Think, for a moment, just how crazy this is. If you’re in Boston and someone tells you that they heard a sound coming from New York City, you’re probably going to give them a funny look. But Boston is a mere 200 miles from New York. What we’re talking about here is like being in Boston and clearly hearing a noise coming from Dublin, Ireland. Traveling at the speed of sound (766 miles or 1,233 kilometers per hour), it takes a noise about four hours to cover that distance. This is the most distant sound that has ever been heard in recorded history.
So what could possibly create such an earth-shatteringly loud bang? A volcano on Krakatoa had just erupted with a force so great that it tore the island apart, emitting a plume of smoke that reached 17 miles into the atmosphere, according to a geologist who witnessed it. You could use this observation to calculate that stuff spewed out of the volcano at over 1,600 miles per hour—or nearly half a mile per second. That’s more than twice the speed of sound.
It was once said of Voltaire, by his friend the Marquis d’Argenson, that “our great poet forever has one foot on Mount Parnassus and the other in the rue Quincampoix.” The rue Quincampoix was the Wall Street of eighteenth-century Paris; the country’s most celebrated writer of epic and dramatic verse had a keen eye for investment opportunities. By the time d’Argenson made his remark, in 1751, Voltaire had amassed a fortune. He owed it all to a lottery win. Or, to be more precise, to several wins.
Lotteries were all the rage in eighteenth-century Paris. There had been a financial crisis in 1719, and France had nearly gone bankrupt. The bankers were to blame, having devised financial instruments that magicked debt away, only for it to return multiplied once it was discovered that the collateral wasn’t there. With the ensuing austerity came the lottery and the blandishments of la bonne chance. Why tax a weary and resistant populace when luck might seduce them?
When I first went to Greece to write in my early twenties I was following a useful, and perhaps entirely pragmatic, Canadian literary tradition. Among other giants, Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen had both found Greek islands effective places to live and work. Seemed like a splendid idea. I bought a used typewriter (It had umlauts!) in the flea market in Athens, lugged it aboard the night ferry to Crete, and eventually arrived over the mountains at what became “my” village, Agia Galini. It was my twenty-fourth birthday. Yes, there was ouzo involved. Also raki at night’s end. Don’t ask.
I had gone away to escape. To remove myself from people, distractions, demands. I had just finished law school, having promised myself when I’d begun that I would save for a period of time away after, to see if I could actually begin and complete a novel.
The Irish writer Claire-Louise Bennett’s first novel, “Pond,” dabbles in a black art we don’t get enough of in summertime: misanthropy.
Ms. Bennett’s unnamed narrator is a young academic who’s gone to live in a stone house in a remote coastal village in Ireland. She’s in flight from something, though from what is not entirely clear.
The choice that intrigues me is Victor Feguer’s, executed for murder in 1963. He asked for a single olive, complete with stone. I think I’d go for the same, though I would make one change. I’d lose the olive and make do with the empty plate.