Thursday, 29 November 2007

Henry Perowne, Henri Pirenne, Jane Jacobs, and the Middle Eastern Wars

Reading Jane Jacobs can lead you many places, but I never expected her Dark Age Ahead to take me to a possible solution to a literary problem that has been bothering me since last spring when the Atwater Library book discussion group I lead read Saturday by Ian McEwan.

Henry Perowne is the hero of the novel which takes place February 15, 2003, the day of international protest against the approaching war in Iraq. As he wakes early that morning he sees a plane in flames approaching Heathrow Airport, and the vision shadows everything that happens to him. In the end he and his family survive an attack as the world readies for war. It is a gripping tale, full of incident with many interesting things to say about life and, not incidentally, literature.

McEwan seems to have very carefully worked out the details of the book. Even the poem which saves his daughter from rape and worse—"Dover Beach" by Mathew Arnold—appears chosen for its message as well as its popularity. But the hero’s name stands out for its absence of significance. How strange, I thought at the time, annoyed that it seemed to resonate with something which I couldn’t put my finger on. I even spent a couple of hours trying possible permutations of the letters in Henry Perowne to see if I could come up with an interesting anagram.

No luck.

But then in rereading the Jacobs book, I came across her discussion of Henri Pirenne, (1862-1935) a Belgian historian and Orientalist. He is best known, it seems for the Pirenne Thesis which argues that the ancient world ended and the Middle Ages began following the establishment of Muslim control over the Mediterranean Sea.

According to Pirenne, Jacobs writes, that Dark Age started to move toward light when the “ poor, backward European cities...began trading with one another again and, indirectly through Venice, with the Middle East and Asia.” This, of course, falls right in with Jacobs’s thoughts about the economies of cities, but it also has interesting resonances with what is happening now. Is our current increased awareness of what is going on in the Muslim world an end or a beginning?

I have been trying to find a forum on which to ask McEwan if the choice of Perowne’s name is one of those symbols writers sometimes drop into their work for their own pleasure, or if it is pure coincidence. The former I suspect, and if I find out I’ll let you know.

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