Is the particle there?

Hilary Mantel

  • A Game with Sharpened Knives by Neil Belton
    Weidenfeld, 328 pp, £12.99, May 2005, ISBN 0 297 64359 2

There is whiskey but no cocoa, Guinness but no tea; or only a sort of bitter dust which, when brewed, does nothing to pep up the mornings. Fog enshrouds bicycles in Merrion Square, a squally rain drives along the promenade at Clontarf; by night, bombs drop ‘by mistake’ on Dublin. It is the time of the Emergency, as Ireland calls what others call World War Two. Neutrality is precarious. England casts an envious eye on Irish ports. Civil servants – scowling old IRA men, who once counted rifles and now count paperclips – draw up plans for when the Germans walk in and become the de facto power. Who is dropping the bombs? Is it the Germans, or is it the English, aiming to discredit the Germans? Half-hidden in the murk engendered by censorship, turf smoke and the fog which is the habitual climate of the novel, mysterious parcels of rumour are passed from hand to hand, faint carbon copies of government memos seep information into the air, armed men loom out of a sea mist, blackmarketeers scurry and wheedle, dissident journalists cry into their beer, smuggled condoms spring leaks. Erwin Schrödinger, the renowned physicist, rubs his sore eyes, sight deteriorating day by day, and contemplates the boggy hinterland of his private life, while the mathematical breakthrough he seeks swims further away from his tentative reach.

By the outbreak of war, Schrödinger had been a peripatetic scholar for much of his career. Offspring of a polymath father, a factory owner, he had an English grandparent, spoke both English and German at home. As a Gymnasium student in Vienna, he was devoted to mathematics, to poetry and to nature. It seems characteristic of his generation of scientists that they were not afraid to admit that an aesthetic impulse moved them, that they were chasing a glimpse, however fleeting, of some confirming, self-ratifying idea of beauty, an equation to transcend all equations: some sense of perfect rightness, a feeling of the universe clicking into place. We can clearly see the romantic impulse at work, but when it is expressed through mathematics, most of us are not qualified to see where the search is leading, or how it is sidetracked and thwarted. It is Neil Belton’s great achievement in this novel to create a convincing facsimile, in the imprecise and duplicitous words that are all we have for our use, of the inner world of a man who thinks in symbols and translates them into precise formulae. He has to re-create Schrödinger’s consciousness, as someone for whom macroscopic realities have been undermined, without baffling or misleading the reader; and because within that consciousness there are areas of shadow, the need for authorial sharpness is all the greater. It is a truism that science does not teach us how to live, and Schrödinger does not know how to live; he knows how to prevaricate, how to compromise, how to defer and how to conceal. This is testing ground for any maker of fictions; as Schrödinger himself said, ‘there is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog-banks.’

A brief chronology, inserted before the first chapter, might have been useful; it helps to have some names and dates to hand. Schrödinger received his doctorate in 1910, after completing his military service, but was called up again in the Great War, in which he served with distinction as an artillery officer. He fell in love with a young secretary called Anny Berthal, could not afford to marry, and after the war moved from one university to another, seeking more lucrative posts and a nurturing climate for his research. In 1921, a married man, he settled in Zurich for six years. These were years of miraculous discovery in his branch of science. In 1926 he published his wave equation, for which he would share the 1933 Nobel Prize with Paul Dirac.

What were the waves in question? They were waves of probability, as it would turn out. In 1927, Heisenberg formulated his Uncertainty Principle; and while the uncertainty – or indeterminacy – related to precise measurements at the quantum level, and not at all to spheres of human action or behaviour, both Einstein and Schrödinger would shrink away from the implications. In 1935, when Schrödinger propounded the famous thought experiment concerning the paradoxical dead and alive cat, it was an attempt not to reinforce the notion of indeterminacy but to challenge it by presenting an obvious absurdity. In this narrative, Belton keeps his cat safely in a box till he can find an occasion to offer it to us with seeming simplicity; though we will soon deduce that the character who presents it – and who licks his lips at the thought of the gas entering the captive animal’s lungs – is anything but simple. Schrödinger’s science is doomed to be misunderstood, miscast, misinterpreted by the characters in the story, but the author has dealt with him scrupulously. Since most of us cannot hope to understand quantum physics, we are susceptible to artists who use it as a source for slack analogy and easy extrapolation. Belton is not one of them; he is as fastidious, though not so succinct, as Michael Frayn in his play Copenhagen. Heisenberg said in his memoirs that ‘science is rooted in conversations.’ He seemed to open the door, in the friendliest fashion, for the novelist and the playwright. Schrödinger’s formulation was darker: ‘Science is a game – but a game with reality, a game with sharpened knives.’

In 1927 Schrödinger moved to Berlin, as Max Planck’s successor in the chair of theoretical physics. With the rise of Hitler, Jewish scientists lost their jobs. In 1933 Alexander Lindemann visited from Oxford, to try to arrange posts in England for the displaced scholars. Schrödinger, who was not Jewish, said that he also would like to leave the country – a vote of no confidence for which the Nazis never forgave him. But he found it hard to settle down as a fellow of Magdalen. Partly this was because of the complications of his private life, which Belton unfolds to us gradually. For a man of such sophisticated intellect, Schrödinger had trouble grasping the simple notion of monogamy. To Oxford he brought not just his wife, Anny, but his illegitimate daughter – and the child’s mother, Hilde March, who was married to his research assistant.

In 1936 he made a strange decision. Homesick and dejected, he returned to Austria, to a post at the University of Graz. After the Anschluss, he found himself an employee of the Adolf Hitler University. This is where Belton’s opening chapter finds him: writing, under pressure, an open letter in support of the regime. The rector of the university tells him condescendingly: ‘I admire your work. I see it as distinct from the degenerate cant that has taken over science. You believe in law and order in physics, or so I understand.’ Such a coarse caricature is reason enough to wish to be elsewhere. But he stands accused of ‘cosmopolitan light-mindedness’ and of being a passive opponent of the new regime.

The letter which the rector requests is designed to clear his reputation, and have a ‘tonic effect’ on other doubters, but he soon becomes ashamed of it. Visiting Berlin for the celebrations for Planck’s 80th birthday, he meets Heisenberg, characterised as a campfire Nazi mouthing ‘cosy fraternity argot’. He suggests, in a few words, that Schrödinger’s longing for a ‘world that’s whole and continuous’ is both nostalgic and a sort of race-crime: ‘your waves harmonising the subatomic world . . . I thought the whole thing was an Asian river of wishful thinking.’ Schrödinger has got himself into the wrong place at the wrong time. But how could his situation have been better managed? A special variety of memory loss is overtaking his colleagues. They speak of events five years ago as if they are a world away, changing the past as they look back at it, misremembering their earlier political position and unable to calculate accurately how far they have moved. Heisenberg, the author says neatly, ‘is the experiment of himself, not yet knowing what his position will have been’.

Schrödinger’s gesture of submission to the Nazis does him no good. He loses his position anyway, judged politically unreliable. The year 1941 finds him, unlikely as it may seem, living in a cold little house in Clontarf, riding his bicycle every day to his office at the newly founded Institute for Advanced Studies in the centre of Dublin. It is here that the main action of the book begins. The institute is de Valera’s special project. He is heartened when Schrödinger tells him that all he needs for his work is a room and a blackboard. Cheap pure thinking appeals to Dev. He sees it as right for Ireland. Now, walking by the sea, seeking a ‘greater wave equation’, perhaps Schrödinger – ‘a reactionary nostalgic for a lost unity’ – is in the right place for once. And yet his situation is comfortless, the puzzles of his private life seemingly irresolvable. Hilde and her daughter have come with him to Ireland, so has his wife. Hilde is passed off as a great friend of Anny’s, someone without whom she cannot bear a refugee’s life. Does the priest-ridden Dublin regime know the truth? Presumably; but agreed fictions smooth the ripples on the pond. While he is a man of transcendent perceptions, Schrödinger is not religious in any conventional sense. Yet there is an agreed fiction that he attends the Protestant church in Clontarf, while his little daughter, Ruth, who does not know she is his daughter, is educated by nuns and learns to sing the national anthem in Irish.

Belton’s account of one year of Schrödinger’s life is bleak, judicious, thickly atmospheric. No kind of weather suits this latitude: winter is a raw season of privation – cold bathwater and rationing – and summer leaves the clerks and shop assistants ‘stunned and listless’ in their shirtsleeves on Stephen’s Green, while the smell of the river envelops the Georgian slums with their gaping doors and shattered fanlights. The city, censored and self-censoring, is constantly listening into itself, and testing the power of silence. Ireland’s citizens, like the physicists of the time, need to accommodate themselves to duality, coexist with paradox. Schrödinger is an honest and searching observer, but his role is limited; it is a brutal physical fact that he is losing his sight. His work does not progress. His home life is miserable; Hilde, for whose sake he endured sweating and chancy interviews with the Irish authorities, has become both emotionally and physically disengaged from him. He feels Ireland to be a sort of Limbo; Limbo, his unhappy wife points out, lies close to Hell.

Schrödinger may insist, standing against the drift of scientific fashion, that ‘real things are as they are, independent of our consciousness,’ but the provisional situation of the Irish can be divined only by their own observation. Like him, they exist in a state of acute self-consciousness. Dublin’s mood is paranoid, every utterance ambivalent. Misinterpretations take on a horrible creative power. A humble shoe importer is gradually understood to be a Nazi spy: it is he who asks Schrödinger blandly for an explanation of his famous cat paradox, and salivates over the thought of the dying animal, gassed if a cylinder of cyanide cracks. What has been, till now, only a thought experiment, is becoming daily practice in Europe. Ego is no longer an abstraction; jackbooted, it is on the march. The old romances of German nationalism are now written out in the blood of lesser breeds. Equations may translate into weapons – ultimately into nuclear weapons. But the Dublin women do their Christmas shopping, moving from store to store in Grafton Street, and though the sea is so close that from his office window Schrödinger can smell the docks, ‘malt and petrol and dung’, no sound carries from the battles being fought on the waves, no cries of distress from foundering ships. He does not know what to make of his hosts, is most worried when they leave him alone. When he escaped from Austria, he went to see the Irish consul in Rome, and found a man who ‘oozed piety and cynicism’, changing from one mode to the other as he noticed ‘his mask slipping’; here and elsewhere Belton captures that practised and hard geniality, that velvety aggression, which makes the Irish such hard work for outsiders. If Schrödinger’s research is to progress, if he and his odd family are to be kept safe, he must learn to live with the ambiguities of his own and the country’s situation. Dublin is a city of equivocators: but a journalist, Quinn, assures him that despite that fact, and maybe because of that fact, ‘there’s no reason why a great idea can’t be thought here. Your long friend is right about that.’

The long friend is de Valera, characterised intimately and not without a grain of sympathy – or at least, not without attention to his plight. His seeming aim – to keep Ireland a backward agrarian economy – cannot be seen as wrong in any simple sense, in a world where the industrialised might of the West is devoted to the production and consumption of weapons of war and to the equally voracious consumption of innocent life; the death factory is the great innovation of the era. De Valera is a man living in his own afterlife, Quinn explains: ‘He reconciled himself to being shot in 1916. He was under sentence of death, and in some ways still is, so he feels chosen, and he thinks the past can be changed, that we can be reborn to a better life.’ Belton captures the high chanting voice, describes the head on the long body ‘held up in the way a priest holds a monstrance, proclaiming its integrity’. The taoiseach is a man who understands mathematics, appreciates Schrödinger’s work, and speaks freely to him, but it is with misgiving that Schrödinger sees that the politician’s eyesight is as imperilled as his own; his handwritten letters to the Irish leader have been double-spaced in large type, and he shrinks away from what looks like the treason of simplification. The words don’t look like his own; so much of the meaning of words depends on the intervals between them.

Belton has an acute ear for corrupted discourse, for the fiery words of dead patriots warmed over to serve bureaucrats and professional bet-hedgers. Once again we hear the ‘cosy fraternity argot’, knowing that some of those sworn brothers of the nationalist struggle are sworn enemies now. The taoiseach himself is backing the ‘uncontaminated language’ of Irish, nearly dead but revivable, a fit repository for old and new truths. Perhaps, Schrödinger reflects, the Irish language is peculiarly suited to quantum physics:

I think the Bishop of Copenhagen, the Blessed Bohr, the fount of orthodoxy in my profane church, would love the language: especially the lack of single words for yes and no. Is the particle there? Not there is the particle, the Irish says. Did you see it? I saw it. Or, I did not see it. But never a straight no.

This is clever, well-worked and clear. Belton never forces an analogy; throughout the novel, the images and metaphors are fastidiously chosen and beautifully sustained, and the text seems to keep back as much as it offers. It has to deal with a main character who is complex and self-aware, almost unnaturally articulate whatever the language, and who is in no sense a textbook hero. Lindemann, furious about his return in 1936 to a situation from which Oxford had extricated him, calls him within his hearing ‘a weak narcissist’. His insistence on his apolitical nature and the apolitical nature of his science comes to seem childish, an evasion especially impermissible in this era; he does not read the newspapers, blaming his poor eyes. Schrödinger is at times painfully conscious of his own shortcomings; at other times he is prone to cast himself in heroic terms, as Leander in the Grillparzer poem he learned as a child, ‘prince of swimmers and of love’: Leander bruised by the cosmos, battling an implacable ocean. But this thought comes to him as a sudden suicidal impulse, a tug towards a ‘poetic death’. He is afraid he might be contaminated by the prevailing climate of Dublin: boredom, deprivation, fantasy. He fears torpor, loss of will. The truth is that he has a very ordinary talent for creating unhappiness. He seems always out of phase with his intimates, the crest of his hopefulness coinciding with the troughs of their misery, spreading a pattern of darkness throughout the little house in Clontarf with its very crowded marriage. When he starts a relationship with an Irish girl, it seems to renew him, but it ends with her flight, pregnant, to Liverpool. He says that he cannot do without her, but she makes it clear that she intends to be out of his way for good. He had thought she understood and could accept the fact that he was a man who would stay with his wife, but she cannot live with his dishonesty when she realises he has concealed, even from her, the fact that Hilde is his mistress and Ruth his child.

The onus is on the reader to say how this life could have been lived better. Belton gives the character his hinterland – his childhood in a secure home at the centre of empire, the loss of his parents – and recalls his service in the Great War in passages of sombre magnificence. He is discerning but not judgmental – sympathetic to Schrödinger’s situation, while ready to expose his equivocations. ‘Genius has its needs’ may be a truth, but is not allowed to stand as an excuse.

This is a difficult and demanding novel; and one designed to make fools of reviewers, who are bound to seem either gormless or smug, and/or perpetrate some scientific illiteracy in trying to describe its themes and its reach. It is possible to approach it in ignorance of the scientific and philosophical problems raised by the physicists of the 1920s, and if you will do that you will still get the grainy vérité texture, which feels uncannily persuasive, of Dublin in 1941; and even if you don’t know the phrasing of the proclamations and the ballads of the Irish struggle for nationhood, you will be pretty quick to catch on when the author detects cant. But the more you bring to this book, the more it gives back from its densely textured store of allusions, and the more pleasure you gain from its neat imaginative leaps.

A question arises, and for working writers an urgent question: how far, as a novelist, can you rely on the common culture, on ever shifting ‘common knowledge’? Is the history of science part of the common culture? And if it is, and if it isn’t, how hard can you ask your reader to work? You can work harder than this, as a reader, for much less reward; you can persist with novels that tax your patience and sap your goodwill, and end up nowhere at all, and deliver nothing you will not forget in ten minutes. This is a text you will remember for years; it is almost designed to be read, pondered, read around and then reread. In that respect, no one should blame the author for limiting its appeal; we should applaud him for the breadth of his ambition.

The applause may be muted only because one unwelcome thought breaks through: maybe it’s good science, good history, but, as a story, not entirely satisfying? There are some respects in which Schrödinger seems unpromising as material; but then, when an author auditions his main character, he doesn’t really know if he’ll pull his weight in the novel until it’s too late to choose another one. There is some factor which hampers the book, stops it taking off as it should. Perhaps it is that, because the foreground narrative occupies only one year, there must be a great number of flashbacks and digressions to fill in our knowledge. Or perhaps it is because Schrödinger talks at people, rather than with them. It may be, of course, that he did this in real life; from his endnote, it is clear that Belton has met people who knew him. It would be unlike Belton’s method to modify a trait he knew to be authentic, but the price of authenticity is often less than exciting fiction. Schrödinger is fully imagined, but there are times when the reader is less than fully engaged. The three women, creatures in the scientist’s orbit, might well be called a, b and x, for all the life that is in them; but of course, this is how Schrödinger sees them. There are authorial compromises to be made, and the reader feels that Belton has approached them honestly and made his choices with an eye to serving the book’s ideas, rather than its personnel. The result is austere, authoritative fiction, a fine and melancholy novel, its poignant insights shimmering, just as they should do, a little space beyond the powers of summary or analysis.