Anderson (Plato and Nietzsche, 2017, etc.) recounts a long-distance friendship between two students of Plato in this novel.
The text of this novel is mostly made up of a fictional “lost” novel (also called Thinking Life) by an obscure, early-20th-century Anglo-Italian philosopher and writer named Michael Tommasi. The story within it is narrated by an unnamed philosophy professor who recounts his interactions with another unnamed man—a “philosopher-artist” modeled on Friedrich Nietzsche, according to the fictional “editor” who rediscovered the work. The narrator—later nicknamed “Charmides,” after a figure in one of Plato’s dialogues—first meets the philosopher-artist while on vacation in the Alps: “He nodded politely as he passed, a mischievous gleam in his eye, and he rolled lightly in his stride with a gay sort of musicality.” The two bond over a love of Platonic philosophy, and their meandering conversations have a marked impact on the young narrator’s development. They continue to correspond by mail for many years, although the outbreak of World War I keeps them from seeing each other in person. It’s not until the narrator is a decade into a career in academia that he seeks to see his old friend again. Along the way, he muses on the death of his father, his relationship to alcohol, the changing landscape of academia, and the role of the philosopher (and philosopher-artist) in the world. Anderson’s prose, as filtered through the two fictional academics, Tommasi and “Charmides,” is suitably dense and allusive, although it also features frequent lyrical flourishes. In one memorable passage, for instance, “Charmides” notes that the philosopher-artist “once remarked that he loves mountain valleys with eyes, by which he meant with lakes. The image stays with me as a figure of nature personified, deified, of earth gazing into sky as a god contemplating the contents of its own mind.” As with many philosophical novels, the actual plot is nearly nonexistent. However, unlike many such works, it manages to be a compelling read nonetheless. The passion, doubt, and humility of the narrator make his investigations somehow feel urgent despite the author’s use of a distancing framing device.
A concise and compelling philosophical tale.