The Missing Shade of Blue:a Philosophical Adventure
Abacus, 320pp, £12.99
Jennie Erdal's first book, Ghosting, published in 2004, was an account of the time she served as amanuensis and ghostwriter to the publish-er Naim Attallah. The narrator of The Missing Shade of Blue, her debut novel (her debut in her own name, at least - she wrote two under Attallah's), is also a ghost of sorts. Edgar Logan, a 40-ish Frenchman with an English father, is a translator, a vocation he compares to "liv[ing] vicariously" as a kind of "shadow".
Erdal wrote of her former occupation: "Concealing your identity can actually be a strange sort of liberation." Logan, too, cherishes the chance to sublimate his voice in those of others. There's something "provisional" about translators, he says, that can "seep into their own lives". This is certainly true in his case: he has always experienced life "through a sort of framing device that kept me apart from ordinary living".
Most of the action in the novel takes place in Edinburgh, where Logan has come to work on a translation of the essays of David Hume, “le bon David", after whom his late father's café and bookshop in Paris was named. At a function shortly after his arrival, he meets Harry Sanderson, a physically decrepit, semi-alcoholic veteran of the university philosophy department, with whom he strikes up a friendship that, in a different kind of book, would be called "unlikely".
Harry suffers appallingly from psoriasis - in one memorable scene, we see him in his office soaking his feet in plastic bags full of olive oil -
a condition that reminds Logan of the "scurvy spots" that had afflicted Hume when he succumbed to a mental breakdown brought on by overwork. But where Hume had been saved from complete collapse by what he later described as his "cheerful and sanguine temper", Sanderson is a creature of large and unruly appetites. His wife, Carrie, with whom he will later wrongly suspect Logan of having an affair, remembers the "saturnine, brooding" figure with a "dark undertow of danger" she'd met 15 years earlier. (The demonic intellectual enchanters who recur in the novels of Iris Murdoch were surely a model for Erdal here, though she abjures the fantastical or mythological superstructures in which Murdoch used to place her characters.)
Sanderson enjoys belated and unexpected success when his book on happiness attracts the attention of the media. And Erdal uses his appearance on television to have some satirical fun at the expense of those who believe that philosophy can be applied like a balm to our deepest anxieties, instructing us in what kind of life it is best to lead. In contrast, for Sanderson, and indeed for Hume, it is philosophy itself that makes us feel those anxieties so keenly. Hume once wrote that when he philosophised, his mind became "heated" by the most extravagant sceptical doubts. But as soon as he put his books aside and dined or played backgammon with his friends, that "philosophical melancholy and delirium" very quickly disappeared. This is a lesson Sanderson attempts to impart to his younger friend.
The Missing Shade of Blue is best understood, I think, as an essay, in the guise of a novel, on Hume's view of the relationship between philosophy and the pleasures and commerce of what he called "common life". Whether fiction is the best home for Erdal's keen intelligence and gently undermining, thoroughly Humean, scepticism remains to be seen.