The Missing Shade of Blue

It was 5 years ago that I first read Jennie Erdal’s The Missing Shade of Blue. I had forgotten what a great book it is. A philosophical tour-de-force. Plus, an intriguing story, engaging characters and a set of ideas that continue to linger in my mind. From the Archives, here is what I wrote about it:

Suppose there that a person…to have become perfectly well acquainted with colours of all kind, excepting one particular shade of blue…Let all the different shades of that colour, except that single one, be placed before him…Now I ask, whether it is possible for him, from his own imagination, to supply this deficiency, and raise up to himself the idea of that particular shade, though it had never been conveyed to him by his senses.
David Hume

We are in Edinburgh. Edgar Logan, a young man from Paris, arrives to translate the essays of David Hume. “…most of my life has been spent in books, reading other people’s stories, living vicariously through characters that don’t exist.”

Early on he meets the bitter, physically crumbling, soon-to-be-dismissed-philosophy professor, Harry Sanderson and his enigmatic wife, Carrie. “Up until then I lacked the talent for friendship. Later I would sometimes wonder what it was about the Sandersons that made the difference, what it was the sucked me in…”

This is how Jennie Erdal begins her novel, The Missing Shade of Blue. It engrossed me from the first page. Several threads are interlaced throughout her tale.

On David Hume: Hume had not set out with the intention of being an unbeliever. Rather he had followed the arguments for religion and found them wanting. He was a man primarily interested in explaining our place in the world so that we might live better lives; and the art of living well, he soon discovered did not sit happily with clinging on to illusions.

On philosophy: The unexamined life is much despised. According to Socrates, it is not worth living. But actually, the examined life can get you into all sorts of trouble.

On painting: At that point the language to interpret a painting was simply not available to me. Later Carrie would tell me this was an advantage. My eyes were innocent like those of a child, though to me they were simply crude and ignorant.

On vicarious experience: Nearly all of my experience of life—the highs and lows, the hopes and disappointments, the chaotic entanglements—everything that matters in fact—all of this has been mediated through the written word. With the result that novels have given me the sense—the illusion perhaps—of a connection with others, with the texture of real lives.

On marriage: My close reading of fiction had taught me that nearly all marriages occupied strange territory. But it was more vivid and startling to see it with you own eyes.

On happiness: …happiness often reveals itself as counterpoint. It is edged about with things that are opposite to it.

On novels: …a good novel was like a small miracle…fiction allowed us to live lives of other than our own….And every so often, I said, something emerged from a novel that could only be called truth—there was no other name for it. Which has a paradoxical ring to it, since of course, fiction is made up, full of lies.

These are but a fraction of the passages I noted in The Missing Shade of Blue. Is there a story along with Erdal’s philosophical ruminations? Yes, but on my reading, it plays a minor role. There is the tragic deterioration of a once fine philosopher and an emerging relationship between the Edgar, the translator and Carrie, the painter.

A Philosophical Adventure is the subtitle of The Missing Shade of Blue. That it is, the kind of book I am forever searching for. I found it one of those “small miracles.” For a philosopher, it will be a fictional treat. For a translator or painter, it is an endless debate. For any reader, it is a rich dialogue on Hume, happiness, friendship, language, and should you be the least bit interested, fly-fishing.


Linda said...

This book sounds wonderful - I know exactly what you mean by "those small miracles" and how we wander in the wilderness trying to find the next one.

And even better that it has a focus on Hume, who has always intrigued me. I would like to read more about him and his ideas.

Thank you for the recommendation!

Richard Katzev said...

Thank you, Linda. I hope you have a chance to read the book.

Here's a little something on Hume: