cover image D'Alembert's Principle

D'Alembert's Principle

Andrew Crumey. Picador USA, $21 (208pp) ISBN 978-0-312-19568-7

The senseless passion of 18th-century French mathematician Jean le Rond D'Alembert for his friend Julie de L'Espinasse (hinted at in Diderot's satire D'Alembert's Dream) is the subject of the strongest of the three interrelated novellas that make up this volume from Scottish author Crumey. Diderot implied that they were lovers; tragically, for D'Alembert, L'Espinasse never returned his passion. Instead, she fell for a number of other, physically imposing men. D'Alembert learns this from her letters after her death, and the claims of reason come tumbling down as he probes the logic of his passions. Crumey deftly outlines D'Alembert's life and times, albeit in broad, rather prim strokes. In his less compelling, oddly humorless second novella, a series of variations on the paradoxes of solipsism, Crumey follows the windings of an 18th-century author who appears and disappears in the text of his semifabulous book. The third, fortunately, goes for less heavily theoretical territory, returning to the characters of his acclaimed previous novel, Pfitz. A jeweler named Goldman in the city of Rrheinstadt gets thrown into prison with a beggar named Pfitz, and the beggar tells him a series of improbably scabrous tales. The loopy dialogue between Pfitz and Goldman is reminiscent of the Tortoise and Achilles sections in Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach. Crumey is described as a postmodernist, but he isn't anything so terrifying: he's simply reviving that old Enlightenment pastime, the philosophical jeu d'esprit. (Nov.) FYI: Crumey's first work, Music, in a Foreign Language, won England's Saltire Prize for Best First Novel.