Science and fiction

15 September 2011 | Authors, Interviews

Kristina Carlson. Photo: Tommi Tuomi

Interview with Kristina Carlson, author of William N. Päiväkirja (‘William N. Diary’, Otava, 2011)

‘Monsieur W. Nylander had died alone, his head resting against his desk. We’d known for a long while that your beloved relative was not well, but whenever he was walking along the street and someone enquired as to his health, he always replied that he felt fit and well.’

Finnish-born Monsieur William N. lives in Paris at the end of the 19th century. The grumpy old scientist spends his days studying lichens in his small, dusty apartment and writing bitter comments in his diary about the way of the world, all things meaningless, and the glory and reputation that he never achieved.

William Nylander (born Oulu, 1822 – died Paris, 1899) is a historical figure who truly existed, and the remarks quoted above are taken from a letter sent by William’s housekeeper to his sister Elise in Finland, but other than this William’s diary is entirely the work of Kristina Carlson. The hermetic botanist has now become the protagonist of a novel written in 2011.

SL: Monsieur N. is the central character of your third novel, written in monologue form. What was it you found so fascinating about this grouchy old man that he ended up coming to life as a character in your novel?

KC: I was interested in William’s well-documented obstinacy, because it would seem that then as now both scientific and artistic success have required a certain level of social aptitude. At the very least they required good manners. William’s opinions and pronouncements are mostly my own creations, though it is true that he was very upset that even his status as a professor didn’t provide him with a decent apartment in Helsinki.

In our time, one’s social skills are almost de facto put in the spotlight. I doubt William would have had a single friend on Facebook. I wanted to examine what life must be like for such a recluse – not least because I recognise some of the same traits in myself. As I was writing, I wondered what readers might think of someone as unlikeable as William. I’m rather pleased with him because he’s also aroused a great deal of empathy, pity and even sympathy. That’s the way I reacted to him too. William was and continues to be a respected researcher, but his problematic character traits made his life very lonely.

SL: How did you come across Monsieur N.? By chance?

KC: About ten years ago I read A.G. Morton’s book A History of Botanical Science. The translated edition also contained an appendix written by Finnish researchers in the field. That’s when I first encountered Mr Nylander, a man who interested me far more because of his persona than because of his scientific achievements. So yes, it was by chance.

SL: There are conflicts and dichotomies in every one of us. Monsieur N. is an ascetic scientist with a scornful disdain of imagination, a man who from day to day subsists on milk, bread and soup but who, when given the chance, would happily tuck into a dish of braised hare and knows better than to spit in his Burgundy. He never reads novels or listens to music, but a painting by Georges Seurat makes a great impression on him. According to N., paintings are different from novels or music because ‘you don’t have to imagine them’. N. believes that Seurat’s manner of painting is ‘scientific’ because he doesn’t attempt to copy reality but breaks it up and puts it back together again; under the microscope ‘the eyes fix on the tiniest elements and in our brains we perceive their significance, their being.’ Did you consciously set out to look for William’s inherent contradictions or did his personality take shape spontaneously? How do you write when you’re trying to characterise a fictional person?

KC: Biographical information about Nylander and his life provided some material, but for the most part his character came to life in my head. When you look inside a fictional character, when you really get into their heads, the creative process is quite a spontaneous one. I didn’t need to search for dichotomies or contradictions; they arose out of William’s character all by themselves. A person with no contradictions, a ‘rounded’ character, wouldn’t be the least bit interesting. We all have conflicting impulses pulling and pushing us at the same time. We don’t necessarily notice these traits in ourselves, but in a fictional character they are far easier to pinpoint. William’s interest in good food – whenever someone else is serving it – is a manifestation of the other side of his miserly persona: the gluttonous side. In fact, many phenomena that seem so contradictory are in fact simply the other side of another aspect, and in a way they are logically linked to one another.

SL: The novel highlights the parallel natures of and the differences between art and science. Your previous novel Herra Darwinin puutarhuri (‘Mr Darwin’s gardener’, 2009) examines the right of an individual to be different within a homogenous group, in this case a small village community in Victorian England, and the extent to which this is ultimately possible. This time the setting is the crowded city of Paris, but as with the previous book, it seems that at the heart of this novel too is an examination of the price an individual must pay in order to retain his integrity against the pressures of time and society. In his final diary entry before his death, William N. comments that ‘perhaps my soul is reminiscent of a dried raisin, but I cannot hate myself, for I have no one else.’ This is a person who avoids the pursuit of ‘happiness’, but surely he too has an idea of what it is?

KC: William certainly spends time considering what happiness might be. From his perspective it is a stagnant, airless, stuffy state of being. To a great extent he equates happiness with the bourgeois high-life, something that requires certain elements that might be considered markers of respectability: a family, a house and possessions. He doesn’t seem to appreciate that happiness might be something else, a state or a peace of mind that can exist entirely independently of any external factors. Even the comfort or happiness of religion is something alien to him. William is constantly growling and grumbling. He seems anything but happy – and yet I believe that his high self-respect and the knowledge that he has retained his integrity in difficult circumstances give him a level of satisfaction. Perhaps this too is happiness, albeit of a somewhat sour kind.

Translated by David Hackston

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