Anthony Doerr presented slides at his lecture of the compound eye of a common housefly, the million mile journey of the arctic tern, and childhood photos in his mother’s garden. He had little success on the baseball field, but he did learn the difference between impatiens, vincas, and petunias, and just how much shade and water each needed. His mother was a scientist and gardener who imparted in him a gift of wonder, the miracle in the everyday, in the everywhere, which we often take for granted, a gift he shared with us.
Doerr spoke to our sold-out literary luncheon and had the audience in stitches with his circuitous journey becoming a writer, his run-ins with the ‘intrepid and matronly’ college dean, a rather ‘severe’ woman who explained the finer points of an academic major, an idea he rejected because of his broad appetite for knowledge. Ms. Intrepid, we’ll call her, chastised him further, suggesting such folly and distraction would be ruinous. The tables erupted with laughter when he clicked to the next slide, the definition the dean suggested he learn after she asked if he ever heard of the word dilettante.
dilettante – a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge. Dabbler. Amateur.
His parents felt some concern as well, when after his graduation he skied the slopes of Telluride for months, earning his keep as a fryer at the local tavern. Meanwhile, his older brother graduated from M.I.T. and finished his PHD in physics or some other respectable field.
THE PLOT AND STRUCTURE
Doerr spoke about his book All the Light We Cannot See which was published in 2014 and earned the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year, a work spanning ten years of research and writing. The story follows two characters during WWII, a blind French girl Marie Laure and a German boy Werner, weaving back and forth in time and point of view, the lives ultimately crossing in a plot climax in Book 9; there are 13 Books or sections spanning the 1930s to 2014. The structure is the hardest part of reading the novel, but with chapters little more than a few pages long, it grabs the attention quickly. The welcome white space gives readers a rest and time to think about the words and the scenes.
It’s worth your time and patience. I dislike serial points of view and time changes, but Doerr got me on page 19 with the story within a story about the Sea of Flames, a famous or infamous jewel with its own legend and curse. His words are beautiful, easy to read, and precise.
Doerr’s a plotter, but in a good way; like an orb weaver, he spins his story, drawing the reader into his web, its glistening symmetry as gorgeous as it is haunting.
Werner is chosen for the elite military ranks in Nazi Germany, because he is a mechanical genius. He is not the stereotype of a strong ruddy Hitler Youth, but diminutive in size with shocking white hair. His facility with radios helps pinpoint the resistance in Nazi Germany. It also helps him escape a life in the mines, a fate which awaits all teenage boys in his town.
Marie Laure is blind and lives in Paris but is forced to leave with her father who is a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. He has built her a city in miniature so she can feel the town’s layout. Each year on her birthday, he builds a puzzle she must open and inside she finds a treat or a gift. He also buys her books in braille. They move in with her uncle in St. Malo when Nazi forces occupy Paris.
Frederick attends military training with Werner and he is soft-spoken naturalist, a bird-watcher who hides Audubon books at home because he’s not supposed to have them. He does not toe the line as the other cadets at military school who mimic the propaganda, blindly following commands. When asked who is the weakest member of the corps, a cadet points to Frederick. The schoolmaster Bastian continues.
Frederick squints at the sky.
Bastian says, “Cadet, are you the weakest?”
“I don’t not know, sir.”
“You do not know?” A pause. Into Bastian’s face flows an undercurrent of antagonism. “Look at me when you speak.”
“Some people are weak in some ways, sir. Others in other ways.”
The commandant’s lips thin and his eyes narrow and an expression of slow and intense malice rises in his face. (Book 3, Weakest (#2), p. 193)
Frederick can barely stand when they are done with him and this seals his fate. The weakest don’t survive because “the nothings, the nobodies — they die easy.”
Werner develops a conscience and Frederick is part of the reason why.
******** SPOILER ALERT ********
Frederick commits his final sin against the cadre and one of the story’s heroic acts in Book 5. The cadets are “roused from their beds” at 2:00 AM one February morning to witness a “skeletal man in mismatched shoes” tied to a stake that has been driven into the snow.
Everyone cranes to see. The prisoner’s ankles are cuffed and his arms bound from wrists to forearms. His thin shirt has split at the seams and he gazes into some middle distance with hypothermic slackness. He looks Polish. Russian, maybe. Despite his fetters, he manages to sway lightly back and forth.
Bastian says, “This man escaped from work camp. Tried to violate a farmhouse and steal a liter of fresh milk.
Buckets are filled with water. The schoolmaster explains that “everyone will file past and soak the prisoner with a bucket of water. Every man in the school.”
It’s a disturbing, heart wrenching scene written with precision. You can see it coming right? Werner knows what Frederick is going to do.
Instructors toss the water from the buckets at the prisoner; cadets cheer. The upperclassman go next, then Werner, who throws water like all the others do. But Frederick does not cheer. He frowns. It’s his turn.
Frederick pours it out on the ground.
Bastian step forward. His face flares scarlet in the cold. “Give him another.”
Again Frederick sloshes it onto the ice at his feet. He says in a small voice. “He is already finished, sir.”
The upperclassman hands over a third pail. “Throw it,” commands Bastian. The night steams, the stars burn, the prisoner sways, the boys watch, the commandant tilts his head. Frederick pours the water onto the ground. “I will not.” (Prisoner, p. 229)
After this, Werner can no longer run or hide or pretend what he’s doing is just science, math, radios. What is right? What is wrong? His path crosses Marie’s in St. Malo and by the end of Book 10, he must choose.
All your life you wait, and then it finally comes, and are you ready? (Comrades, p .465)
Light and darkness are central themes. The novel’s title is literal and figurative because Marie and Werner, blind and sighted, are moral opposites. Marie may not have eyes to see, but she sees better than most, better than Werner. He struggles to see the truth and it is through Marie’s extraordinary vision and depth of understanding that he begins to see. He hears her on the radio, her voice, her reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea from her braille text, her plea for help. They, like so many people in WWII, are suffering, struggling to escape the darkness of the holocaust, the bombs, the killing, death.
Science and technology’s effect on the human condition, such as the use of radio during the war, plays a powerful role throughout the novel, good and bad. Radio technology brings survival but it also brings death. Visible light on the electromagnetic wave spectrum is a very small part of the expansive and infinite light spectrum, from radio waves through gamma rays, most undetectable to the human eye, but no less important in 1944 than today.
All the light we cannot see is there, was there, in the character’s lives, in history. The radio transmissions which connect Werner to Marie are the brightest part of his life, sustaining him in his darkest hours.
THE PRIZE – a Study in Contrasts
In person, Doerr was a delight, self-deprecating, funny, insightful, brilliant. He laughed at himself and we laughed with him. Listening to his lecture gave the book added dimension; here was a father, a scientist, a researcher, a wordsmith. When I asked him about the genesis of his story the Sea of Flames, he explained he drew from lore about the Hope Diamond and the Delhi Sapphire, that the stone symbolized faith, the intense feelings often contradicting our rational side.
Does this story and the bigger story of the novel reach the level of greatness worthy of a Pulitzer?
Last year’s Pulitzer winner, Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch, failed on multiple levels. The arc of any great story ultimately takes us somewhere: the character changes, the problem is resolved. Goldfinch is a study of victims and darkness, a protagonist who never rises above his circumstances. (Goldfinch – Spew-litzer Prize Study in Victimology) At the end, I felt empty, dissatisfied. All the Light We Cannot See, despite a more harrowing and horrific period in human history, is a study of darkness but not without its attendant light and goodness. There is truth and awe and decency, even in our most desperate moments.
After a decade of research and writing, Doerr, the storyteller and craftsman of words, closed his lecture with optimism and belief in our own light. His last word, like his passion and energy on the dais, rings clearly still.