An age-old problem

20 August 2016

9:00 AM

20 August 2016

9:00 AM

With a title like A Beautiful Young Wife, this is of course about the decline of an older husband. Professor Edward Landauer, virologist in avian flu at Utrecht University, sees Ruth Walta’s bottom passing on a bicycle and knows she must be his. Full of autumnal entitlement, at 15 years her senior even Edward is surprised when this vegetarian PhD student of sociology loves him back. They marry. But with time, incompatible ideas — about vivisection, interior decoration and the meaning of human good — drive Edward to a public bathroom and into the arms of his colleague, Marjolein. As a regular at any coffee shop in a university town you may well overhear a story like it, invariably soliciting the same response: ‘How predictable.’

It is testament to Wieringa’s perfectly dosed prose (translated with elegance by Sam Garrett) and unfaltering narrative control that Edward’s story flirts with banality, but this seems only to intensify its emotional effect. The marriage’s downfall — as inevitable as the flow of ‘water to the lowest point’ — is accented by the age-old conflict of empirical rationality set against softer intuition. When a young Edward read Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he chose a career in microbiology, ambitious to ‘practise science by feel’. But years of cronyism and Glaxo-SmithKline skiing holidays have anaesthetised him to ethical concerns, and resigned him to believe that scientists merely ‘maintain the status quo’. While more intriguing than Kubrick’s doctor protagonist, Edward too has become estranged from true pleasure and pain. He must suffer to remember how to feel.

We only ever see Ruth through Edward’s eyes, at times whiny, at others nobly sensitive to the experiences of others. As her husband rediscovers his heart, she is afflicted by a new coldness, her kiss becoming merely ‘the movement of one head pushing away the other’. When Morris is born, Ruth watches her fussy son’s troubles as a laboratory researcher might, arriving at the conclusion that it is Edward’s presence causing the baby’s symptoms. Familiar with labelling others as ‘sources of infection’, Edward never considered he might be dismissed in the same way.

Wieringa’s lithe 128 pages fill half an afternoon, but days later the figure of our Job-like hero, weeping at his lecture podium, is an unforgettable warning that both romantic as well as scientific endeavours require empathy and imagination. As Edward’s mother — yet another gentle cliché — used to say: ‘Not everything that counts can be counted.’

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