Drive la France: a taxi driver in Paris in 1929. Photo: Getty
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Home and away: The Prince’s Boy by Paul Bailey and Other People’s Countries by Patrick McGuinness

Two new novels, about a Romanian in Paris in the 1920s and a Belgian living near the French border respectively, are examinations of nationality and identity.

The Prince’s Boy
Paul Bailey
Bloomsbury, 160pp, £16.99

Other People’s Countries: a Journey into Memory
Patrick McGuinness
Jonathan Cape, 208pp, £14.99

In his recent memoir about Paris, Inside a Pearl, Edmund White recalls that a meeting he organised between the francophile English novelist Julian Barnes and the anglophile French novelist Marc Cholodenko turned out to be “stiff” because neither had any interest in the other’s country except as a source of “counter-examples” with which to mock compatriots. Cholodenko hasn’t been published in Britain but readers of Barnes’s work will be familiar with his manner of invoking the French – “The English don’t have cousins the way they do”, etc – and a variation of the strategy can be recognised in Evelyn Waugh’s use of Africans and Martin Amis’s use of Americans. It’s a kind of chauvinism that feigns engagement.

When the novelist Paul Bailey first visited Romania, at the end of the Ceausescu years, he went as a former south London grammar school boy and a novelist in a consciously English tradition. It has taken him a while to engage with the country on its own terms. In Kitty and Virgil (1998), the Romanian character was seen from the perspective of an Englishwoman. In Uncle Rudolf (2002), Romanian experience was recalled by a naturalised Englishman.

Bailey’s new novel, The Prince’s Boy, presents a rich man’s son named Dinu, who travels from Gara de Nord in Bucharest to the Gare du Nord in Paris in 1927 with a view to becoming a poet or novelist. Instead, partly thanks to his reading of Proust, he becomes an academic. More significantly, he meets a fellow Romanian, Razvan, a well-known prostitute and an alleged acquaintance of Proust, with whom he falls in love. The mood of Dinu’s reminiscences, composed in the late 1960s, is one of rapture shot through with loss, the latter emotion becoming stronger when the story reaches the 1930s and Dinu’s homeland starts to display its “talent for farcical brutality”.

To discover in the final pages that Dinu, “Romanian by birth, French by choice”, ended up as an accidental Englishman is a source less of disappointment than relief. It explains, if belatedly, the fussiness of the book’s prose: “green in the ways of the flesh”, “inspirational aspirations”, “What in God’s holy name was happening to me?”, “our mutual hunger once assuaged”. And it confirms Bailey’s reluctance to coddle the reader with an Anglocentric viewpoint.

When Julian Barnes wrote a story about a Romanian in exile, “One of a Kind”, he chose as his narrator an English novelist full of Barnesian glibness (“I always had this theory about Romania. Well, not a proper theory: more an observation, I suppose”). That Dinu eventually settles in England does little to diminish the thoroughness with which Bailey executes his central task – to evoke what it would be like not for an Englishman to be a Romanian, or for someone with the author’s English cast of mind to have been born in Romania, but for a Romanian to be a Romanian. If there is a limit to what Bailey achieves here, it has less to do with sympathy of imagination than exuberance of invention. Devoted Bailey readers, on finishing this slight successor to the slight Chapman’s Odyssey (2011), may find themselves yearning for his old untamed energy, the force behind earlier exercises in male befuddlement such as Gabriel’s Lament (1986).

Patrick McGuinness, an academic and poet and the author of a novel about the end of the Ceausescu regime, The Last Hundred Days, has also attempted a sort of Proust-in-miniature in Other People’s Countries. It’s a memoir in vignettes – part essay, part poetry, part prose poetry – concerned with Bouillon, a Belgian municipality near the French border where his mother’s family lived and where he partly grew up. McGuinness emerges as an insider with distance, able to note Bouillon’s “eccentricity and exoticism” while still considering it his home. Recalling how he used to think “Evenbrussels” was a place, because his awestruck relatives would refer to “Mêmebruxelles” (as in, “Lucie’s dresses are worn in Arlon, Namur and even Brussels”), he appears affectionate rather than condescending.

If the charm of McGuinness’s reminiscences helps to ward off self-indulgence, his weakness for theory – his desire to write meta-memoir as well as memoir – undoes much of the good work. Although Other People’s Countries is billed as an extension of the bedtime stories that McGuinness tells his son and daughter, it contains a great deal of intellectual rummaging that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy’s children: “my idea of what the house remembers about itself”, “It seems important to distrust the material, maybe even to make distrust itself the material”, “those three stooges, the past, the present and the future”, “This house of mine, this house of mind”, and so on.

The stooge-like past being so hard to get straight, McGuinness is annoyed that the English language insists on not being good enough, forcing him to wrist-slap widely accepted metaphors. Of “takes place”, he writes, “Place can’t be taken”; “When we say ‘naturalised’,” he points out, “we actually mean ‘denaturalised’.” But McGuinness’s figurative language doesn’t always do what he wants it to, as when he writes that a speeded-up recording of his voice made him sound “like a breathlessly excited Charles Hawtree”, an image that combines a redundant simile, a tautology and a misspelling.

Towards the end, he plays his hand a little too aggressively. After recalling an “old lady” with a “lucky rabbit’s foot dyed in the national tricolour”, he writes, “I couldn’t have put it better myself” – presumptuously alluding to his own powers of eloquence and doing so with a cliché.

Leo Robson is the NS’s lead fiction reviewer

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.