Belief

If you subscribe to a belief, certain thoughts become unthinkable. So, for instance, if you subscribe to a belief in socialism, and you are presented with the various historical examples of socialism failing to deliver, you have to conclude that it just wasn’t done right, or was done in the wrong circumstances, and needs to be tried again, because the conclusion that socialism doesn’t work isn’t available to you. (Feel free to substitute laissez faire capitalism in that example: it is equally applicable). In the same way, if you believe that a loving and omnipotent god created the world, you have somehow to find ways of explaining the existence of (for example) agonising and degrading diseases that are consistent with such a god, because the much simpler explanations available to an atheist aren’t on your list of options.

Belief results in a certain inflexibility, in other words.

But belief is nevertheless essential to life. For one thing, we have to make decisions all the time in situations where there isn’t enough exact information to be certain of what the outcomes will be (this is true of almost all political decisions and all but trivial personal ones), or where the judgement to be made involves values (again true of most political and personal decisions). Without beliefs we’d have nothing to guide us.

The inflexibility of belief, while sometimes a problem, is also the key to its usefulness. It allows us to set or harden things that would otherwise be fluid. In order to be able to think about ourselves as coherent human individuals, and not just a bundle of impulses, we have to ‘keep faith’ with decisions already made. Marriage, for instance, involves keeping faith with the idea that you love someone and belong with them, even through times when you don’t actually feel love and aren’t enjoying being together. In other words you have to believe that what you felt in the past was real, even when it doesn’t seem so now, and you have to believe that you will feel it again. And the same applies to other kinds of commitments: an example in my case would be the writing of a book, which would never get done if I didn’t force myself to keep plugging on through long periods when I felt almost certain that the whole project was worthless, and that I nothing left to say.

Faith, in this sense, is a kind of belief that allows us to tie together the past, the present and the future, even though all we can ever actually directly know is the present. I think of it as a kind of human chain, such as might be used to rescue people from a shipwreck, except that this chain is made up, not of different individuals, but of different iterations of the same individual. For someone prone to self-doubt and mood swings, such as myself, holding hands with your past and future selves can be pretty challenging. (My wife would vouch that I can easily move in a single day between cheerful optimism to existential despair, and sometimes find it hard to give any credence to my former self of only a few hours ago.)

I hate to admit it, but I suppose what I’m talking about now is the kind of belief being referred to in a thousand cringy Hollywood movies when one character tells another ‘you’ve got to believe in yourself’ or ‘if only you believe in yourself anything is possible’. Clearly the latter is a lazy cliche: amount of self-belief will make me (say) a premier league footballer. But it is true that you do need to believe in your ‘self’ in order to be able to achieve anything substantial, because unless you believe in a coherent self that is continuous over time, it is impossible to commit yourself to the work involved.

Your ‘self’ is, in fact, just a particular example of a whole class of entities that are necessary in order to function in society, but which owe their existence to belief. A nation is such an entity. Benedict Anderson famously described a nation as an ‘imagined community’. This is not the same thing as an imaginary community, because an imagined community really does exist. It’s just that it only functions because it is imagined. And imagination in this sense is closely related to belief. Believing in oneself and believing in a nation both entail being able to imagine a connection with a bunch of people you can’t actually see and can’t directly know: in one case these people are your future selves, in the other, compatriots you’ve never met.

Recent divisions in the UK are characterised by some as a rift between the blind belief of the ignorant and the rational evidence-based thinking of the educated (I’ve seen this thought expressed earlier today on social media). But actually both sides are sustained by beliefs in imagined communities. It’s just unfortunate that they aren’t the same ones. ‘I am a European first and foremost’ is resonant for some, ‘I am English [or British, or Scottish, etc] first and foremost’ is resonant for others. Some, I know, even combine both. For many only one of these statements is real and the other is simply a fabrication. But these are all statements of belief, elements of the stories that we choose to live by, not facts that can be objectively verified.

Politics

Politics isn’t really about personalities. They’re just the puppet show. And politics isn’t really about ideas either, or not in the way some people seem to think. It’s about alliances. It’s about putting together coalitions of different classes or interest groups. Each group has its own ideas, its own story it tells itself, and the trick is to find some overarching idea or story which connects with enough of these different stories to allow a variety of groups to buy into it.

Historically in Britain, the Labour Party managed to be the titular party of the industrial working class but also the party of an important section of the professional middle classes, the delicado class as I have called them*. (The Democratic Party in America managed a similar alliance in the twentieth century, though it has presided over many different groupings in its two hundred year history). This is not to say that the delicados and the industrial working class see the world in the same way -they obviously don’t- or that they have the same priorities or the same values, but they had enough common interests and common enemies to make it possible to construct a story that both could buy into. It was a story, I suppose, about using the state to make society fairer, and to reduce the power of inherited privilege, which had an appeal to both these groups, though for different reasons.

I would say the last flowering of this alliance in the case of the Labour Party was the Blair era. Blair was able to draw in a substantial number of new middle class voters who had previously voted Tory, while still retaining the traditional industrial working class vote. (My feeling is that he didn’t actually earn the latter, but was able to benefit from historical loyalties, which had yet to fade.)

I think recent electoral politics in Britain have shown that this old alliance no longer holds. In Scotland, Labour has been displaced as the dominant party by the SNP (I don’t know enough about Scotland to understand the alliance which this represents, but clearly it has drawn support from both of Labour’s traditional constituencies). In England, the Brexit vote and the recent election show that Labour can no longer take for granted the support of the voters it was originally set up to represent. The Conservatives have managed to find a story -and like the SNP’s, it is a story about nationhood and independence- which suits many of these voters better. A new alliance is forming between the non-delicado section of the middle class, and the old working class.

If we see politics as just being about ideas, and we are convinced that our idea is simply ‘right’ (as opposed to being the story our particular grouping prefers), we don’t respond effectively to the loss of an ally, because we conclude that our former ally is mistaken, or misled, or no longer worthy of us. And so we keep plugging away at the same idea, waiting for others to see the error of their ways, when the fact is that our story simply doesn’t appeal to enough people. No group can expect to have things exactly the way it wants. We need a new idea.

It seems to me that the political ‘right’ (I actually hate the lazy simplification that divides politics into ‘the Left’ and ‘the Right’ but I’ll use it here for brevity), understands this at the moment better than the political ‘left’. You need to find out what different sections of the population want, not just in a practical sense (jobs, public services etc), important though that is, but in the sense of symbols and stories, and you have to deliver enough of what people want to make them feel like joining, or remaining part of, your alliance.

*See America City.

Good guys and bad guys

I was very pleased to be asked to take part in a conference at University College Dublin earlier this month called Alternative Realities: New Challenges for American Literature in the Era of Trump, and then to take part in a panel discussion at the Museum of Literature in Dublin with the other keynote speakers, Aleksandar Hemon and Karen Bender, and the conference organiser Dolores Resano. I had a great time.

The following is (more or less) the text of my keynote speech.

Continue reading “Good guys and bad guys”

Greenland

President Trump’s proposal to buy Greenland has been greeted with ridicule and cited as evidence of his mental instability and inability to govern. I’m not so sure. The very existence of America demonstrates that countries grow by acquiring territory from others, whether by conquest, manipulation or purchase. Alaska, at the time another very sparsely populated Arctic territory, was obtained by purchase, and Trump is not the first American president to propose buying Greenland as well: Truman suggested it in 1946.

Greenland was a strategic asset even then because of its position in the western Atlantic. And now it’s far more valuable. As the Arctic melts, new seaways are opening up to the North of Canada, for which Greenland would be a gateway; Greenland’s mineral wealth is becoming more accessible; and Greenland itself is a very substantial piece of real estate -at 2 million square kilometres it’s three times the size of Texas – with a tiny population (less than 60,000), and a small and distant mother country (Denmark). Farming is already possible in a small area of the country, and global warming will make more and more of its territory available for development and human settlement. As I tried to show in America City, as many parts of the world become uninhabitable due to global warming, Arctic territory is going to become a very valuable asset indeed.

The history of oil demonstrates that when big powers need something that’s in another country, they find ways of taking it. (So does the history of rubber, or spices, or gold…) I’m sure Trump has blurted something out that is being seriously discussed behind the scenes. And perhaps it’s not even a case of blurting it out, but rather of deliberately softening the ground. The more often a thing is spoken about, the more possible it seems.

Greenland would be laughably easy for America to acquire. I very much doubt if Trump will be the last President to talk of taking it, and my bet would be that Greenland will indeed be annexed to America at some point in the coming century.

Meanwhile the Amazon is burning. The politics of climate change are truly upon us. A time will soon come when obsessing about whether or not Britain should be part of a European bloc will look like the displacement activity it really is.

The rivers swarm with fish

Sometimes a piece of writing that presumably wasn’t intended to be poetic at all has a poetry all of its own. The following is the section on flaura and fauna from the Wikipedia entry for the Russian island of Sakhalin. (Why was I looking at the entry for Sakhalin? Because, like Judith Schalansky, I love to go to islands in my imagination that I know I will never really visit. They too have a special poetry.)

The whole of the island is covered with dense forests, mostly coniferous. The Yezo (or Yeddo) spruce (Picea jezoensis), the Sakhalin fir (Abies sachalinensis) and the Dahurian larch (Larix gmelinii) are the chief trees; on the upper parts of the mountains are the Siberian dwarf pine (Pinus pumila) and the Kurile bamboo (Sasa kurilensis). Birches, both Siberian silver birch (Betula platyphylla) and Erman’s birch (B. ermanii), poplar, elm, bird cherry (Prunus padus), Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata), and several willows are mixed with the conifers; while farther south the maple, rowan and oak, as also the Japanese Panax ricinifolium, the Amur cork tree (Phellodendron amurense), the Spindle (Euonymus macropterus) and the vine (Vitis thunbergii) make their appearance. The underwoods abound in berry-bearing plants (e.g. cloudberry, cranberry, crowberry, red whortleberry), red-berried elder (Sambucus racemosa), wild raspberry, and Spiraea.

Bears, foxes, otters, and sables are numerous, as are reindeer in the north, and musk deer, hares, squirrels, rats, and mice everywhere. The bird population is mostly the common east Siberian, but there are some endemic or near-endemic breeding species, notably the endangered Nordmann’s greenshank (Tringa guttifer) and the Sakhalin leaf warbler (Phylloscopus borealoides). The rivers swarm with fish, especially species of salmon (Oncorhynchus). Numerous whales visit the sea coast, including the critically endangered Western Pacific gray whale, for which the coast of Sakhalin is the only known feeding ground. Other endangered whale species known to occur in this area are the North Pacific right whale, the bowhead whale, and the beluga whale.

Beautiful!

Population

I saw this post some months ago and saved it because it jarred and I wanted to write about it.  It’s a review by Abigail Nussbaum of the movie Avengers: Infinity war, and I came across it on Twitter because someone posted it as an instance of a really good review.  I daresay it is a good review at that.  I’ve never seen the movie so I can’t comment. What troubled me was the following paragraph:

It should go without saying that Thanos’s overpopulation bugbear and his proposed solution for it are hideous claptrap.  Reducing a population by half, whether through violence as Thanos used to do, or by making people simply disappear as he wants to do with the Infinity Stones, would result in immediate economic and industrial collapse, and therefore mass starvation and most likely war.  It should go without saying, but because Hollywood continues to linger in the grip of Malthusianism decades after the rest of the world saw it for the racist nonsense that it is…

As I say, I haven’t seen the movie and don’t know who Thanos is, but if he’s proposing genocide that is clearly VERY VERY BAD INDEED.  No dispute there!  But, unless I’ve completely misunderstood her, what the reviewer seems to saying (and she’s not the only one I’ve heard say it) is that the very idea that overpopulation is a problem is ‘hideous claptrap’ .

Really? 

I’m 63.  I’m living on a planet whose population is over seven and a half billion, which is getting on for three times what it was when I was born.  It’s a planet in the middle of one of the great mass extinction events of its history, a planet where the biomass of human domestic animals is now greater than that of all other animals of similar size, a planet where human activity has destabilised the climate itself and is threatening to acidify the ocean to a point that marine animals with shells may not be able to survive.  And I personally am so far from seeing the idea of overpopulation as claptrap that I find it hard to imagine being inside a head that thinks it is.

It seems I’m with Hollywood on this one.

It’s true that population is not on its own a reliable indicator of the human impact on the rest of the planet, because the impact of any one human being is dependent on his or her behaviour.  If we eat meat and diary products, for instance, we have a much greater impact than if we are vegan, because meat and milk production are, in nutritional terms, far less efficient uses of land than growing edible plants.  In the same way, if we drive a car and use aeroplanes, we will have a much greater impact than if we only walk or use a bicycle.  And if we have a centrally heated house with a TV, a fridge and a washing machine, our impact will be much greater than if we live in a hut and don’t use electric power at all (although it must be said that, even if we rely entirely on firewood for heat and light, that can still have a considerable impact.)  

The odd idea that being concerned about population is ‘racist’ originates, I imagine, from a time when people in wealthy countries expressed concern about the rapidly growing populations in developing countries without acknowledging that their own extravagant patterns of consumption were at least as much of a problem.  I get that. But still, it is pretty poor logic to take from that the idea that concern about overpopulation is racist per se

The fact is that all human behaviour impacts on the environment and the impact of any given human behaviour has to be multiplied by the number of people on the planet who behave in that way.   A billion people driving cars X number of miles per year generates a billion times the amount of carbon dioxide as one person driving a car X miles per year.  A billion people clearing forest to grow crops to eat will need a billion times as much forest as one person.  So, yes, population is only part of the story, but it is an indispensable part nevertheless.  Say the human race were collectively to change its behaviour in such a way as to reduce the impact of every person on the planet by 50%.  The population only has to double for the benefit of that change to be lost. And since, however much the human population increases, the surface area of the planet remains unchanged, it must be the case that, for any given pattern of human behaviour, however frugal, there must be a physical limit to how many people the planet is able to support.

Which takes me to the second charge made (in this particular film review but also elsewhere) against the idea that overpopulation is a problem.  Not only is it racist, but it is Malthusian. 

The implied argument goes something like this:  We know that Malthus was concerned about human population, right?  We know that his predictions were wrong.  We also know that some of what he said was pretty obnoxious.  QED being concerned about overpopulation is ‘Malthusian’ and therefore both wrong and obnoxious.  Right?

No, of course not!  We are not living in the age of scholasticism, and arguments do not stand or fall on the authority of whatever famous name happens to have become associated with them.  Calling someone a ‘Malthusian’ for being concerned about overpopulation, like calling them racist, is not an argument at all, it’s a way of shutting down the discussion. It’s an exercise in denial.

Haunted by the Future

I’ve just returned from Novacon 48 in Nottingham.  I’m very grateful to the organisers and members for making me so welcome.  The following is the text of my guest of honour speech.  (I am not a literary historian obviously, so this should be read as the impressionistic ramblings of a writer rather than as the authoritative statement of a specialist.) Continue reading “Haunted by the Future”

The Mind is Flat by Nick Chater

If I were to describe this book as superficial (which I would) the author should perhaps be pleased, for he sets out specifically to show that the mind contains no hidden depths.

Nick Chater starts with visual perception and he shows that we actually see much less than we think we see.  This is something that’s struck me before.  For example, focus on an object in front of you, a mug for instance, and then, without moving your eyes, notice how little else you can see while you remain looking at the mug.  You’ll find that, even in the immediate vicinity of the mug, your visual field is a blur. Apparently if you get someone to read a page of text on a screen, and change all the words except the ones they’re looking at into rows of x’s, they won’t notice the difference!  And something I didn’t know until I read this book is that the blurred forms you see at the edge of your field of vision aren’t even in colour.  (I tested this myself and it’s true!).

This is all fascinating stuff (and I  enjoyed reading about it), but I take issue with the author when he asserts that our impression of seeing the whole world in front of us is an ‘illusion’ (the Grand Illusion as he calls it), and even more so when he calls it ‘fake’ or a ‘hoax’.  Our perceptual apparatus isn’t just presenting us with the raw sensory data, that’s true, but that would be pointless, and its job is to assemble fragments into a stable and coherent sense of where we are.  But why on earth call the result a hoax?   A radar screen shows incoming planes in the vicinity as blips.  These are refreshed with each new sweep of the continuously revolving antenna and in fact the antenna is only detecting a few of those planes at any one moment.  But does this mean it’s just a hoax or an illusion that makes us think those blips show the positions of all the planes in the vicinity?  Of course not.  What the screen shows is an approximation perhaps, but that’s not the same thing as an illusion at all, and it’s an accurate enough approximation for air traffic controllers to safely manage incoming planes at busy airports, day in day out, for months and years on end.

Having discussed perception, Chater then goes on to talk about cognition.  Just as experiments on perception show that we see much less at any given moment than we might think, so too do experients show that our thoughts are much more circumscribed than we might imagine.  In fact, at any one time, we can only pay attention to a very limited number of mental tasks.  I can drive and sing.  On a clear straight road, I can drive and list prime numbers (I tried it out recently).  But I can’t drive, sing, and list prime numbers all at once.   In fact, Chater suggests, our sense of a rich mental life with many layers is a hoax, just like the illusion that we can see a rich detailed exterior world.  ‘Our thoughts are not shadows of an alternative inner reality to be charted and discovered; they are fictions of our own devising, created moment by moment.’  Even emotions, it seems, are ‘just fiction too.’

But hang on.  There is a rich external world out there, that’s not disputed.  So, insofar as there’s an illusion going on perceptually, it’s not the existence of that world, it’s the fact that we imagine ourselves to be taking in that world whole and all at once, whereas what we’re really doing is forming a (pretty serviceable) impression of it a little bit at a time.  And surely the same is true of our inner life?   The fact that I am not thinking lovingly of my children at every moment in time, doesn’t mean that it’s just an illusion that I love my children, any more than the fact that I’m concentrating on my computer screen just now means that there isn’t still a garden through the door to my right.

The funny thing about all this –and Chater does acknowledge it himself- is that, in order to dismiss depth, he has to introduce an incredibly powerful unconscious mechanism.  He argues that our sense of having a coherent self is an illusion that is being constructed for us in the moment by this powerful unconscious process, with the the result that, though we imagine that we are drawing on some inner self,  in fact ‘we are quite literally making up our minds, one thought at a time’.    So, in other words,  our sense that our thoughts come from something complicated inside us is an illusion being created for us by… well… something complicated inside us!

He doesn’t have very much to say about how this mechanism works -the book concludes with a slightly hand-wavy paeon to human imagination- but clearly it must draw on memories of previous experiences .  It follows, surely, that this very powerful and complex unconscious process is actually not just making up our minds for us out of the blue but is rather surveying the relevant parts of our vast existing store of knowledge and experience, much in the same way as when we are walking down a road, our perceptual apparatus surveys the relevant parts of the external world.

Et voilà!  Depth is back again with a different name.  (Chater himself speaks of ‘an ever-richer web of connections across our mental surface’.)  It is a vast and complex inner landscape, but one which (as few  of us will be surprised to learn), we cannot see in its entirety all at once.

*  *  *

One thing that strikes me about this book is that, while it describes as an ‘illusion’ or a ‘fake’, impressions of the world assembled by the sensory system from fragments, it is happy to present a version of the world that is also assembled from fragments, in this case controlled psychology experiments.  Not only do these experiments (fascinating as some of them are) constitute discrete and pretty miniscule glimpses into the operations of the human mind, but the interpretations placed on them seem extremely questionable.

For instance, he describes a series of experiments in which people make different choices depending on how the same options are presented to them, and suggests that this demonstrates that ‘preformed beliefs, desires, motives, attitudes to risk lurking in our hidden inner depths are a fiction’.  There’s ‘no point wondering,’ he says, ‘which way of asking the question…  will tell us what people really want… not because our mental motives, desires and preferences are impenetrable, but because they don’t exist.’    This is an extraordinary bold claim to make on the basis of a few experiments in which people are offered some rather artificial choices.  And it seems to me that a much simpler explanation of the findings of these experiments is that people have competing wants (for example, a desire to make money, versus a desire to avoid risk), and that, depending on how questions are put to them, different wants come to the fore.

I want to keep fit, I also want to eat ice cream.  In my experience this can lead to decisions which contradict one another.

*   *   *

So much of what we think we know about the world is shaped by the paradigm through which we choose to view it.  The Freudian approach (which, with some justice, Chater disapproves of) involved getting people to lie down on couches and ramble .  Not surprisingly, it generated an elaborate and convoluted model of the human mind.  The experimental approach which Chater favours involves highly controlled experiments in which a single variable is manipulated and some other very specific variable is then measured.   There are many advantages of this kind of methodology but, since it quite deliberately excludes almost all of the multidimensional complexity of the thing being studied, I don’t find it suprising that it results in the impression of flatness.  Or an illusion of flatness, we might call it.

Tintoretto

My wife Maggie and I recently spent a few days in Venice. Extraordinary place. It’s has been going round in my head ever since, even in my dreams, like some kind of mystery my brain is trying to solve.

But leaving all the rest of it to the side, here is just one thing we saw there which in itself keeps going round in my head. It’s in the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, on the island of the same name (which you can see across the water if you stand outside the front of the Doge’s Palace) and is a painting by the Venetian Renaissance painter, Tintoretto: The Last Supper.

The original is getting on for six metres wide, so you need to make this picture as big as as your screen can make it if you are to get any sense of it.  The thing that struck me at once, not even knowing yet who the artist was (I am no art buff), was the drama and almost eerie immediacy achieved by the arrangement of the figures and by the sharp contrasts between light and shadow.  I suppose by far the most well-known picture of the Last Supper is the famous mural by Da Vinci, which is at least as dramatic as this one in terms of what is going on between the characters, but nevertheless seems to me (on the basis of reproductions) to be much further removed from the viewer, much cooler and more static.

What I get from this painting was a powerful sense of what a mysterious, explosive, dynamic thing a moment actually is.  Everyone in this picture is present at the same point in time, but no two of them have the same sense of what is going on.  A couple of disciples towards the left of the picture, for instance, seem to be involved in a conversation of their own that may not even be connected with the famous event unfolding in the middle of the table (an event to be re-enacted over and over again for the next two millenia, including on the altar immediately below where this picture is hung!)  The disciple immediately to Jesus’ left seems withdrawn into his own throughts as he watches, perhaps to avoid having to engage with Judas sitting opposite him. Judas, as jealous people passive-aggressively do when trying to undermine someone else’s big occasion, seems to be trying to draw into conversation the disciple being given bread by Jesus.  The waiters are getting on with their various jobs: at the near end of the table one of them is asking one of the disciples whether he wants anything else and the disciple is very clearly indicating with both hands: ‘Not now.  Something important is happening.’  The semi-transparent angels meanwhile swirl above the scene, drawn in by what  (within the terms of this story, obviously) they already know is an event of cosmic significance.  Everyone is experiencing this moment in a different way, so that it will explode outwards into the future in many different directions, but, in this instant, they are all in one room, and the same light falls on all of them.

Venice is full of huge Tintorettos.  There are lots of them in the Doge’s palace (including some incredibly detailed and energetic battle scenes, which I admired but was not particularly moved by).  And the Scuola Grande di San Rocco has three whole floors of them.  Most of these didn’t do much for me, I have to say, but they build up to a gigantic, twelve metre-wide Crucifixion in a side room on the top floor which rivals, and perhaps surpasses, the Last Supper for sheer energy.  (Again: you need to make this image as big as you can to get any sense of it: it’s packed with detail.)  As with the Supper, everyone is seeing different things and many are completely missing the famous drama going on immediately above their heads, but it is a single moment nevertheless, and the whole thing blasts out at you like an exploding bomb.

Mere presence

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson (published 2004)..

Two sisters grow up in a small  town in Idaho beside the large lake that claimed the lives of both their grandfather and their mother, and the railway bridge that spans it.  Their grandmother looks after them until she too dies, and then two great-aunts who are more accustomed to  shabby-genteel life in a hotel room than  managing a household with children, and then finally their odd, solitary, distracted aunt Sylvie, who has lived her life as a transient, picking up work here and there, riding in boxcars, gathering odd little yarns from passing acquaintances.  The sisters and their aunt live a deeply eccentric life, largely cut off from the rest of the community.  One of the sisters (Lucille) eventually breaks free of this, the other (Ruth, who is also the narrator) does not.

An important character in this book is the material world -the lake and its shores, the house, the bridge- which for a lot of the time is Ruth’s (and her aunt’s and her sister’s) main companion.  Here, for instance, Ruth and Lucille are out by themselves on the frozen lake.  Over on the shore fires are burning in barrels to warm the townsfolk who come down to skate on the ice, but the two sistes, typically, are far out at the extremity of the area that is swept of snow to provide a skating rink :

The town itself seemed a negligible thing from such a distance.  Were it not for the clutter on the shore, the flames and the tremulous pillars of heat that stood above the barrels, and of course the skaters who swooped and sailed and made bright, brave sounds, it would have been possible not to notice the town at all.  The mountains that stood up behind it were covered with snow and hidden in the white sky, and the lake was sealed and hidden, yet their eclipse had not made the town more prominent.  Indeed, where we were we could feel the reach of the lake far behind us, and far beyond us on either side, in a spacious silence that seemed to ring like glass.

Or here is a beach on the lake:

The shore drifted in a long, slow curve, outward to a point, beyond which three step islands of diminishing size continued the sweep of the land toward the depths of the lake, tentatively, like an ellipsis.  The point was high and stony, crested with fir trees.  At its foot a narrow margin of brown sand abstracted its crude shape into one pure curve of calligraphic delicacy, sweeping, again, toward the lake.

These are empty vistas.  Their emptiness is part of their mystery and their allure.  But human relationships are evoked with the same elegance and economy. Here is Lucille beginning to pull away from her sister Ruth and from the eccentric isolation of their life with Sylvie.  Ruth has gone to fetch a dictionary at Lucille’s request (in order to find out what ‘pinking sheers’ are, Lucille having decided to make herself some decent clothes from a pattern) and, opening up the book, she finds it full of dried flowers, carefully pressed there by their long-dead dead grandfather:

“Let me see that,” Lucille said.  She took the book by each end of its spine and shook it.  Scores of flowers and petals fell and drifted from between the pages.  Lucille kept shaking until nothing more came, and then she handed the dictionary back to me.  “Pinking sheers,” she said.

“What will we do with these flowers?”

“Put them in the stove.”

“Why do that?”

“What are they good for?”  This was not a real question, of course.  Lucille lowered her coppery brows and peered at me boldly, as if to say, It is not crime to harden my heart against pansies that have smothered in darkness for forty years.

A theme that runs through the book is the paradoxical nature of loss, the way that something or someone lost can be a  much bigger matter than the actual presence of that something or someone would ever have been.  Lucille is fighting this when she hardens her heart against the flowers.  And it is her that manages to escape the odd solitary menage she shares with her aunt and sister.

Towards the end of the book, Ruth reflects on how how she and Lucille lived lives dominated by the shadow of their mother’s absence.  But…

…if she had simply bought us home again to the high frame apartment building with the scaffolding of stairs, I would not remember her that way.  Her eccentricities might have irked and embarassed us when we grew older…  We would have laughed together at our strangely solitary childhood, in light of which our failings would seem inevitable, and all our attainments miraculous.  Then we would telephone her out of guilt and nostalgia, and laugh bitterly afterward because she asked us nothing, and told us nothing, and fell silent from time to time, and was glad to get off the phone.

Ruth’s degree of insight stretches credulity a little here.  One accepts the literariness and poetry of Ruth’s voice as a device, but it is hard to believe that this drifting isolate, looking in at the world from outside, could really acquire any kind of understanding of the bitter, guilty dutifulness of the middle-aged grownup children of a not-very-satisfactory mother.

But never mind.  What I got very powerfully from this book -and I keep coming back to it in my mind- is a demonstration of how absence becomes addictive.  Look at the photo on the cover.  How much more myterious and alluring is the part of the railway track in the distance that is disappearing into the mist, than the part in the foreground you can see perfectly clearly.  Dwell too much and too long on absence, and mere presence will never be enough.