The disastrous mortal disease known as the Black Death spread across Europe in the years 1346-53. The frightening name, however, only came several centuries after its visitation (and was probably a mistranslation of the Latin word ‘atra’ meaning both ‘terrible’ and ‘black)’. Chronicles and letters from the time describe the terror wrought by the illness. In Florence, the great Renaissance poet Petrarch was sure that they would not be believed: ‘O happy posterity, who will not experience such abysmal woe and will look upon our testimony as a fable.’
“It’s a slow melodic line that climbs up with a swell in dynamics and then it comes back down again with a diminuendo.” Stephen McAdams had been leaning back in his chair in a casual end-of-workday position, but he sat up a little bit as he described a musical phrase at the beginningof Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. “He starts in with the violins but it’s thickened by some bassoons and cellos and violas.”
McAdams is making a point about the role of timbre in the waxing and waning of tension in Western music. Originally from California, he spent twenty-three years in Paris, at the Institute for the Research and Coordination of Acoustics and Music and the French National Centre for Scientific Research. But in 2004, McAdams returned to McGill University in Montreal, where he’d done an undergraduate degree in experimental psychology—and where his first experiment was on the perception of timbre. He is perhaps the world’s leading expert on the subject.
Fifty years earlier, J. M. Coetzee had journeyed to Austin from faraway South Africa, by way of England, where he was working temporarily as a computer programmer after having written an MA thesis on Ford Madox Ford, which he submitted to the University of Cape Town in 1963. Coetzee arrived at the University of Texas in the fall of 1965 to pursue a PhD in linguistics and literature. What would eventually become the Ransom Center was less than a decade old then, but it was already gobbling up manuscripts and artifacts of immense cultural value at an astounding pace. The works of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett were early prizes, and at one point Martin Heidegger’s original draft of Sein und Zeit was about to join them, in a deal almost brokered by Hannah Arendt. At the Ransom Center today you can peruse collections stretching from Jorge Luis Borges to Gloria Swanson, or from Doris Lessing to Don DeLillo. There’s older stuff, too: Chaucer, Shakespeare, a Gutenberg Bible. Coetzee’s archive, needless to say, is in very good company.
As I familiarized myself with Coetzee’s cleara and careful penmanship, poring over draft after handwritten draft, I couldn’t help but imagine him doing something similar decades earlier, as he deciphered Beckett’s scrawl. His dissertation was on Beckett, and he utilized the collection of his manuscripts obtained by the Ransom Center. But, having read J. C. Kannemeyer’s exhaustive biography J. M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing, I knew that the author I was chasing did more in Austin than sit around and read Beckett. I knew, for instance, that he was also collecting materials — both in the library and well beyond it — that would eventually find their way into his first work of fiction, Dusklands, which appeared in 1974, some three years after Coetzee’s involuntary return to South Africa.
Birkhead takes the reader on a journey into the egg, from the sophisticated porous shell and membrane to the albumen and yolk, weaving this close, scientific study with far-flung narratives of daring egg collectors and oologists (those in the egg-related branch of ornithology).
People talk about “late style” in classical music, but what might “late style” in contemporary fiction look like? In late work by Muriel Spark, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, William Golding, and now Edna O’Brien, you can detect a certain impatience with formal or generic proprieties; a wild, dark humor; a fearlessness in assertion and argument; a tonic haste in storytelling, so that the usual ground-clearing and pacing and evidentiary process gets accelerated or discarded altogether, as if it were (as it so often can be) mere narrative palaver that is stopping us from talking about what really matters. In much of that late work, there is a slightly thinned atmosphere, the prose a little less rich and hospitable than previously, the characters less full or persuasive, a general sense of dimmed surplus—but not in Edna O’Brien’s astonishing new novel, “The Little Red Chairs”, her seventeenth. O’Brien is eighty-five years old, and praising this novel for its ambition, its daring vitality, its curiosity about the present age and about the lives of those displaced by its turbulence shouldn’t be mistaken for the backhanded compliment that all this is remarkable given the author’s advanced age. It’s simply a remarkable novel.
It was Lilly’s research that inspired the group’s name: If humans couldn’t even communicate with animals that shared most of our evolutionary history, he believed, they were a bit daft to think they could recognize signals from a distant planet. With that in mind, the Order of the Dolphin set out to determine what our ocean-going compatriots here on Earth might be able to teach us about talking to extraterrestrials.