Pfitz and Mr Mee

by Andrew Crumey

Talk given at the Moscow Non/Fic book Fair, November 2002

Pfitz and Mr Mee are both comedies, both have their roots in the 18th century, and both have attracted the label "postmodernist".

Pfitz is about a German prince's mad scheme to create an imaginary city, complete with plans of its buildings, and biographies of its inhabitants. The plucky servant Pfitz turns up among the fictional citizens as a kind of interloper.

Mr Mee is an elderly bibliophile in present-day Scotland, hunting for a lost 18th-century book called Rosier's Encyclopaedia. He uses the Internet for help, and in this way - at the age of 86 -discovers sex and drugs, though not the elusive encyclopaedia.

Leaving the comic aspects aside, both books are about knowledge. In Pfitz, the imaginary city has at its centre a museum structured according to the Encyclopedie of Diderot and D'Alembert. In Mr Mee, Rosier's Encyclopaedia is filled with bizarre and irrational theories, proposing an 18th-century version of quantum mechanics.

How did I come to write these books? The same way I write all my novels. I begin with many little pieces that appear self-contained. Then I ask myself, how are these little pieces connected? The woman in one, for instance, might be the narrator of another. In that way, a plot develops. I know these connections must exist - after all, everything has come out of my own head, inspired by a limited stock of obsessions. In fact, the difficult part is choosing the best connections, and discarding the rest. So my work always goes through many completely different versions, until I arrive at one that I like.

What are my obsessions? The usual ones, mostly; but also one or two that maybe don't trouble most people. I'm a theoretical physicist by training, and a great moment occurred in my life when I first learned about Hugh Everett's theory of relative states, now called the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Its popular version says that whenever you roll a dice, six separate universes come into being, though for some reason you only perceive one of them. I later rediscovered Everett's theory in the Borges story The Garden Of Forking Paths, and in Leibniz's possible worlds. But the deeper impulse behind Everett's theory was the crisis between randomness and determinism, chance and necessity, which quantum theory posed. I would say that Everett's idea has perhaps influenced my own thinking, as much as Darwin's natural selection upset the thoughts of nineteenth century people. Certainly, many consider the two ideas to be of equal rank.

If we reduce it to the domain of the moral and the emotional - which is where much of the overt action of any novel takes place - we are left with the conflict between the necessary and the contingent, and the issue of whether free will exists.

Diderot wrote about this in Jacques The Fatalist. His Jacques is a philosophically-minded servant who believes everything is "written up above". My servant Pfitz is the opposite of Diderot's - everything, says Pfitz, is a matter of chance.

Stylistically, my novel Pfitz owes much to Diderot. It is on account of my debt to this 18th-century writer - unnoticed by any reviewer when the novel was published - that I am called a "postmodernist". Diderot was indeed a postmodernist writer - his work embodies the characteristics of irony, meta-narrative, bricollage and so on; all of which Diderot learned from Sterne and Cervantes, who were his conscious models for Jacques The Fatalist.

I am a postmodernist, therefore, to the same extent that Cervantes, Sterne and Diderot were - not to mention ETA Hoffman, who is another important influence on Pfitz. Of course, postmodernism is not only a literary style, it is also a philosophical position. My character Pfitz - just like Sancho Panza - is aware of the possibility that he is nothing more than a character in a story. Do we conclude that we ourselves might be characters in a story, or in a cosmic computer simulation? No - a simpler conclusion is that Don Quixote and Pfitz are works of fiction.

Both Pfitz and Mr Mee consist of several over-lapping stories. In Mr Mee these are three in number, and they alternate quite strictly. There is the story of Mr Mee and his search for Rosier's Encyclopaedia. Then there is a parallel story set in the eighteenth century, about two copyists entrusted with Rosier's manuscript. Finally there is the present-day confessional narrative of a love-sick academic who has previously attempted to discover the true identity of these copysits.

The copyists owe much to Flaubert's Bouvard and Pecuchet, not to mention Laurel and Hardy; but in Mr Mee they are called Ferrand and Minard. These names are real: they appear in Rousseau's Confessions. Ferrand and Minard were Rousseau's neighbours in Montmorency, and since they claimed to be friends of Rousseau's enemy (and Diderot's collaborator) Jean le Rond D'Alembert, Rousseau thought they were spying on him. My novel Mr Mee invents their story: a light farce, whose theoretical underpinning remains well hidden. In Britain, a sense of humour is important if you want to write a "novel of ideas", but don't want to be called a clever-dick.

In Rousseau and Diderot, we have two opposite literary poles. Rousseau's Confessions inaugurated the era that sees personal experience as the core of literature, with the "genius" and originality of the artist held as paramount. Rousseau often pointed out how unprecedented he was as a writer; while Diderot happily modelled his work on earlier artists, which was still the prevailing view of how art should be done.

Between the two, I prefer Diderot. We have had two and a half centuries of confessions, reminiscences, sobs and emotional manifestos. There is still room for many more: I have no objection to the genre. But I have no experiences to offer the world, that have not been stated better elsewhere. I have lived a quiet, uneventful and extremely happy life, and hope to go on doing so. If I am to astonish and delight my readers, I must use other material; such as the astonishment I myself felt, when I first became aware, thanks to physics, that the reality we think we perceive is maybe not the whole story.

©Andrew Crumey