will focus on Man Booker shortlisted author Simon Mawer’s controversial novel Mendel’s Dwarf, which weaves together a reimagining of the life of Gregor Mendel, the father of genetic science, with contemporary geneticist Benedict Lambert, who is both a dwarf with achondroplasia and a distant relation of Mendel.
A report by Catherine Paula Han on the fourth BookTalk of the 2015/16 season, which took place on 7 March 2016: Meet the Authors—Gaynor Arnold and John Harding.
Current Cardiff undergraduate Caitlin Coxon offers some thoughts on Florence and Giles, one of the books featured in our March BookTalk event.
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