D’Alembert’s Principle by Andrew Crumey

Memory, Reason and Imagination. Dedalus, 1996, 203p.

How to describe this extraordinary book? At one extreme it’s a triptych, at the other it’s three totally different narratives shoe-horned between one set of covers. The first, D’Alembert’s Principle, mixes the confessional with traditional third person and the epistolary to tell the story of Jean le Rond D’Alembert, a mathematician who studied the laws of motion and, along with Diderot, edited the Encyclopédie. The second is a Vernesque fantasy, The Cosmography of Magnus Ferguson, a work with echoes in its feel of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus. The third is called Tales from Rreinnstadt and features the character Pfitz from Crumey’s previous novel of that title.

Three different tales, the first a beautiful evocation of D’Alembert’s life and love and whose three types of narration shouldn’€t work in combination yet somehow do regardless, the second the conjunction of an imaginary travelogue through the then known (18th century) planets of the Solar System and the story of a man who seems to inhabit a sequel to a tale he has been reading about someone with his own name, the third a series of stories within stories within stories told by a character invented by the narrator of another book entirely (a book moreover which exists entirely outwith the covers of the one being read,) all reflecting on each other and on the nature of existence. Not for nothing is the sub-title of the overall D’Alembert’s Principle, Memory, Reason and Imagination. Yet reading it is never a chore, nor difficult. The prose flows as smoothly as anyone could wish.

Crumey manages in his fiction to use scientific concepts as metaphors without these seeming forced and to illustrate quantum mechanical ideas about the nature of reality in novelistic form, expressing them entirely naturally. (Or is it just that, as a scientist myself, these seem unexceptional?)

D’Alembert’s Principle is 203 pages of virtuosity and skill. The Introduction by John Clute – which, in case of spoilers, I took care not to read till after the novel itself – describes it as astonishing. Well, only if you have not read other novels by Crumey. This is the fifth of his novels I have read and they are, without exception, excellent.

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