Wednesday, 1 August 2012

In Search of Klingsor

In Search of Klingsor - Jorge Volpi

This is a (quite) big novel, a novel of ideas set in the aftermath of World War 2, in a desolate Germany, among scientists, spies and sexual intrigues. It uses old German myth and modern theories to give shape to its exploration of the undefinable. Clearly, the shadow of Gravity's Rainbow must hang over this. Indeed the crossed matrices of Mathematics and Morals could be considered essentially Pynchonian terrain, and he is unlikely to be ceding much ground to Volpi.

Volpi has gathered an arsenal of scientific and mathematical theories, conundrums and stories with which to bone out the flesh of his story. My problem is that he hasn't quite fleshed out these bones. At times I felt that I was reading information cribbed from Sunday magazine articles or textbooks. The questions of voice and tone were also, I felt, imperfectly answered. I felt slightly put off by the tone, which is sometimes stilted, but am unsure as to whether this was an issue in the original or the translated text. However, it was hard to imagine some of the metaphors being elegant in any language.
Reservations aside, there is much to admire and enjoy in this book, not least it's ambition. The two main characters are fictional. Francis Bacon is a young American physicist whose sexual conduct undermines his position in the Institute for Advanced Study, the famous centre for the advancement of theoretical physics whose staff included Albert Einstein. Gustav Links, the narrator, is a German mathematician who's main concern is infinity.

They both meet amid the ruins of Germany and Bacon takes Links on as an ally in his search for Klingsor, who, legend and one Nurenberg confession has it, was Hitler's right hand when it came to making decisions about Nazi scientific programs, from phrenology to the attempt to build a nuclear bomb. The novel is also interspersed with the plot of Parsifal, in which Klingsor is a character as narrated to Bacon by Links.

The list of characters includes Werner Heisenberg of the uncertainty principle; Erwin Schrödinger of the cat and Neils Bohr of the Copenhagen Interpretation among others. The chief elements taken from quantum physics are uncertainty and the fact that the observer changes what they are observing, or indeed, becomes a part of it. "Although the notion of subjective truth certainly occurred to the Sophists in ancient Greece and to Henry James in the nineteenth century, it was our good friend Erwin who established the scientific foundations of such a theory, and his theory is one I find particularly satisfying. I won't go into detail but I will point out one of its more unexpected consequences: I am what I see."

On top of these movements in science the history of the time informs the characters. moral questions arise from the willingness of scientists to work for Nazi Germany, and also for the production and use of the Bomb. In Links introduction he says "Perhaps I string together these seemingly unrelated events - Hitler's salvation and my own - because this is the first time that humanity has been such a close witness to such catastrophic destruction." The use of the term 'string together' is interesting here.  It suggests that the author may not have wanted to fuse together the elements of the narration but rather leave them hanging beside each other.

The two main fictional characters, Bacon and Links parallel each other in many ways, particularly in the way their sexual relationships have changed their lives. Both became involved with two women simultaneously and in both cases with unhappy consequences. Is this a representative of the world on an atomic scale, full of elements which attract and repulse each other. And these relationships don't just change the lives of the people involved but also the 'truths' they perceive in the world beyond them.

Links introduces the book but then takes around ninety pages to arrive in the book proper. Up to this point we have been in the world of Francis Bacon, often in his interior world This raises questions. "Having now provided you with the story of Lieutenant Francis P. Bacon's life, I can easily understand how a somewhat uncomfortable question remains hanging in the balance. If this Mr. Gustav Links, professor of mathematics at the University of Leipzig, is the narrator of the facts, as he insists, how is it possible that he knows the most intimate personal details of another person, that is, of Lieutenant Bacon?"

He goes on to say "I cannot state that all the facts I have presented are true - for that reason I have called some of them hypotheses - because they were events I did not have the privilege of witnessing." So as well as the impossibility of observing something without changing it we have the possibility of hypothesizing the action of what we can't see, based on the effects. Once again we are with the quantum scientists.

But perhaps here we are dealing with something even more difficult than science - "Physics is so universal and so simple, yet human relationships can be so very difficult."

I enjoyed some scenes in the book very much, including a visit to Dublin to visit Schrödinger - "Such an ugly, skinny little man, with giant round eyeglasses that obscured half his face, yet he was the undisputed Latin lover of the modern scientific world."

Perhaps the most visceral scene in the book is the one outlining the fate of the movers behind the unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hitler. Their executions were filmed so that Hitler could watch them later and these films are described in horrifying detail. "Then, the finale: the spasms reminiscent of a sturgeon trapped in a net by an expert fisherman." The connoisseur of the horror becomes a deeper horror.

Despite the stockpile of enriched narrative uranium, Volpi never achieves narrative fusion, or fission. We are left with a failed experiment. Many modernist novels which were contemporaneous with these events encapsulate the failure of science to describe the world  more successfully, with their characters dividing and fusing under a critical mass of greater narrative and emotional engagement.


  1. Excellent review. I love physics but I guess as literary material it's not always accommodating. This book interested me as Volpi is supposed to enact a "break" from magic realism. It's obvious from the modernist treatment you describe that it's far from magic. "A failed experiment" had a nice punning ring to it.

    Your analysis strikes me as very close to Sebald's method: "So as well as the impossibility of observing something without changing it we have the possibility of hypothesizing the action of what we can't see, based on the effects. Once again we are with the quantum scientists."

    1. Rise, I like the ideas here but for me they just didn't come alive. I just didn't feel an emotional engagement through most of the book. It has made me want to read a bit more science writing and reminded me of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid which I've seen recommended in many places and which is listed as an inspiration at the end of Klingsor.