Roger Penrose, Walter Scott, and Other British Reads

The editor at the Times Literary Supplement picks great British reads. This week: the latest dispatch from the mathematical cosmos from Roger Penrose, did Walter Scott invent Scotland as we know it, and Mme. de Staël’s literary legacy.

God’s Equations

Still looking for a Christmas gift for the mathematical uncle who has everything? Try the complete works of Professor Sir Roger Penrose, "one of the truly original thinkers of our time" as Oxford University Press calls him. Penrose is a pioneer in quantum physics, consciousness and relativity theories whose 50 years of science, represented by 5,000 pages of words and signs, has been collected together in six volumes. Only $1,250.

More than you want to pay? Try instead Sir Roger's Cycles of Time, only £25 ($40), reviewed in the TLS this week by John Leslie. Your uncle will need a fertile imagination as well as an ability to understand fiendishly complex mathematics. Even the “reasonably brief” equations under discussion are the sort that “could be written on the back of an elephant,” as Leslie puts it. But imagination, it seems, is more important still. In order to conceive of the way the universe, or universes, began, might end, or might begin again, a way of transforming the numbers into images is essential. Leslie considers too this week The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, and its theory of a universe with billions of “curled up” dimensions. Mlodinow has been a writer for Star Trek. The six-volume complete Penrose will be reviewed in a future edition of the TLS.

Did Walter Scott Invent Scotland?

Earlier this year I spent some days in Orkney and Shetland, northern islands of Scotland which, like so much of that country, are virtually inexplicable without the works of Sir Walter Scott, in this case his novel, The Pirate. But ought we always to see “Scotland” as synonymous with “Scott-land”? Did Scott really invent it, or did it invent itself in the image that Scott manufactured for it? Is it a real or a mythical country, asks Alan Taylor in this week's TLS, reviewing Stuart Kelly's Scott-land. “That Scott was responsible for creating his version of Scotland is incontrovertible. It is, after all, what novelists are supposed to do,” Taylor writes. “What happened thereafter was curious but in a way predictable. Capitalizing on Scott’s success, the nascent tourist industry offered visitors to the country their interpretation of Scott’s Scotland, a land of ragged Highlanders swathed in plaid and playing the bagpipes. It was what people wanted and it was easy to supply.”

In Scotland this remains anathema to many people. It was not easy to find a copy of The Pirate in Orkney this year. The bookshops prefer cuddly otters. Kelly quotes Kevin Williamson, editor of the short-lived magazine Rebel Inc.: “It should be noted that Sir Walter Scott was not a great Scottish patriot nor even a particularly good writer—his prose is stodgy—but he was an arse-licking royalist, falsifier of history and a Tory c— of the first order.”

There is truth in this statement, says Taylor, however crudely expressed.

Madame de Staël’s True Legacy

In our TLS Commentary section, Ruth Scurr reconsiders the career and writing of the magnificent Mme. de Staël, who knew Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, encountered Napoleon, and wrote up her vision of the tides of history in her Considerations. De Staël has too often been dismissed as a mere salonnière, rather than a woman of multiple talents whose place in the annals of literature and political thought should be secure. Scurr gives her a final paragraph of which any subject, even one so very lofty, could be pleased. “Napoleon, now himself an exile on Elba, spent his time reading her novels, and had to concede they would last. What, in contrast, de Staël asked, had he left behind? ‘Of the whole inheritance of his dreadful power, there remains nothing to mankind but the baneful knowledge of a few secrets the more in the art of tyranny.’ She died assured of her own legacy to political thought, history and literature, so long as subsequent generations had the wit to appreciate it.”

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Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.