I’m in the middle stage of writing my next novel which is partly set in a Swiss Tuberculosis (TB) sanatorium in the 1920s. It’s inspired by the physicist, Schrödinger, who visited a TB sanatorium a number of times, the first time when he was actually ill with the disease. It’s not clear why he went there subsequently, but it was during one of those visits that he came up with the wave equation which explained (for the first time) the structure of electrons in an atom.
Because the setting of my story is a TB sanatorium and it’s full of ill people, bodies are important. Bodies will play a leading role in this story, and not just because of Schrödinger’s complicated love life (he didn’t believe in ‘conventional arrangements’ between men and women, as he put it).
Physics tries to get so close to the materiality of the world. It’s able to represent physical properties as numbers and manipulate them in equations, such as the acceleration due to gravity or the expansion of the Universe. But rendering the Universe in a series of symbols – how can anything be more dematerialising?
Perhaps literature is similar in its reliance on language to tell tales. And for some reason, hands seem to be cropping up all over the place in my draft story and its background notes, perhaps because some of the relevant physics became famous as a result of this image:
It shows the hand of Frau Röntgen, taken at the time that her husband discovered x-rays in 1895, and it’s thought to be the first ever x-ray image of a human. The flesh in this image is uncertain and fogged with no distinct edge but the bones are easier to identify. The clearest, hardest-edged aspect to this image are the rings on her wedding finger. Famously, when Frau Röntgen saw this image she remarked, ‘I have seen my own death.’
Thomas Mann must have been aware of this because it’s echoed in ‘The Magic Mountain’. The protagonist, Hans Castorp, visits his sick cousin at a Swiss TB sanatorium and, as one of many ironical flourishes in the story, ends up ill himself. As part of Castorp’s ostensible ‘diagnosis’ (really nothing more than a bit of technological theatre) the doctor x-rays his lungs. During this process Castorp persuades the doctor to let him view his own hand under a device known as a fluoroscope (a real-time x-ray imager) and Mann eloquently writes about Castorp gazing at his bones, both fascinated and appalled; ‘He saw his own grave.’ There’s a stereo effect to this pronouncement, we can hear Frau Röntgen whispering in Castorp’s ear, prompting him. And whispering from beyond the grave, this novel was published in 1924 and she had died in 1919.
‘When I’m carrying out a post mortem,’ a medical friend told me, ‘it’s the hands that freak me out. Because they retain some of the sense of the life lived – this sense that departs from the rest of the body so soon after death. The dirt under the nails, the paler flesh underneath the wedding ring, the calluses from gardening, the cut on the finger from where the vegetable knife slipped, the scars caused by over-playful kittens, all these things remind me forcefully that this body was once – recently – alive and capable of making decisions about the colour of nail polish. Capable of crimping pastry, trimming nasal hair, scribbling addresses on postcards, liberating the flesh of an orange from its close-hugging peel. Hitting the on-off switch.’
Perhaps Röntgen and Mann chose well in their depiction of hands; perhaps hands bridge the gap between life and death more effectively than other parts of the body. And the echo of Röntgen’s experiment in Mann’s fictional tale of the TB sanatorium is akin to a re-rendering of the Universe. A translation into another world of symbols.
Pippa Goldschmidt is the author of a novel The Falling Sky, and a collection of short stories The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space, both published by Freight. Most recently she has co-edited a specially commissioned anthology of short stories and essays to celebrate the forthcoming 100th anniversary of general relativity; I Am Because You Are, also published by Freight.