Friday, February 11, 2005

Holmes and the hive

Michael Chabon, in one of the more ornate chapter openings of his Sherlock Holmes Versus The Nazis whatsit The Final Solution, explains elegantly why an elderly detective should keep bees. It's a lovely passage, but I suspect it's based on an anachronism. See if you can spot:

"The bees did speak to him, after a fashion. The featureless drone, the sonic blank that others heard was to him a shifting narrative, rich, inflected, variable and distinct as the separate stones of a featureless grey shingle, and he moved along the sound, tending to his hives like a beachcomber, stooped and marvelling. It meant nothing, of course - he wasn't as batty as all that - but this did not imply, not at all, that the song had no meaning. It was the song of a city, a city as far from London as London was from heaven or Rangoon, a city in which all did precisely what they were supposed to do, in the way that had been prescribed by their most remote and venerable ancestors. A city in which gems, gold ingots, letters of credit, or secret naval plans were never stolen, in which long-lost second sons and ne'er-do-well first husbands did not turn up from the Wawoora Valley or the Rand with some clever backwoods trick for scaring an old moneybags out of his wits. No stabbings, garrotings, beating, shootings; almost no violence at all, apart from the occasional regicide. All of the death in the city of the bees had been scheduled, provided for, tens of millions of years ago; each death as it occurred was translated, efficiently and immediately, into more life for the hive.

"It was the sort of city in which a man who had earned his keep among murderers and ruffians might choose to pass the remainder of his days, listening to its song, as a young man fresh to Paris or New York or Rome (or even, as he still dimly recalled, London) stood on a balcony, at the window of a bed-sit, on the roof of a tenement house, listening to the rumble of traffic and the fanfare of horns, and feeling that he was hearing the music of his own mysterious destiny."

Now, the similitude tying those two paragraphs together is between the hum of bees and what less careful writers would call the 'roar' of traffic. Motor traffic roars, anyway. Do horses and carriages rumble? Probably. It's an intelligent way to evoke the noise of non-pneumatic wheels on cobbles rather than of engines. But was that the predominant noise? Is that what you would have heard, leaning out of a tenement window? I'd like someone to tell me 'yes', convincingly.

[The Final Solutiion, by Michael Chabon (Fourth Estate, 2005). Picked this up thinking it might be a disaster; it sounded like the winner of a New Statesman competition for most tastelessly titled detective story. It's much better than it needs to be, as the author might say -- the prose is antiqued, but still witty and vivid, and the collision between Holmes and the Holocaust is more sensitively managed than I thought it could be. Still slightly uneasy about it, though, and not in a good way.]

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