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I remember when the circus used to come each year to Rathcool, the town I grew up in. The posters would appear days before the arrival, with images of laughing clowns and acrobats performing death-defying feats. Then the big day itself would come and my much-pestered parents would accompany me to the opening show. Only for a sense of disappointment to set in almost immediately.

I remember when during the knife-throwing act there was a call for volunteers. My aunt, who had herself been volunteered by my parents to join me on this occasion, had to physically restrain me from throwing up my hand. Then I noticed the man who was chosen was a stage-hand. I had seen him hanging around with the performers before the show. My poor aunt tried to pretend otherwise – I think adults always appreciate the importance of childish illusions, which is why Santa Claus has survived for so long – but I already knew the truth.

This story begins with a man dressed in an acrobat costume voiding his bowels before leaping into his own legend – illustrated by a woodcut of his prowess and two pages of sheet music describing his feats – only to land in his death-bed, drained by a fatal case of smallpox. By his bedside are colleagues and friends arguing over his estate. His nephew Etienne arrives, whose job at the circus was to clean up elephant dung. He is the beneficiary of the great Leotard’s estate, which turns out to be a gnomic riddle, an empty journal containing a fake moustache. Etienne understands his uncle’s dying wish. He is to become Leotard and continue the legend of his uncle.

Unfortunately for Etienne, the troup is still stuck in Paris while it is under siege by the Prussian army. The company’s animals have all been eaten by the starving city inhabitants. Without any animal acts Etienne’s troupe is at a loss as to how they are to continue on. Their new young leader proposes that they become a circus of the stange and wonderful. They are after all strong-men and contortionists, tattooed ladies and bear-impersonators. Etienne is a young man with big dreams, which do not match reality. During their first show a human cannonball sets the famous Paris Cirque de Hiver on fire, burning it to the ground.

Etienne and his fellow artistes have an unerring knack for landing in trouble, becoming embroiled in the infamous Jack the Ripper murder investigation; theft of the Mona Lisa; the sinking of the Titanic; even a catastrophic bloodbath involving nineteen dwarves and a beast known as a ‘Ti-lion’. Through it all success avoids Etienne, leaving him impoverished in old age, despite inventing such implements as fantastical as ‘spring heeled shoes’.

Campbell and Best have fashioned a breezy and romantic counterpoint to the nihilism of that other historical epic, From Hell. Split into a series of episodes, The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard is a winning evocation of a lost vision of popular entertainment. There are even hints that the circus is an ancestor of sorts to the comic book superhero. Campbell introduces the amusingly titled Le Quartette Fantastique and has the creators of Superman witness Etienne’s final show.

The work as a whole has a rich Pynchonian feel to it. When we discover the romantic leanings of Pallenberg, the man disguised as a bear, it is a fine comic moment that is later revealed to be a set-up to the climactic adventure on board the Titanic. History and whimsy are married together to great effect, with Campbell’s febrile art stylings lending an uncanny edge to the proceedings. Best and Campbell even intrude upon Etienne to discuss the progress of the book so far. It is just that kind of book.

Beautifully illustrated, with a rich comic tone and a lurking sense of tired tragedy, this is a wonderful effort by Campbell, an Australian master of the medium.

He even devised for himself a pseudonym for his alchemical work – ‘Ieova sanctus unus’, as a near anagram of ‘Isaacus Nevtonus’. The assumption of a name meaning ‘the one holy Jehovah’, may seem somewhat blasphemous, but it is perhaps indicative of the young Newton’s self-belief. Had he not been born, like the Saviour, on Christmas Day?

Peter Ackroyd’s historical fiction and biographies of notable figures are always a pleasure to read. He is incisive, witty and brings a vast array of references to the work at hand. He has published collections of his criticism that I would strongly recommend to fans of Clive James, or Anthony Lane. In the past I have enjoyed his novels such as The Lambs of London, The House of Doctor Dee and Hawksmoor, notable for inspiring Alan Moore’s Jack the Ripper tome From Hell.

In short he writes dense, yet very readable accounts of English history. I was surprised that his book on Newton was a straight biography, part of his Brief Lives series. I was expecting a fictional account, more along the lines of John Banville’s Kepler. It remains an authoritative text, despite its slim size.

Isaac Newton’s birth on Christmas Day was seen as something of a good omen, despite his sickly and weak appearance. His family’s circumstances were quite poor, his father already deceased and in truth he was not expected to live. Out of these troubled beginnings grew up a solitary, distracted young boy, already given to explosions of temper that would later be demonstrated by his inability to take criticism as an adult, as well as his controlling nature. Accounts of his early life often express surprise at his poor academic record in school, yet Ackroyd attributes this to a precocious intellectual fascination with more extra-curricular studies, such as experimenting with kites and self-made devices.

His head master and other notables recognized the adolescent’s more cerebral gifts and convinced his mother to allow him to continue with his studies as opposed to a life on the farm. He eventually achieved a place at Cambridge University, where he would spend most of his life. His early fascination with optics led him to study the philosophy of Rene Descartes, even going so far as to insert a ‘bodkin’, between his own eye in order to prove through experiment his own conclusions. Even at this early stage Newton was a fierce critic of overly hypothetical discourses, arguing that experimentation and logic were the only true arbiters of reason. Such passionate self-belief would lead to confrontations with peers such as Robert Hooke and Irish philosopher Robert Boyle. Newton’s contentions with these luminaries emerge only through private correspondence for the most part, as the student was still a sheltered and private man. He was also given over to controversial religious beliefs, such as a refusal to accept the Holy Trinity, preferring early Christian notion of Jesus being the son of man, not the Son of God. In addition, his fascination with alchemy would remain hidden well after his death, as it was seen to besmirch his later rationalist successes.

However, the support of Edmond Haley and his help in Newton’s eventual publication of The Principia Mathematica, a purely logical account of the forces of nature (written in Latin to warn off too-eager critics) catapulted the author onto the world stage. He would be feted by kings and tsars, contend with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and be cited by Voltaire in jest, earn the acrimony of William Blake and the Romantic poets for, in their eyes, stripping the natural world of its wonder. He was even chosen to be the Member of Parliament for Cambridge, on the side of the Whig party and a staunch defender of Protestanism. His quote regarding ‘standing on the shoulder of giants’, is printed on the British two pound coin, as he rose to the rank of controller of the Mint itself. He was a remarkable man, a polymath and undisputed genius.

Ackroyd shines a light on the superficially conflicting aspects of Newton. He was a rationalist with a mechanistic vision of the world who was nevertheless devoted to study of the Scriptures and the alchemical pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone. A philosopher who has done more to define the nature of science and the necessary objectivity of the scientist. A thinker who was determined to apply himself to the practical considerations of running the Mint.

This is an informed and revealing account of one of the most important minds in scientific history, who did more to define our understanding of the world in his time, than anyone since Aristotle. A brilliant man and a fascinating study.

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