Simon Mawer’s Mendel’s Dwarf: Event Review

A report by Robert Lloyd on the fifth BookTalk of the 2015/16 season, which took place on 3 May 2016: Simon Mawer’s Mendel’s Dwarf.

Our latest BookTalk event focused on Simon Mawer’s Mendel’s Dwarf, a novel about identity as seen through the lens of genetic research and understanding, and an interrogation of the enormous ramifications that can result from the arrangement of infinitesimal biological material. The evening followed the usual format of three guest speakers and an ever-interesting Q&A session.

Our first speaker was Professor Martin Willis from the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University. Martin began his presentation by asking the audience to consider some of the ways in which literature and science collaborate with each other, and suggested that Mendel’s Dwarf posed a series of questions about the position of science within modern culture. The focus of Martin’s presentation was on the novel’s engagement with genetics, and, more specifically, the ways in which it is configured as a textual phenomenon, as a form of textuality.  In other words, this is a view which sees genetics as the encoding of the book of the human body. Martin suggested that this was not a theme unique to Simon Mawer’s novel; indeed, various literary and cinematic texts have taken up this idea to startling effect, some other examples being Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000) and Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex (2002), as well as Andrew Niccol’s 1998 film Gattaca, which postulates a dark future of genetic modification.

Professor Martin Willis (Cardiff University)

Martin went on to suggest that the opposition between science and literature as conflicting practices is reductive, since scientists and literary writers might have the same endpoint in view – in this instance, a more detailed and nuanced understanding of genetics. What Simon Mawer attempts to do in his novel is to explore some of the ways in which genetics might be understood outside of science, in the everyday experience of its central character, Dr. Benedict Lambert. The text is saturated with science, both in its content and in the manner in which it is written: in its historical sections, the writing is couched as an academic history of science, complete with footnotes and detailed biographical observations on the life and work of Gregor Mendel. Additionally, the novel is a meditation on the philosophy of science, examining the repercussions of genetic knowledge both within and (most significantly) outside the laboratory. And thirdly, the novel is a piece of popular science, with an appeal that extends beyond the narrow expertise of professional or academic geneticists. As a conclusion, Martin focused on a passage in the novel in which Benedict describes the search for a single gene as analogous to the search for an individual murderer in a city of potential suspects. In writing this section, Mawer draws a connection between an individual gene and crime, and Martin asked the audience to consider the meanings and potential consequences that might emerge from such a comparison.

Professor Angus Clarke from the Cardiff Institute of Cancer & Genetics gave the second presentation. After an overview of the most interesting and salient sections of the novel, he addressed the great ‘What If?’ question about what might have happened if Charles Darwin had properly engaged with Gregor Mendel’s work, and the insights such an interaction might have precipitated. Angus then moved on to discuss the various ways in which people react to disability. For some, it inspires feelings of schadenfreude, an attitude which finds gratification in the deplorable displays of the traditional Freak Show, whilst others express gratitude about their own lack of disability.

Professor Angus Clarke (Cardiff University)

Angus then proceeded to talk about some of the arguments involved in discussions about genetics and the possible procedures or practices that emerge as part of the debate about the (mis)uses of scientific knowledge. One of these is the expressionist objection to antennal screening, which is framed as an objection to society’s judgement that people with certain conditions should not be born. Angus suggested that the pressure society might place on people in this position could be huge, but that it was also important to understand the pressures that come from within the family of a person with a disability. In an interview with an affected male, the interviewee expressed real sadness at the thought that his daughter might not have a child because of the possibility that they might end up like him. Angus concluded his presentation by asking who makes the decisions about reproduction in such situations: Someone who is already affected? The parents of an affected individual? A female carrier? There are a series of conflicting perspectives and positions which underpin any such decision, but the self-esteem of affected individuals always plays a role and should always be respected.

Our final speaker was Dr Erin Pritchard from the Centre for Culture & Disability Studies at Liverpool Hope University. Erin’s presentation centred around the understanding of what is meant by ‘disability’, and the various ways in which people use the term. She focused on the social model of disability as a counterpoint to the explicitly medical and genetic perspective with which Benedict Lambert is concerned in the text. Erin suggested that people’s perceptions are saturated by cultural and media representations of dwarves and dwarfism, and that this was an important component in the way disability was understood by most of the population. Indeed, even if the media representation tries to avoid being retrograde in its attitude, the coverage tends to be all about the condition and nothing else. Indeed, many people look through the professional roles and identities of people with dwarfism and only see the biological person. Erin pointed out that this is what Jean does in the novel; although she wants to have a child with Benedict, she is also unable to see past his condition.

Dr Erin Pritchard (Liverpool Hope University)

Erin then proceeded to discuss the ways in which dwarfism and disability are understood and treated as discrete phenomena. Whereas a disability is usually something that people ‘pity’, dwarfism is perceived as something comical, as something which is associated with the circus or freak show, and these values are endlessly reproduced in a variety of literary and cultural representations, as well as in language: sayings such as ‘dwarfed by’ effectively replicate the discriminatory attitudes towards people with dwarfism. Erin suggested that her own work and the wider research field of disability studies emphasises the need to change the built environment, since disability can be understood as a product of society as opposed to being simply a matter of genetics. As an example, Erin indicated the height of the average desk, and said that because the desk had been installed for the use of a person of average height, it had a disabling effect on those to whom the average did not apply. The focus for disability studies then should not be a medical cure, but a cure for social attitudes and a means to alter the built environment and other debilitating structures (both environmental, but also cultural and social).

Following the talks, there was a lively and engaged series of questions from the audience, who asked about everything from equality legislation and the almost ethical responsibility to create authentic literary characters, to what medicine could or should be doing for disability, and the social attitudes towards sex and disability. The answers from our speakers were interesting and incisive, and covered a lot of additional information ranging from the UK Rare Disease Strategy to H. G. Wells and, of course, Tyrion Lannister.