Vol. 34 No. 19 · 11 October 2012

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Too Few Dimensions

Near the end of Adam Mars-Jones’s review of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, whose heroine is a mathematician, I tripped over a sentence beginning ‘Sweet Tooth is the narrative equivalent of a Möbius Strip or Klein Bottle, the first a real object, the second an imaginary one, capable of representation in two dimensions but not three’ (LRB, 13 September). As the heroine of the novel, were she less imaginary, would immediately tell him, the Strip and the Bottle are both two-dimensional surfaces with the former needing three dimensions of Euclidean space to be represented, while the latter, a more complex topological object, requires four such dimensions – which, among other things, makes it impossible to drink from it. Trying to think its (lack of an) ‘inside’ doubtless played a part in prompting E.A. Abbott to invent his fantasy Flatland, in which two-dimensional creatures try to imagine a sphere.

Brian Rotman
Ohio State University, Columbus

It’s about the words

To read Deborah Levy’s Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home as though it were a version of ‘a holiday poolside tragedy’, as Jenny Turner does, is to miss the point of a stunningly original writer’s literary project (LRB, 27 September). Since Beautiful Mutants (1989), her first work of fiction, Levy has created stories that are not concerned with the mimetic and summative. The traditional novel, that fictional set-up rigid with narratological priorities, has never been Levy’s thing. Instead, go back to all those items in Swimming Home that Turner lists for us, the sugar mice and cherry print bikini – those words. That is where the action of this book is, the author creating stuff on the page for readers to bump up against and try and figure out. On the page is where Levy’s stories and characters happen: in words, not in the spooling out of plot and character development, representations of scenarios that may or may not be familiar, may or may not be sparked by some drug or other that may or may not have been prescribed in the period in which the novel is set. The only time that’s real is the time of our reading and what we make of our response to all these curious nouns and verbs and adjectives that are happening in the sentences. ‘I have that continuous uncomfortable feeling of “things" in the head, like icebergs or rocks or awkwardly shaped pieces of furniture,’ Elizabeth Bishop wrote. That’s how to approach the remarkable piece of high modernism that is Swimming Home. We were never supposed to just sit there. Take a breath. Go under.

Kirsty Gunn
London W6

In Hell

I never imagined I’d be swapping observations of genitalia with Benedict Anderson, but I am puzzled when he writes that the privates of the praeds are ‘the only body parts which are never mutilated or disfigured’ (Letters, 27 September). On p. 72 of The Fate of Rural Hell, an 18th-century painting showing a torture victim, with his elephantiasis-afflicted penis loaded over his shoulder, is captioned ‘“the standard iconography" that Luang Phor Khom [the abbot] apparently wanted his sculptors to follow’. Although my expertise is limited, the photographs of scarlet sea urchin-like or black sea cucumber-like organs – on the jacket and several inside – rather bear out the feeling that, in this exaggeration and grotesqueness as in much else no doubt, the monks obeyed their superior. I concede, though, that under the influence of The Golden Legend and such stories as the fate of St Agatha, I overdetermined the wounds inflicted on the female victims in the wat. I’m relieved to learn, from Benedict Anderson’s amiable letter, that they suffer from different, but at least less painful, attentions on the part of young men.

Marina Warner
London NW5

The Great Electricity Sell-Off

James Meek gives a good deal of space in his piece on electricity privatisation to the government’s nuclear energy policy, but says too little about renewable energy (LRB, 13 September). Until about seven years ago, the Labour government’s electricity policies were mainly focused on renewable energy sources, but in 2005, Tony Blair announced that nuclear energy was ‘back with a vengeance’. The coalition is following in Labour’s footsteps. The purported reason is the need to reduce carbon emissions, but this rationale does not stand up to scrutiny. For a start, nuclear power is not carbon-free. Meek alludes to this when he says that the reactors are carbon-free ‘once they’re up and running’. Uranium mining, uranium milling, fuel enrichment, fuel manufacture, waste treatment and so on are carbon-intensive, however. The best that can be said from various life-cycle analyses is that nuclear energy is relatively low-carbon.

More important, Meek’s postulated four new nuclear reactors would hardly make a dent in Britain’s carbon emissions, as shown by the 2006 report on nuclear power by the Sustainable Development Commission. They would perhaps address between 2 and 4 per cent of UK CO2 emissions: contrary to what many people think, electricity generation is simply not a large contributor to our carbon emissions.

To be fair, Meek does draw attention to several disadvantages of nuclear power, including its horrendous costs, long overruns in reactor construction, and the exposure of UK ratepayers to the vagaries of French politics. But he omits others, such as nuclear weapons proliferation and the spectre of nuclear catastrophe. Nuclear power is a supremely unforgiving technology: if anything goes wrong, the consequences are extremely serious. And evidence is building from more than forty epidemiology studies across the world that the incidence of infant leukaemia increases near nuclear installations.

Do we really need to run these risks? No other European country has plans to build new nuclear power stations, and Germany, Switzerland and Japan are in the process of abandoning theirs. Germany is fully committed to renewable energy; about 400,000 workers are currently employed in its renewable energy industries.

Ian Fairlie
London N5

Boiling Electrons

David Kaiser gives a faithful account of George Dyson’s recent book on John von Neumann and his role in the development of the US computer, but does too little justice to the contribution of Alan Turing, whose work was the intellectual foundation of the theory of modern computers (LRB, 27 September). Turing first rubbed shoulders with von Neumann in 1935, two years before they met in Princeton. Turing published a paper in March that year improving a result of von Neumann’s in group theory. Shortly afterwards, by coincidence, von Neumann arrived in Cambridge on sabbatical from Princeton to lecture on that subject. Although credit for engineering ‘firsts’ is often difficult to assign fairly, Dyson is at pains to acknowledge that Turing’s revolutionary ideas about a stored-program computer were first realised, not by the Eniac group, nor the Princeton machine, but by Manchester University’s 1948 prototype.

There seems to have been a stark contrast in viewpoint between Turing and the US pioneers. In reports to the US government, and in funding requests to the military (to calculate the effects of thermonuclear explosions), von Neumann and his colleagues expressed the view that ‘at most six or so machines should suffice for the whole country.’ Turing, in an interview with the Times in 1949, declared: ‘This is only a foretaste of what is to come, and only the shadow of what is going to be … I do not see why it should not enter any one of the fields normally covered by the human intellect and eventually compete on equal terms.’

Philip Welch
University of Bristol

The Cockchafer’s Sixth Leg

In his review of Stanley Corngold’s new translation of The Sufferings of Young Werther, David Simpson raises the interesting entomological question of whether the Maienkäfer in Goethe’s novel is ‘either an old form of Maikäfer (“cockchafer") or a misprint for Marienkäfer (“ladybird")’ – LRB, 13 September. He finds a ladybird ‘more appealing’: ‘The cockchafer is … not a very poetic creature with which to identify.’ Maienkäfer is in fact an old form of Maikäfer, Scarabaeus melolontha, and therefore a cockchafer, as the Brothers Grimm confirm in their German dictionary. For centuries cockchafers have flown and crawled around in German literature as harbingers of summer, as they do in Werther. There is a folk song first written down around 1800, ‘Maikäfer, flieg!’ (‘May bug, fly!’), and a poetry group was named after the insect in the mid-19th century (Maikäferbund). In ‘Peterchens Mondfahrt’ (‘Little Peter’s Journey to the Moon’), a popular fairy-tale, a boy and a girl fly up to the moon with a cockchafer in search of the bug’s lost sixth leg.

Thomas Diecks

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