Monday, September 29, 2008

Cosmological vertigo

Nicholas Wroe interviews Richard Holmes at the Guardian about his new book, which sounds utterly delightful (additional coverage here and here). The whole profile is well worth reading, but I will excerpt just this lovely bit at the end:
"My own first experience with a big telescope, the 'Old Northumberland' at Cambridge Observatory, an 11-inch refractor built in 1839, left me stunned. We observed a globular star cluster in Hercules, a blue-gold double star, Beta Cygni, and a gas cloud nebula (whose name I forgot to record, since it appeared to me so beautiful and malignant, according to my shaky notes like an 'enormous blue jellyfish rising out of a bottomless black ocean'). I think I suffered from a kind of cosmological vertigo, the strange sensation that I might fall down the telescope tube into the night and be drowned. Eventually this passed."

This is from a footnote to a section about Herschel looking through a telescope. Footnotes are a wonderful part of the armoury of a biographer. In this book the structure is like a series of sliding panels that go back and forth, but I wanted a sense of a chronological narrative, so I used footnotes to step outside the story. Also in this note are two of Thomas Hardy's characters in the late 19th century, terrified at realising how small they were in the universe, and Edwin Hubble in the 1930s. It's important to me that the reader is imaginatively held by the characters to the extent that they really do hope something for them and really do dread something for them. Breaking the chronology works against this, but there are still other interesting things I want to tell them, one of which can be my own personal response to the things I'm describing. So the footnote provides a bridge to the reader which allows me to break the chronology but not, I hope, the mood of the main story.
I have been in love with Holmes's writing for a long time now. I remember reading Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (on Simon Schama's recommendation, probably c. fall of 1992) and being altogether blown away by its charms and peculiar excellence, and then during my first few years of graduate school I devoured his literary biographies. I love the Coleridge one also, and am often recommending the Johnson-Savage bio, but the one that most fully transported me - it reads as though it were written in a kind of frenzy or fury, and though it is a long book I think I read it over only one or two sittings, it is simply impossible to put down - is the Shelley biography, which has been recently reissued by the New York Review of Books.

1 comment: