Speaking Volumes: Twain, Kingsley, Dickens et al

January 23, 1998

Ruth Itzhaki on Twain, Kingsley, Dickens et al.

I still have my childhood bookcase. It is plain but has glass doors, when I open them I can smell the sweet, musty smell of old books. I remember long summer afternoons, taking a favourite volume into the garden and reading, undisturbed by the trains gliding past. More guiltily, I remember reading under the blankets, the time stolen from homework, and my shouts of "just a few more pages" when my mother called me. (The sins of the mothers are visited I My daughters treated me just the same.)

We had an extraordinary variety of books at home. My father was a book lover and was a keen patron of the then second-hand bookshop, Foyle's, to which he introduced me at a young age. He was born in the Victorian era so we had a number of moralistic tales as well as the classics. Eric, or Little by Little by Dean Farrer described the downfall of a public schoolboy who was driven by drink and turpitude to a sad end.

What a contrast with my tearaway heroes, Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. However, I remember weeping over Eric as much as over Jane Eyre; perhaps my devouring a mixture of the sentimental and the masterpiece taught me some discrimination. I loved also to read historical novels and of gallant heroes (always men). I dreamed of growing up and becoming a free agent and joining expeditions to Africa or South America or the monasteries of Tibet; those distant, hazy images beckoned me to an entrancing future.

The more recent past was uninviting: David Copperfield, The Water Babies, and Jane Eyre made me realise that there was no serene, comfortable life for the poor and sick in Victorian times. I realised also, from an obscure book - The Abyss by Nathan Kussy - that life in other countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries was equally cruel. The book was a vivid description of a Russian immigrant child, orphaned and surviving pitifully in the slums of New York. So America was not just a vast prairie with ox-wagons, defended by whiskery heroes trundling towards new frontiers.

I cannot remember any book which came truly as a revelation in the way that Bach's St Matthew Passion did, when one of the music teachers at school introduced us to its magnificent pathos. Perhaps my reading was too indiscriminate, or books, when re-encountered too frequently, cannot stay revelatory - unlike music.

Apparently I asserted at the age of six that I wanted to become a scientist. A few years later I read Marie Curie by her daughter, Eve Curie. My main memory is of Mme Curie's persistence and of her triumphs. Perhaps it gave me an inkling that research is not a series of dramatic discoveries but of disappointments, fears and worries: what I would now call plateaus with deep valleys of despair - and a few wonderful peaks. The description of the conditions in which Marie and her husband worked and the constant shortage of funds was, Iassumed, the norm for research (a broadly correct assumption as Ifound subsequently). I was greatly moved by the descriptions of her young adulthood in Poland, helping to support her siblings by working as a governess, and her privations later as a student living in a garret in Paris. Glancing at the book with adult eyes, I now see also what an extraordinarily romantic tale there was in the slow and touching growth of friendship and love with Pierre - even if this and the rest of the book was romanticised by the journalist author; as a child I probably skipped those pages, as I did the love interest in Jane Eyre. But what a role model Marie was!

Ruth Itzhaki is professor of molecular neurobiology, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

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