Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Diary of William N.

Following on from Mr. Darwin's Gardener, which won the Finnish State Prize for Literature in 2010, Kristina Carlson has written another novel on a theme drawn from the history of 19th century science. The Diary of Wlliam N. [William N. Päiväkirja, Otava 2011] is a fictional portrait of the Finnish botanist and entomologist William Nylander (1822-1899), who specialized in lichenology and lived in Paris from 1863 until his death.

The book is really a study of what it means to be an outsider - by virtue of his "difficult" temperament and his unconventional approach to scientific and university matters (sometimes perverse in its wrong-headedness), Nylander lives as an institutionless exile from his native land, subsisting in poverty while still maintaining his often shaky links with the scientific community both in Finland and abroad. Presented in the form of diary entries, the novel takes the reader through the final years of Nylander's life in Paris, and the narrative is broken by reflections on art and science - the botanist is also fascinated by contemporary French painting and other developments in modern art, and this makes for an interesting meditation on the meaning and significance of the new century which Nylander does not quite live to see.

In some ways the book is reminiscent of other Finnish and Finland-Swedish essays in the genre, possibly the most notable being Bo Carpelan's Sibelius study, Axel. But Kristina Carlson has gone further in evoking the atmosphere and reality of a bygone era and milieu, with a vivid and intricate account of the details of Parisian social, scientific and academic life viewed through the psychological lens of a Nordic mind that is steeped in Gallic wit and black humour. The figure and presence of August Strindberg are never far away, and with his antagonism to the status quo and embittered view of bourgeois life and marriage, Nylander becomes a link to the future - alienated from the suffocating climate of the age, he joins company at least in spirit with the artists, writers, philosophers and poets who seek a way out of the 19th century's moral and aesthetic cul-de-sac.

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