A Sharpening of the Knives, by Neil Belton

reviewed by
Desmond MacNamara



his curious new novel is closely fitted to the bare bones knowledge of the actuality of the life of a world-famous mathematician and physicist, and for some years the head of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Dublin: Erwin Schrödinger. For Belton’s work is an odd literary amalgamation: deeply thought with some fine writing at times while unfortunately, quite suffocatingly so. There are some drowsy longueurs strewn through this novel of both ideas and the senses, set in a single year in the life of a middle-aged Austrian physicist in the dangerous war year of 1941. The place, the time and the characters of the novel are all enticingly unusual, as was the anomalously neutral city of Dublin in the second year of a savage and terrible world war. Neither Belfast (by intent) nor Dublin (by accident) escaped German aerial bombing. The southern Republic even came perilously close to being seized by the British for daring to remain aloof, even if in a pro-British manner.

Schrödinger was an upper middle class Viennese Protestant married to Anny, a young secretary who stayed with him throughout his years of peregrination through Zurich, the Max Planck Institute, Oxford and Dublin. She steadied him and held his hand as he gingerly tried the impossible task of accommodating himself to the ugly powers that be at the time of the Austrian Anschluss (in March 1938 when Hitler’s storm troopers goose-stepped into Vienna).  These glowering, jackbooted thugs scornfully rejected his rather evasive affirmations and he soon became a marked man, despite his relations with such as the Lederhosen-wearing Heidegger and, on the other side, with the physics genius Neils Bohr (the latter the subject of the controversial play Copenhagen regarding Werner Heisenberg as well). People who had the single misfortune to correspond with Einstein were all deeply suspect, although as someone who shared a Nobel Prize in 1933, Schrödinger was in the first rank of world physicists—a desirable national asset one might ordinarily imagine.

By the late 1930s Schrödinger’s “Wave equation” theory on Quantum Mechanics evidently seemed a tad irrelevant to the Western powers, and certainly to Hitler, so he was very glad to accept the surprise offer of Prime Minister Eamon DeVelera of Eire (Ireland) to head the Institute of Advanced Studies in Dublin. De Velera was always deeply interested in mathematics — almost as much as in bringing to life his political ideal, a Gaelic-speaking pastoral country of small farms and a contented literate peasantry. Perhaps, given the way the rest of the world was shaping up at the time, one ought not smile too broadly at Dev’s naiveté. Schrödinger, unable to work under or for the Nazis, eagerly grabbed De Velera’s offer to run off to the land of leprechauns, soft rains and peat fires.  The miffed Germans were happily left behind along with the toadying Heidegger. This skein of "desertions" left Bohr in Denmark, Einstein at Princeton in America, and Schrödinger in Dublin: all neutral countries at that time.

Among Schrödinger’s conditions of acceptance, however, was the stipulated inclusion of his wife Anny, his mistress Hilde and their illegitimate schoolgirl daughter Ruth. It was all cozy and civil, mind you. Hilde is customarily described as Anny’s closest friend. DeVelera was perhaps naïve in ways, but he was astute, well-informed and not unaware or always censorious of the weaknesses of his fellow men. The wily politician knew what he was getting: a Nobel Prize winner, a premier physicist whose peccadilloes were, under the circumstances, wholly irrelevant. When later, years after his death, Dev’s papers were released, they revealed that he tidily kept his distance not only from various deviousness of Hitler, Churchill and Roosevelt, but also from the Pope. In his 1937 Constitution all the major religions were ecumenically recognized, including the Jews (of whom Leopold Bloom was already probably the most famous fictional Irish example in the world).

Schrödinger settled in a late Victorian terrace house in the Dublin Seaside suburb of Clontarf, which means "the meadow of the bull," a site renowned in Irish history for a battle in 1014 AD when the high king Brian Boru was slain during his epic victory over the meddlesome Vikings. Kincora Road, where the Schrödingers settled, was named after Brian Boru’s dynastic seat by Lough Derg, where barefoot pious pilgrims roam to this very microelectronic age day. Did Schrödinger wander by the shore and wonder just what invader was coming next?  All these details are facts of Schrödinger’s life from 1939 onwards. The raw structure of fact, of course, may be ignored in any novel and indeed the thought, cogitations and emotions rendered here are thoroughly—sometimes egregiously—fictional. The validity of choices to depart from fact depends entirely on the storyteller’s skill and purposes. 

In this imaginary novel, Schrödinger, arrived in Dublin, is bemused but impressed by lengthy chats with De Velera as well as irritated by the fussiness of elderly senior civil servants. He quickly forms a few local friendships and becomes particularly interested in a fetching young civil servant named Sinead, an intelligent, attractive young virgin who readily surrenders to the Austrian émigré’s apparently lifelong need for new, luscious mistresses. She knows what she is doing but doesn’t care. Schrödinger prudently keeps her separated from Anny and Hilde but, evidently, due to the cumulative pressures on his psyche from his affairs and his work at the Institute of Advanced studies in its handsome Georgian mansion near the Houses of Parliament (called the Dail), nothing new emerges from the blackboard and chalk—the mathematician’s essential apparatus. The endless Irish fog and cold persists.

One evening as he peddles to Clontarf on his bicycle, Schrödinger stops to cross the wooden bridge to the stone causeway that leads to Bull Island, a sand-duned island just off the coast of Clontarf; an abode of migrating birds, an outstretched beach, and a golf links. As the geese honk around him, he spots a stranger with a gun moving past him without a word of greeting. Very odd, for someone brandishing a firearm anywhere in Ireland at the time would have been the subject of much comment. This rude chap turns out to be none other than a German spy called Golz. In reality, a German spy called Goetz parachuted a hundred miles Northwest of Dublin and somehow remained at large for about 18 months, a fact well known to many (See, for example, Enno Stephens’ Spies in Ireland.) Many other spies were picked up virtually within minutes of arrival. Schrödinger never met Goetz, although in the novel he confronts him very publicly, once in a fashionable hotel. The author, drumming up drama, has Schrödinger in constant fear of Golz’ lurking presence.

To get back briefly to reality, as a young man I met Schrödinger in Dublin in1941: a golden year of sunshine and one of getting used to half an ounce of tea a week and to coffee made from roasted barley. Beer flowed in fountains, though whiskey was a little short due to understandably overwhelming export demand. Basic food was plentiful enough although bread loaves were smaller and heavier. One day, together with some young woman students from the National College of Art, I was invited by Anny Schrödinger to their home in Clontarf, to a garden, or at any rate, a Summer party, that proved most enjoyable. We made our way from central Dublin by electric tram towards the granite hulk and purple heather of Howth Head. Schrödinger was a charming host, aided by the feminine triumvirate of Anny, Hilde and little Ruth. He even showed me his tapestries; these striking little strips woven on a small loom in the pattern of mathematical formulae were strangely attractive and pinned to several walls like a dado.

Another guest was a middle-aged man, a German-speaker and, apparently, an expert on handwriting analysis. He did some work for Dublin Castle, the Scotland Yard of Ireland. Schrödinger, unable to resist, excused himself a moment and fetched a letter from his study — handwritten.  Carefully folding it, exposing three of four apparently innocuous lines, he handed it to the expert. We all waited for the deft evaluation. It came about slowly: time for a glass of claret while waiting. Our handwriting expert’s comment was: “Obviously an artist. More likely a musician; flashes of inspiration.” Schrödinger bid him to open up the page.  The letter was unfolded and passed around. The signature was “Albert Einstein.”

On a later occasion, one within the time-span of the novel, I met Schrödinger coming out of the Natural History Museum. He told me that he had been looking at some insects. The significance of this only became apparent to me after his public lectures: “What is Life?” at Trinity College, Dublin University when he used the brief life-span of the fruit fly as a warning of injunction to what he termed the “naïve physicist” who did not appreciate that there were occasional jumps in the pace of evolution My several memorable brushes with this most agreeable Nobel Prize laureate were regrettably brief.

But the sun always shone on those summer days and on the snowy mountains which filled the city skyline to the South. In Belton’s novel, set in this part of Schrödinger’s Irish sojourn, the wind blew implacably cold and cutting, and the skies were laden with endless and debilitating rain, while Schrödinger carried on an irresponsible affair with a young civil servant, whom he impregnated due to the inferior quality of condoms that were smuggled down from the British (and USA controlled) six counties of Northern Ireland. Yet, like many other students, I equally availed myself of these smuggled condoms and found the quality reasonably secure.

In the novel Schrödinger takes the girl Sinead to the lunar fantasy landscape of the Burren on County Clare for a reckoning. Belton’s descriptive writing is good, if a little exhaustive, but while reading it with pleasure I kept feeling that these scenes were pictured entirely through Belton’s eyes and not those of anyone remotely recognizable as Schrödinger. The story ends on a bleak note. Life, of course, goes on. The pregnant girl faces unhappy prospects but immigrates to Blitz-torn England with admirable nerve. And Schrödinger is finally left like Uncle Vanya, alone in the wintry house except for Anny, his aging Penelope, to dream of quantum mechanics and bright young women to fill his heart and warm his bed. Whether A Game with Sharpened Knives is a novel in the strict sense, or not, I am unsure. It is certainly worth testing your own judgment on it.


Desmond MacNamara, author of five books, is a retired sculptor, writer and art historian who lives in London. His latest novel, Confessions of an Irish Werewolf, will be brought out in November by Ushba International Publishers.