Verghese, Abraham: Cutting for Stone

cuttingforstoneI woke up suddenly.

Frankincense drifting in the air, mingling with the strains of Ethiopian music and the fragrance of Ethiopian coffee….where could I be?

Someone jabbed me in the ribs, said there was a blogger crisis, and told me to grab a pen…ah yes, I had nodded off. I knew that third bottle had been ambitious…

It was March at the Monthly Book Group, and the book was “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese (2009).

A nurse had recommended it to the proposer, who was himself in the medical profession. And the well-informed medical content of the book had appealed to him immensely. There was a very informative section on fistula medicine, and the character Shiva’s major work in this field. The proposer had heard Dr Catherine Hamlin, a pioneering fistula surgeon in Ethiopia, talk in Edinburgh, which made it very meaningful.

He, like others amongst us, had heard Ethiopia described as the most beautiful country in the world, which again added allure to the book. So did his familiarity with most of the book’s settings – in Kerala in India, the Bronx and Queens in New York, and of course with Stone’s training in Edinburgh.

He felt Verghese wrote with much compassion and empathy, maintaining tension and suspense as he wove the different story lines together. The twists and turns of the medical stories mirrored and illuminated the twists and turns of life as a whole. His observations both of people and of places were vivid, full of description and detail, and some of the best that he had come across. He enjoyed the wide variety of realistic characters. The book had captivated him from the opening paragraphs, when we hear of a nun giving birth.

Verghese had been born in Addis Ababa in 1955, to Indian parents recruited by the Emperor Haile Selassie to teach in Ethiopia. He grew up near the capital and began his medical training there. When the Emperor was deposed, Verghese briefly joined his parents who had moved to the United States because of the war. He worked as an orderly in a hospital before completing his medical education in India.

After graduation, he left India for a medical residency in the United States and initially found only the less popular hospitals and communities open to him. However, he progressed and became heavily involved in the stressful work of caring for AIDS patients. He then took a break, cashing in his retirement plan to study writing full time in Iowa. He now combined a Professorship at Stanford on the Theory and Practice of Medicine with a very successful writing career.

Amongst his wide range of influences were A.J. Cronin’s “The Citadel” (see discussion 28/3/13), Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” and Conan Doyle. The lengthy acknowledgements at the end of the book revealed Verghese’s very wide and rich range of cultural reference, even if it were showboating a little to draw such explicit attention to it.

The lengthy and explicit passages on surgery featured strongly in our initial discussion. For some they were too long, too gruesome, or too boring, distracting attention from the main story. Others felt they marked the book out as exceptional, so clearly expressing his love and passion for medicine. For these readers he brilliantly depicted the bone and gristle and sinew of the operations. And yet others simply skipped the medical passages.

So not much agreement there, nor was there on the characters. Some felt that they were very well drawn. Others felt they were rather weak with little real feelings. Genet in particular was cited, who had the most interesting but tormented life, but about whose feelings we learned very little.

But was that because we only saw her through Marion’s eyes, and Marion idealized her but was frustrated by his inability to get close to her? And didn’t we learn a lot about Stone’s torment, and to a lesser extent Hema’s?

We felt Hema was the best drawn of the female characters. She had had to move from India to Ethiopia to progress in medicine. She had become a dominant person in Ethiopia, controlling the hospital and medical procedures.

The issue arose in discussion of whether Hema was an imagined character, or a projection of the Australian doctor Catherine Hamlin. This might account for the greater strength of writing about Hema than the other female characters. Or was rather Shiva modelled on Hamlin? However, we agreed that the historical genesis of a character or plot was not relevant to judging the quality of a book.

Another feature was that none of the characters achieved satisfactory relationships, with the exception, eventually, of Hema and Ghosh. This was sad, and perhaps linked to the pervasive sense in the book that sex was dangerous. Many characters were destroyed or seriously damaged by sex: Mary Praise, Genet, Marion and indirectly Shiva, Thomas Stone and so on. The genital mutilation of Genet was one of the most powerful and shocking of such scenes, and showed an unflinching willingness to confront unpleasant physical issues.

Thus was the danger of sex the moral – conscious or unconscious – of the book? The idea that sex leads to death was of powerful archetypal origin (see discussion of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” 25/7/07).

Marion’s sexual inhibition was not easy to comprehend at a literal level. He turned down the Probationer, and decided not to pursue Tsige when she put him on hold, but saved himself for years and years for what proved to be a nihilistic and destructive coupling with Genet. Given that Marion was obviously a largely autobiographical figure, there might be an autobiographical basis for this, but that did not constitute a convincing explanation.

Meanwhile Marion’s twin brother Shiva, from whom he had been sundered at birth, was unthinkingly promiscuous, and named after a god. This led us to wonder if the author had in mind some notion of dualism, of illustrating different aspects of humanity, through the trope of the divided twins. However, if so it was not too clear to us what the idea was. Nor was it clear if there were some intended notion of universality in giving a man, Marion, a female name. And was the choice of name of “Genet” for the woman he loved, echoing the writer Jean Genet, also meant to have significance?

Despite these hints that the writer might have high literary ambitions, there was some enjoyable humour in the novel, e.g. in the description of the cricket team. There were fine homilies, such as Stone’s question about what treatment was administered by ear (reassurance) or his injunction never to operate on a patient on the day of his death. More generally we liked the strong Indian influence in the book.

So, taking the book as a whole, what were its strengths and weaknesses? Most felt that the first section of the book in Missing Hospital, climaxing with Mary Praise’s dramatic delivery and death, was outstanding. One, for example, thought that the book showed fantastic imagination, especially the first 100 pages. It was rich in references to different cultures, and totally gripping in its depiction of the panic when they operated on the Sister. Generally the later American sections were less powerful than those set in Ethiopia.

The plot, and in particular the use of coincidence and the neatness of the ending, attracted criticism from some. Others liked the overall coming of age structure of the book, the way in which the twins and other characters influenced the lives of each others, and how external events affected them all. Perhaps you needed to cut the author a bit of slack on plotting given the type of novel he was writing.

And it was a pleasure to see another Indian author writing an expansive, compassionate, ebullient, self-confident novel, at a time when so many British writers were writing cramped and overly self-conscious works.

Yours truly felt he had done quite well to record all this high-flown stuff, and was just dropping off for another well-earned and well-sedated snooze, when rudely awakened by laughter.

 “Everybody says that the Ecstasy of St. Theresa is an orgasmic pose!”

 Run that by me again???!……

 And Ethiopian Airlines are the best, despite the odd hijacking!

 No, I must have been dreaming….


Marcotti, Gabrielle and Vialli, Gianluca: The Italian Job

Introducing the book, the proposer said that – although he was indeed a Chelsea fan – he had chosen it because it was an unusually intelligent and thought–provoking book about football. It was very different from the standard “kiss and tell” fare. The book had been one of the nominations for Sports Book of the Year in 2006.

Vialli came from an affluent and educated Italian background. As Vialli noted, such a background was almost unheard of amongst English footballers. That footballers came exclusively from the working classes in England had important implications – such as the reluctance amongst English teams to consider tactics seriously, and their approach to training.

His whole approach was refreshing, for example in his empirical approach to issues. Rather than simply discuss the impact of climate on English versus Italian football, he examined the statistics, showing that the key difference is not in temperature or in rainfall, but in the wind.

The historian A. J. P. Taylor liked to begin lectures by saying that:

“As good historians we should not use generalisations about nationalities ……if it were not for the strange fact that they are all true”

Vialli was particularly interesting in similar vein as he wrestled to define the national/cultural/attitudinal differences between England and Italy in relation to football.

He identified that English managers were less intellectual because of their working class background. He put his finger on the English habit of selecting “celebrity” managers whose fame lay in their playing skill, not in their managerial qualifications and experience. Vialli recognised that he himself fell into this category when appointed at Chelsea – an appointment which had astonished Italians, but not English.

An interesting issue for the proposer – (and for the largely Scottish group he addressed, although it included some representation of both English and Italian interests) – was where Scottish managers fitted into this schema. Vialli treated Scottish managers in the Premiership as essentially English, but also notes that the number of “foreign managers” of the top English teams was even higher if the Scots such as Ferguson and Moyes were classified as foreign. But the proposer put forward for discussion the thesis that Scottish managers fell somewhere between the English and the Italian managers, as they came from a working class background that put more emphasis on thinking skills. This might explain their disproportionate success in England.

And there were all sorts of other interesting ideas and suggestions in the book, for example about the media and the rules.

While the book was written in an engaging way, what marked it out was the unusual range and depth of thought, and he invited the group to focus on the issues that were raised in the book.

And, in a manner totally unprecedented for the Monthly Book Group, the team pursued the proferred ball relentlessly, without pause for diversion or amusement, and not even playing the man instead of the ball. (Is there any subject other than football which would generate such sustained concentration and serious debate amongst Scots? Certainly not money, last month….)

The opening phase saw some pretty play around the book as a whole. “Tremendous, really interesting”. “One of these books that will forever change the way I see certain things”. Even for a non-football-fanatic (yes, there was one) the book had proved quite interesting, although frustrating in having an index but no contents section. However, kicking the ball back to the centre, it was a pity that his early empirical method deteriorated into assertion backed up by selective quotation. The second half of the book was weaker than the first, as he rushed to squeeze in extra topics.

Was the book aimed at England or Italy? We assumed England, as there was no evidence it had been published in Italy. And the subtext – disguised by Vialli’s tact and charm – was the question of why the English (particularly the English national team and English managers) were less successful than they expected to be. At the time of the meeting, the top eight clubs in the English Premiership were managed by managers who were not English.

Vialli’s co-author – Gabrielle Marcotti – was a journalist. Was his role simply that of polishing the ideas into prose, or were they in fact Marcotti’s ideas and research promoted with Vialli’s name? The introduction said they had done the research jointly, and – nutmeg! – if you had listened to the recent Times podcast with Vialli, it was clear that he had the intellect and ideas sufficient to have played the lead role in the book.

The next phase of play raged around the managers. One Hibs aficionado was less than convinced by the theory that experience was the key. There was a trade-off between the dynamism and energy of youth, and the experience of age. Bobby Williamson had fared badly at Hibs, while Alex Miller had done much better during his ten-year stay, but had stayed too long. (However, Miller had admittedly gone on to an important role as assistant at Liverpool). On the other hand, countered another fan of the green, John Collins might have had coaching qualifications, but was a “celebrity” appointment with no managerial experience, which compared badly with the managerial apprenticeship served by Paatalainen. And McLeish and Turnbull had both benefited from their managerial apprenticeships, as, classically, had Ferguson.

But – nowadays – Ferguson would never be left so long in place at Manchester when unsuccessful early on. And was Fergie really – as Vialli suggested – a man of reason and logic rather than passion, whereas paradoxically Wenger was a man of passion rather than reason? We weren’t too convinced, particularly when told the uncensored story –red card! – of why the boot had been thrown at Beckham. On the other hand, it was remarkable that Fergie had taken his coaching qualifications while a young player, and that the reason he gave for not taking press conferences in England was that he was never asked about tactics. And how polite Vialli was about the managers he interviewed. Could this modest and diplomatic person emerging from the pages really be Mourinho? Or was this more Italian tact…

Play now switched into the penalty box of national stereotypes. Given the stereotype of Italians as fun-loving but with a chaotic public sector, the book’s image of Italian footballers – obsessed with tactics, superbly organised, and finding no joy at all in football – was totally contrary to prejudice. Perhaps our stereotype was of the south, with Italians of the north different people? But the Mafia is another lethally efficient organisation…and do the wrong people get into government positions? Penalty!

There was general support for the view that the Scottish working class have more of an interest in ideas than their English counterparts, with the self-improvement tradition of the “lad o’pairts”, and the higher participation rate in universities. The English – two-footed tackle! – had a distinctively anti-intellectual tradition. Where else would you find a phrase such as “too clever by half”? This might indeed explain why Scottish managers adapted more easily than English to the study of tactics.

Another side to the Scottish working class tradition which might be helpful in this context was the propensity to argument and dissent, or discussion as Scots would see it, and to challenging received wisdom (such as four-four-two) The English perceived this as personal in a way the Scots did not. This difference in attitude to debate on could be seen simply by going into pubs on different sides of the border, where in England conversation would be uncontroversial but any Scottish pub would be full of heated dispute about ideas. So, yes, – goal! – we agreed with the proposer that Scottish football managers were more intellectual than their English counterparts.

Perhaps that argumentative trait was also associated with the Scottish propensity to invent, just endorsed by a comparative study of universities. But, added one disputatiously, Scots had not been particularly individualistic or challenging in the military context. And the English were more confident in speaking at meetings.

Were skill levels going up or down? 40 years ago, the Scottish team could boast the skills of players such as Johnstone, Law and Baxter, but there was nobody comparable now. Was this skill gap because of the loss of the freedom to play in the street and the park, that had developed the “tanner ba” skills? Or was it competition from other pastimes, or poor training? On the other hand, most of the Scottish teams with great flair players in the past had underachieved because of a lack of team organisation. The Germans were the example of a team with little flair but great organisation, which thus overachieved.

One of our number (displaying a particularly analytical bent – could there be Italian influence?) had been sufficiently intrigued by Vialli’s quadrilaterals for evaluating players to attempt some himself. The scores are reproduced below (the Blogger software not accepting the graphs!) The scores are out of 20 for technique (T), and out of 10 for each of intelligence (I), athleticism (A) and “balls” (B):

Rooney – T 17; I 8; A 8; B 9

Ronaldhino – T 18; I 8; A 5; B 7

Paatalainen – T 10; I 9; A 7; B 9

Vialli’s point about the lack of tactical awareness in England was well borne out by the English media. They could not appreciate a tactical battle, and dismissed such games – for example the recent Chelsea/Spurs Carling Cup Final – as “boring”. Even journalists in the “quality” press would seek to demonstrate their superior literary skills, not their tactical awareness, in what they wrote. In the build-up to a game such as that night’s Falkirk/Hibernian match, the press would write up some personal interest story in terms of childish clichés. They would not focus on the key tactical issue of the formation that the Hibs midfield might play to counter the superior physical strength of Falkirk. A team such as Hibs would benefit from a more intelligent press, and more serious scrutiny. It was not easy for journalists, though, as the number of journalists had remained constant in recent years while their output had had to increase.

On the other hand, the growth of fans’ websites meant more serious tactical analysis was getting an airing. This paralleled Vialli’s point that fans – when represented through trusts on football boards – acted more sensibly than most directors on financial matters. Indeed one of the many refreshing aspects of the book was the way he empathised with – and analysed – the fans’ viewpoint. He deplored the reduction in attendances in Italy, which he convincingly attributed to unwise policies on televising matches. We noted some Italian attendances were extraordinarily low, compared say to the big attendances in Germany.

Vialli was also particularly interesting on how the role of public authorities in stadium-building in Italy had been damaging to fans’ interests. For example the authorities insisted on multi-use stadia with running tracks which wrecked the atmosphere, and focussed on how the stadium looked externally, instead of how it functioned for the football spectator. This was a healthy counterblast to the British accepted wisdom that the Italian tradition of local authorities owning football grounds was superior.

 Vialli correctly noted that the English Premiership, backed by television, had now become the most commercially successful in the world, and thus attracted the best players. However, he did not analyse why that was so – given that for a while first the Italian then the Spanish leagues had held that position – or consider if it would continue. Was it possible that the English tradition he identified – with its excitement, the emphasis on the game’s narrative rather than tactics, the emphasis on effort and never-say-die heroics rather than skill and percentage calls – was a key factor in this? Or was it post-Thatcherite superior skill in selling the product? It was particularly intriguing how he identified that English teams with a foreign manager and no English players still felt themselves being sucked into the English culture of play.

 We also debated why English teams had so often in recent years fallen at the last hurdle in the Champions’ league. Was it, as widely argued, exhaustion after their over-full season? Or was it that they did not have sufficient tactical guile when examined at the highest level? Vialli’s point about the Italian reverence for tactics compared to British passion was only too cruelly illustrated by the way an overly pumped up Scotland had fallen at the last hurdle to a coolly efficient Italy at Hampden in Euro 2008.

 Yet another stimulating aspect of the book was his analysis of the distribution of television money in England and Italy, and the way it had helped concentrate success in a small number of top clubs. If he had looked at Scotland, he would have seen an even more starkly skewed distribution of TV money, and an even smaller number of clubs with a realistic chance of winning the league. But there was an issue he did not bring out, which was that of interdependence. The top clubs did not seem to recognise that they were dependent on the other clubs for their success, and that their greed in the distribution of gate and TV money might imperil rather than enhance their own success.

 And so the MBG team kicked on, weaving with consummate artistry between topic, insight and prejudice. With the ball of relevance firmly glued to their boots, they paused only briefly to take in the news of Hibs 2-0 victory v Falkirk, and attribute it to a more tactically aware manager, and diverted from football only once – to the inaugural Indian Premier League Twenty20 cricket. Cricket – “that game for Indians invented in England” – irrelevant? Not at all – the huge sums of cash being paid to buy up top players for the Indian league was also being characterised as an omen for the future of football by the Manchester United fanzine published a week later.

 They were just getting stuck into the Rooney v Ronaldo debate (effort v skill? But Man U never lost when Rooney played….) when your scribe finally had to feign a wrist injury to bring the match to an end. Small knots of players emerged blinking into the Edinburgh dawn, arguing about (sorry, discussing) the wisdom of appointing an Italian as England manager, the real intentions of Romanov, the use of video evidence, undue influence on referees…..

Voltaire: Candide

“Candide” was the first book the proposer read in French, and he went on to study French literature at university and specialise on eighteenth century writers such as the “philosophes” Rousseau, Diderot and Voltaire.

Voltaire lived from 1694-1778. He wrote a massive amount of other work, including an epic poem based on the Odyssey, and tragedies in Shakespearean mode, which were more original than those of Corneille and Racine. He was a true polymath, and it was remarkable that he was only really now remembered for the “Candide”. Even other “contes” in similar vein, such as “Zadig”, have been forgotten.

Voltaire saw himself as a satirical poet, and as a result of his satire was frequently in trouble with the authorities. He was a very destructive critic in his writings – he preached tolerance, but did not practise it. In 1717 he was imprisoned for a year in the Bastille for a satire on the government, and in 1726 he went in exile for 3 years to England. Here he was influenced by the ideas of Locke, Newton, and Shaftesbury, and he met Swift (who published “Gulliver’s Travels” in 1726), Gay, Pope and Berkeley.

On his return from England he wrote his ““Lettres Philosophiques” praising English customs and institutions. This was interpreted as further criticism of the French Government, and led to a further exile, this time in the French countryside with his friend the Marquise du Chatelet.

In 1749, after her death, he moved to Prussia at the invitation of Frederick the Great, who wished to be his friend. Voltaire had been upset by Frederick’s invasion of Silesia, and very much wished to influence a despot to become an enlightened despot. (“The best government is a benevolent tyranny tempered by an occasional assassination”). However, he found there were too many others at the court, and he was upset to overhear Frederick comparing him to an orange – he would put up with Voltaire for a year, suck all that was useful out of him, then spit him out. In 1753 he returned to France.

By the time he published “Candide ou l’Optimisme” in 1759, Europe was 3 years into the Seven Years War. It was also 3 years after the Lisbon earthquake, and 2 years after Admiral John Byng had been executed by the British for failing to “do his utmost” at the Battle of Minorca – “pour encourager les autres”, in Voltaire’s phrase. All these events are reflected in the book.

The Eighteenth century in France was the century of the “philosophes”, a group of philosophers who believed in reason and tolerance. Many were critical of organised religion, although they tended to be theists or deists (like Voltaire) rather than atheists (Diderot was an exception as an atheist). A deist derives the existence of God from reason and personal experience, rather than from divine revelation or holy books. Some believed in a watchmaker type god – an incomprehensibly intelligent being who created the universe and then left it to its own devices.

One issue posed by Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) had been how you accounted for evil in a world created by God. Did man have free will or was there was an evil being in the Universe? If there were an evil being, why did God not destroy it if he were omnipotent? Or was the evil of nearly equal power – the Manichean heresy?

Against this background, the German philosopher Liebniz (1646-1716) had tried to justify the imperfections of the world by saying it was the optimal among all possible worlds. It must be the best possible and most balanced world, because it was created by a perfect God. This is the view parodied in “Candide” by having Pangloss repeat endlessly that “we live in the best of all possible worlds” in the face of endless evidence to the contrary. However, Voltaire had distorted Liebniz’ philosophy for his satirical purposes – the facile optimism attacked was more that of Alexander Pope. (We noted that – given that Liebniz had been brilliant enough to discover calculus independently of Newton, to discover the binary system and anticipate a whole host of scientific discoveries – it would have been pretty strange if he had held views as simplistic as those of Pangloss).

What then did we make of the book as a book? It had a very modern, timeless feel – the timelessness of a fable. And themes such as the corruption of the clergy were very contemporary.

It displayed a very modern, deadpan sense of humour – and some found it wickedly funny, although others only moderately so. The book was like an amalgam of a philosophical text and “Private Eye”, with potshots being taken at everyone. There was no real flow to the plot, and the characters did not develop: they were types or caricatures rather than individuals, as in a political cartoon. Indeed much of it was written in the sort of sound-bites that would suit a cartoon.

Much of the humour was bawdy, of a “nudge, nudge” kind – such as the wonderful scene where Cunegonde spots

“Dr Pangloss in the thickets giving a lesson in experimental physics to her mother’s chambermaid, a very pretty and very docile little brunette”

Although the critics tended not to focus on the bawdiness, it must be one of the reasons for the book retaining its popularity.

Another was the simplicity of the language, which added to its charm, and the speed at which the story moved. He included a lot in a very small compass. In a number of ways Voltaire had been influenced by the satires of Swift, but a quick comparison one member had made with “A Modest Proposal” showed that Voltaire’s lapidary and economical use of language was quite distinct.

It was intriguing to reflect that a world journey today similar to that of Candide’s could encounter just as many shocks and horrors, such as visiting Iraq and Afghanistan, or Sudan, where a teacher had just been imprisoned for calling a teddy bear Mohammed.

The book, which was published anonymously, must have been viewed as scandalous and outrageous at the time, for example with its endless attacks on the clergy. Even Pangloss’ pox, acquired from the docile brunette, was acquired by her from a Jesuit monk.

Every established institution was attacked. For some this was a disappointment – he knocked everything down, and seemed to have nothing positive to assert in its place. It was a deeply pessimistic book. His caustic nature must have made him an unpleasant companion to spend a long time with – it was not surprising that Frederick the Great wanted rid of him! When he wrote “Candide” he was feeling very bitter – he was living in exile, not having been to the French court for ten years.

Voltaire was often pursuing a personal agenda against specific people in his satire. Occasionally this became too apparent and the humour was lost – as for example with the passage about Lord Pococurante, the cynical critic. However, it was surprising that his story still read so well when all the topical targets had been forgotten – the same could not be said of many other satires, such as Pope’s tedious “The Dunciad”.

We focussed on two areas of the book where there was no critical consensus about their meaning – the Eldorado episode and the enigmatic ending (“il faut cultiver notre jardin”).

Why did Candide leave Eldorado– given that it seemed to be the best of all possible worlds? Ostensibly it was to pursue Cunegonde, but perhaps there were deeper reasons. Was it because – as David Byrne sang – “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens”? Was boredom the real reason, and escaping boredom an even stronger motive than the greed that would be satisfied by staying? Was it therefore a hypothesis test – would you really like a perfect world? – and thus a satire of a “golden” age. After all, in Browning’s phrase, “man’s reach should exceed his grasp”. Boredom was a theme of importance to Voltaire – at the end in the garden scene, he talks of the three great evils of “boredom, vice and need”.

A more prosaic view was that Eldorado was introduced in imitation of Swift’s fictional lands in Gulliver, and that the main reason for Candide leaving was not to prove a philosophical point or reflect a deep psychological motive, but simply to move the plot on.

Eldorado did undoubtedly serve Voltaire’s satirical purposes, as it was a happy land without priests or lawyers. The people of Eldorado were deists like Voltaire himself (“I cannot imagine the clockwork of the world existing without a clockmaker”), believing in God but not having the apparatus of an established church, such as priests and monks. The story line about Candide after leaving Eldorado also demonstrated that wealth did not bring happiness, and gave Candide plenty of opportunities to demonstrate his gullible good faith as he gave away his wealth.

But what of the ending? We could reach no consensus here. Perhaps it was optimistic in a sense? Candide had committed a sin, but found peace in the end. Cunegonde might have become ugly, but her pastry was good!

Was “cultivating our garden” a selfish withdrawal from the world? Voltaire himself was inclined to withdraw to the country at moments of stress in his life.

Or alternatively did it mean that we must try to improve the world? Was he not still attacking the philosophy of the best of all possible worlds – which was a fatalistic philosophy of inaction? From this viewpoint cultivating your garden meant you must work harder at improving things.

Yet surely gardening was exactly a philosophy of inaction? Well, Voltaire was very keen on gardening! Though he was not suggesting we all take up horticulture – the question was what he meant by the image of the garden.

A different perspective was that it meant there was a need to compromise. He needed a punch line for his ending, and it was a diminution of aspiration. Perhaps it was advice to the young – settle for what you are in the end.

Or was it a mistake to put much significance on the ending, particularly if after 250 years nobody could agree what it meant – didn’t the story simply run out of steam, and he had to end it somehow? It was an easy way to end it – tranquil old age. Voltaire’s tale was essentially a work of satire rather than a work of philosophy. The philosophy it attacked was distorted to make it a better target. Leibniz’ philosophy may have been the piece of grit that caused the growth of the pearl, but Candide’s enduring value was as a piece of literature, not a work of philosophy, and that was how it should be assessed.

Reaching no agreement on gardening, this group of Edinburgh philosophes, no doubt stimulated by the sea breezes, moved on to weightier issues.

What about the woman who had her buttock cut off? And what about the two ladies with monkeys as lovers? Examples of him taking every possibility to be outrageous.

Why did he stress the monkeys’ similarities to humans? Did he reject the conventional eighteenth century “Great Chain of Being” in favour of some early version of evolution? Pass. But he did have an impact on evolutionary science in the naming of the “Panglossian Paradigm” – the belief until recently that every feature of humans was perfectly adapted to life on earth, as opposed to being a relic or the consequence of a different adaptation.

Precedents for the book? In English “Gulliver’s Travels”, most obviously, and possibly “The Pilgrim’s Progress”. The picaresque novel, which started in Spain at the end of the sixteenth century, had imitators across Europe, including Fielding and Smollet in Britain.

Modern equivalents? One member was strongly reminded of the “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” – which also includes such elements as Eldorado, mice, and getting rid of lawyers. Another timeless fable was “Animal Farm”.

Any other book as short as this which had had an equivalent impact? “Hamlet” or “Macbeth”.

At this point, the group discussed the derivation of the names of the characters. As these alternated between the obscure and the obscene, your scribe chose this moment to close his book, and devote his attention to a fine French wine.