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Authors: Benjamin Markovits

The Syme Papers

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• The • Syme • Papers •

A  Novel



Mrs R.:

Impatience, my dear, I may tell you, will never make you a
good Geologist; and we must go through a great many facts
and conjectures, before we come to the history of the shells,
besides some pretty romances which are called Theories of
the earth, and tell us how the world was made.



Then I am sure I shall like it, for I delight in romances; and
whenever I hear the word, I think of the Happy Valley in

Robinson Crusoe’s Island, or the Enchanted
Gardens of Armida; but I always thought there were no
romances in philosophy.


Mrs R.:

You mean, perhaps, that there should be none; but philoso
phers, if they have much imagination, are apt to let it loose
as well as other people, and in such cases are sometimes led to
mistake a fancy for a fact. Geologists, in particular, have
very frequently amused themselves in this way, and it is not
a little amusing to follow them in their fancies and their
waking dreams. Geology, indeed, in this view, may be called
a romantic science.

Conversations on Geology; comprising a familiar explanation of the Huttonian and Wernerian systems; the Mosaic Geology, as explained by
Mr Granville Penn
; and the late discoveries of Professor Loomis, Eaton, Syme, and others, 1828.

a series of improbabilities founded upon inaccuracies, and the rest of it plagiarized, I regret to say. A great shame, for Pitt is a genial little goblin, and I wish him well …

Excerpt from a memo by Dr Sal Bunyon to the Promotion and Tenure Committee, Department of History, University of Texas at Austin, regarding ‘The Syme Papers’.

(my lucky number, my jackpot, my undiscovered genius). I was looking for
at my wits’ end, or rather my
end, holed up in a studio in King’s Cross – part of a flat brown block looking over the skips and lorries of the Caledonian Road. The grant was running dry and so was I, sending beer money back home to the wife-and-two in Austin, Texas. I was supposed to be writing (on a Fulbright as it happens, toot my own horn) in order to (one … two … three): finish the book, publish (publish!), scoot home, win tenure, and start building the (rather expensive) picket fence.
hunched over the schoolboy desk I pinched from one of the aforementioned skips and pushed against the squat window (which, sealed at the sill by paint, locked by a smear of paint over the what-d’you-call-it, jig, hitch, thingum, clasp,
had clammed up – stuck fast, unbudgeable,
as the days got longer, hotter and thicker with the dust of lorries and skips on the Caledonian Road). Writing
Fire and Ice: a history of the
Plutonist – Neptunist
debate on the composition of the Earth’s crust and its
evolution into modern geology. A
good, a breathless title, no? as Phidy would say. One of my forebears in the long tradition of academic
But you don’t know Phidy yet. You hardly know me.

Dr Douglas Pitt, BA Geology and Geophysics UC San Diego; M.Phil. History Oxford, Merton College; Ph.D. History NYU. I have travelled, as I like to tell my … my colleagues (as I hope to call them soon) from the glories of sunshine, to the glories of tradition, to the glories of metropolis. I have eschewed San Diego, a border town (all ports are border towns) twice over, the land of my birth – under that synthetic sky, a creation of God’s akin to an architect’s model, clean, unchipped, constructed for tiny men. Then Oxford and my private renaissance. I
for the first time, and recognized that I was born for the company of greatness
(the company only). The possession of leisure is indeed a wonderful opportunity. But the letters in that dignified list that produced the greatest pleasure: NY. A wonderful town for scroungers, for men of shabby elbows, who like to look at their feet, and see what they step in. Since those days, and the first blush of my perpetual youth – for I bear the kind of doggedness that never ages, a bright pink face, hanging arms, sweating forehead, the awkwardness of adolescence enduring into middle age – my career has been, in James’s phrase, a succession of stops and starts.

I wander between two worlds – the ‘two cultures’, as C.P. Snow dubbed them – ever at each other’s throat, united only in their suspicion of men like me. The
don’t trust me, think I’m up to my neck in scientific hocus-pocus, and an amateur of textual integrity. The
won’t touch me, a lightweight of fact and proof, a pedlar of assumptions and interpretations. I have made it the business of my academic life to trace the course of
great mis
and the fruits of them, the errors of science, redeemed by their place in history. Which brings me to
Fire and Ice
(or Fire and Water, more properly speaking – but I could not help adding a touch of Frost). To the clash, now dead two hundred years and mostly forgotten, between Hutton, a mountaineering Scot, and Werner, an old Bavarian gentleman, over a patch of intellectual ground as wide as the world itself – to determine whether our quaint earth was born out of Sea (precipitating from a vast ocean) or Rock (cast up in a great fire). Of course, the question before me was to examine how such curious views could have
cast up
our own modern picture of the Crust, nearly as miraculous a transformation, it seemed to me, as the prime creation itself. Which brings me to the Fulbright Fellowship and the studio in King’s Cross, researching the likes of Hutton, Fairplay, and Cartographical Smith. Which brought me, in the end, to Syme.

Write, Pitt! Write! I said, squeezing my legs under the boy’s desk and banging my elbow on the table. Write. The legs weren’t the problem, as it happens, for I
with age, grow heavier and squatter, and my underpinnings slipped easily under the oak, from which I had scraped the dried gum with the back of my pen.
But I am a boy no longer (he sighed). The thatch on my head has gone, leaving two fistfuls above my ears and a bony shiny pate between. Pushing forty, they call it; I’m pushing forty, though forty seems to be doing most of the pushing. And my time for tenure, the seal and badge of the academic aristocracy, was slipping, slipping from me. I had begun to try the patience – I have always been good at trying patience – of my peers, my superiors, I should say, as they had become. This was my last shot. Publish or bust.

So write, Pitt, why don’t you write? (I believe my name was a great inhibitor of growth, a low ceiling on my evolution. There is only
so far
a Mr Douglas Pitt may hope to rise – so be it.) But I
write: over breakfast, dipping those really rather excellent Portuguese custard tarts into my morning coffee (fattening, no doubt, but full of
covering note cards, front and back, with ink, stained by the greasy newspaper of my lunchtime fish and chips. All through the dusty afternoons: stuffing the pockets of my tweed jacket with notes and references, titbits, quotations, connections, sudden bursts of wonderful illumination condensed to a black puddle of illegible scribble. I wrote even on the tags of tea bags, rescued from styrofoam cups on my brillig strolls among the builders and the traffic of King’s Cross. How I wrote, till my cramped room was cluttered with a thousand inspirations, sticky and half-formed, barnacles on a post left rotting in deserted waters. My dear, my
I wrote. As I had assured
Pitt herself, the wife in question, over a course of mostly miserable telephone calls through the depth of a long, wet English year. (Susannah by name, dubbed Missy by me. I should like at some point to undertake a history of the nickname, of the combinations of affection and hatred, and suitability,
them; particularly, of the qualities necessary to become
Great – as I plan soon to transform Syme himself into
Great.) Missy worries greatly, she worries
on my behalf; as if, almost, the exhaustion of her concern might push my fortunes a little along their way. And, to be fair to her, my fortunes need a push or two, a jump-start; and
are likely to suffer soon, should

For Dr Bunyon – the Dean of History at the University of Texas, the Dean of Shambling Geniality, a tall, blinking man of enormous brows – mutters against me; ‘concerned’, of course. (There must be some root of
in shambling, so often the two limp together, an earnest of false vulnerability from a man in power.) The
and I – and here Pitt gestures widely with his hands, one each way – are like
Dr Bunyon, as the English have it, is not ‘on board’ – though he sits on a great many boards, and chairs the committee on tenure. His assurance of which prompted the mortgage of a house we could not, quite, afford. His subsequent genial, bluff, insidious attempts to poison me among my colleagues I cannot
(He coined the phrase ‘unscrupulous scrupulosity’ to describe my research methods, and then refused to explain it or himself to me.) But his insinuations of professional neglect, under a veil of good intentions, to my wife I cannot, and will not,

‘He must
he mutters at her, smiling into his left cheek, ‘if he hopes to
my dear.’ And she mutters his echoes at me (a foul noise from such pretty lips), until my assurances themselves grow shrill with repetition: I write, I write, I write.

Till first my right fist gave way to strain and weariness, clawed up – like a blasted sapling says the hump-backed prince. And then my left, shadowing its brother, retracted to a perpetual flinch. The fist of Doug Pitt, flinching! After five hours in the waiting room at Middlesex Hospital – the noble NHS, symbol of democracy indeed, that the rich shall grow ill in the squalor of the poor, bless Orwell – a young Pakistani gentleman in a blue sports coat informed me (before rushing off to catch a tee-time or teatime, I could not determine which) that I suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome. What does that mean? I asked, in plain English. To speak plainly, he said, it means that your hands look like
these talons, curled upon themselves, in an animal clutch. (I have been told there is a surprising touch of the animal about me, for a cerebral gentleman – a true
presence.) What can you do for me? I said.

This has always been my cry. ‘What can you do for me?’ my
father taught – he was the foreman of a business that manufactured poles for scaffolding. (I have also, in my way, concerned myself over scaffolding.) Ask, he said, and you shall get on. And so I
and so I
But people, as I have found to my dismay, grow – how shall I put it? – tired of their own goodness. There have been promises made, positions offered, assurances given – enough said. Dr Bunyon, tall, sloping,
soul, stooping towards his lesser fellows, has proffered
before (that pinnacle of academic ambition, a
and withdrawn them as his guests sat down. I am not the first victim of his
Generosity, like inspiration, runs dry – the former rather sooner than the latter. You all have met me in your day. I am familiar, no doubt. The kind of underdog nobody wants to root for, that’s me. But my desperate days are almost over. My name will be secure – and in the meanwhile, I have scrounged.

What can you do for me? I asked the elegant doctor. Nothing, he said, in his perfect, precise, clipped English. We are only beginning to understand your condition. What have you understood? I asked. This much – he answered – that it is called carpal runnel syndrome.

They fitted me with two braces, strapped over wrist and palm through the arch of the thumb. And there I stood, kitted like a champion fighter looking for a prize fight. I have a boxer’s build, too: thick in the chest and shoulders, a bulldog’s build, a Pitt-bull. But I could not write. The very organs of my enterprise lodged with me useless, my hands, scarce able to clasp the delicate loop of a teacup, mutton-fisted, and serve their mouth its needful.

So read, Pitt! Read! I said. The world is full of men smarter than you; history records them. Scrounge! As Dr Bunyon explained, looking down, you are somewhat short … on imagination, in your work, Pitt. (We shall see.) And so every morning I walked up the Caledonian Road, away from the stink of the canal, into the stink of King’s Cross Station. Ducked through the arc of traffic around the tracks, the rumble shivering through the soles of my boots from the workmen blocking the road, drilling for pipes in the asphalt with their jackhammers. Across that, into the relative
quiet of hotels and big business; up Pancras Road, slipping off to the courtyard of the British Library, that bright brick supermarket of the written word; into the silence and the air-conditioned softness of the reading room. Read, Pitt, read!

My enemies – I mean, my critics – like to believe that I am
That is their greatest compliment, the pith of their condescension. Pitt, they like to say, is thorough. Trust Pitt to come up with a good list, a useful bibliography. Pitt, they say, does Good Work; people know it, respect him for it. They don’t look for inspiration from Pitt; they look for facts. Wrangling over a quotation or a date, they come to me. ‘Ask Pitt,’ Dr Bunyon says. ‘He rolls up his shirtsleeves, does the dirty work. I often think’, he used to add, in his tremulous, gentlemanly quaver, warbling, ‘that Pitt is on to something, with all his digging. That’s where the real work is; only’ – there is always an only! – ‘I don’t have the stomach for it.’ Giving to understand, you see, that a real high-class brain
have the stomach for it.

All right, Pitt, I said, dig, that’s what you’re good at, Pitt. ‘The overdevelopment of memory’, Bunyon calls me behind my back (he is rich with the coins of phrase), ‘an evolutionary curiosity’. The species produces people like me, once in a while, to
history; so that people like Bunyon can pick at it. I like to touch everything as I go by, only I find it hard to set down afterwards. I write
regardless of starts and stops, or rather, consumed by them. I don’t think in
I think in
following wave after wave of curiosity. I lack imagination, or suffer from the surfeit of it; I lack
the gift of sudden freezing, that allows one to tinker with the ice.

Of course,
what matters in the end is what’s remembered.
I don’t say it’s fair. The process of memory isn’t fair; nor is the process of getting noticed in the first place. I know enough about that. But there is always hope for the
for memorable cultures, that is, cultures able to remember. The slightest gesture may survive. As Syme has survived, conjuring with a wave of his hand a man’s thoughts a century later, and transforming
into a vision of the world we have not shaken from us yet, and may never shake.
What Bunyon doesn’t reckon on is that
hold the keys to the kingdom. Me and people like me – the diggers.

And then there’s Syme, a digger of a very different feather.


I wasn’t looking for Syme; I was looking for anything. A breakthrough or a break-in to the process of genius that produced ALFRED WEGENER, gentleman of many parts, and the first man to set forth in sober theory the notion
that Africa and the Americas had
belonged to a single body of land, that the earth itself had split, drifted and
lay slipping and slipping, even as we stand upon it.
He was an adventurer of science, a balloonist of unusual skill, a mountaineer; and not the only man in this story to have died pursuing his convictions, like Dr Frankenstein, in a waste of ice chasing his imagination.

BOOK: The Syme Papers
11.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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