Book review: D'Alembert's Principle

June 19, 2018. Review of D’Alembert’s Principle (1996), a playful novel about love, loss, and logic by Andrew Crumey.

D’Alembert’s Principle: A Novel in Three Panels is less a triptych than three distinct novellas, united by a loose framing device and a simple thesis: humans are complicated, and imagination (in the form of storytelling) is the best way of dealing with them.

Portrait of Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (1753). Maurice Quentin de La Tour.

The first “panel” is the deathbed confessional of Jean le Rond d’Alembert, the French polymath who discovered the wave equation and co-edited the first encyclopaedia with Diderot. D’Alembert is cast as a tragicomic figure, whose belief in a governing rational order clashes with the messy realities of human life, particularly in the romantic sphere. Crumey is inspired by the real-life love square involving d’Alembert, salon hostess Julie de Lespinasse, and de Lespinasse’s two paramours, Marquis de Mora and Comte de Guibert. De Lespinasse’s letters famously describe her doomed affairs with de Mora and de Guibert, but the novel takes up d’Alembert’s side of the story: the final reflections of a heartbroken old man, oblivious until too late and unable to process the years of deception. There is genuine human drama here, and Crumey strikes a nice balance between sympathy for Julie and the clueless Jean, the demands of the historical mise-en-scene, and his ultimate authorial goal: lampooning d’Alembert’s carving of the world into neat categories. Indeed, in a subtle bait-and-switch, d’Alembert’s titular “principle” is not his reformulation of classical mechanics, but his division of human activity into Memory, Reason, and Imagination. The first part of the novel represents Memory.

This brings us to the second part of the novel, The Cosmography of Magnus Fergusson. There is a big shift from the restrained tone of the memoir to a wackily metafictional and sometimes undergraduate mode; the Cosmography reads like B-sides to Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. The “biographical preface”, on the other hand, outshines the cosmography itself, deftly and humorously reworking some old philosophical ideas. The highlight is the “antisolipsist” McDade, who cannot be convinced that he exists, a figure Fergusson invents as he zones out from a fist-fight. In Crumey’s larger schemata, Fergusson stands for reason unhinged, abstracting and destabilising reality as it does so. He is the brilliant but clueless d’Alembert reductio ad absurdum.

The last section, Tales from Rreinnstadt, picks up where Crumey’s light-hearted novel Pfitz leaves off. Rreinnstadt is an elaborately designed fictional world, a clear reference to Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, but with a twist: Pfitz, a character who persists despite the efforts of the Rreinnstadt biographers to uninvent him. Pfitz is the vital embodiment of Imagination, constantly fabulating, no stranger to philosophy but in touch with human nature, coarse, earthy, balanced. In this section, Crumey’s games with layering, narration, and unreliability are more successful and to the point, culminating in a marvellous fragment about an astronomical clock, something like Kafka writing about the Prague orloj.

Pfitz’s refusal to take ideas too seriously, or to reduce life to a single totalising principle, allow him to navigate the chaos of human affairs with equanimity. He is the moral centre of the book, the answer to the seemingly insoluble questions of human nature d’Alembert poses. Perhaps D’Alembert’s Principle mirrors Crumey’s shift from mathematical physics to writing fiction and editing a Sunday broadsheet. Or perhaps he simply knows that some imaginative padding is the best way to deal with an unpredictable world.


Written on July 19, 2018