‘Mr. Verlyn Klinkenborg Believes’: a review of Timothy, or Notes of an Abject Reptile (Alfred Knopf, 2006)

On April 21, 1780, the curate of Selborne Parish, Hampshire, wrote to Daines Barrington, his correspondent and fellow naturalist: “The old Sussex tortoise, that I have mentioned to you so often, is become my property.”   This letter marks the beginning of a relationship well-known to readers of English nature writing, that of Mr. Gilbert White and Timothy the tortoise.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, nature-essayist and New York Times op-ed columnist, also narrated a meeting of these two figures in a slender novel published in 2006: “I met Mr. Gilbert White when he was twenty years old.  The human year 1740, and I just come to England.  Stolen from the ruins I was basking on.  Jut of wall that had stood forever in sight of the Mediterranean Sea.  In earshot of its mild tides.  Thrust into a heavy bag by hand unseen.”  Yes, the tortoise is the narrator—the conceit that gives this novel, full of minute details of eighteenth-century life, its purpose.  

The difference in perspectives of White and Klinkenborg is illuminating.  Gilbert White identifies the tortoise with an English location, Sussex, and labels it property.  Klinkenborg narrates an earlier meeting and gives an imagined back-story, the tortoise stolen from its idyllic native home on the Mediterranean, “thrust” into a bag. 

Klinkenborg’s aim in Timothy or Notes of an Abject Reptile is to complicate our assumptions about human-animal relationships and to cast a tortoise-shaped shadow on the legacy of one of the heroes of the history of ecological science.  It is a didactic novel, one that sets out to teach that humans are merely animals; Klinkenborg, through the voice of Timothy, instructs humans toward a sharper recognition of our kinship and common fate with the rest of the natural world. 

When this novel arrived in bookstores, I immediately went out and got it, perceiving correctly that I belonged to the target audience: a reader of nature essays, a person who enjoys identifying the species that come to my bird feeder, and watches with interest the worms and insects that populate my (chemical-free) garden.  I have even done scholarly research on Gilbert White.   

Along with my interests in the natural world and Gilbert White, I have also recently read a stack of novels in a genre which Timothy fits well.  There’s no established label for this genre, but I call it the “literary re-write”: a novel or play that takes a well-known classic of western literature and re-tells its story from the perspective of a minor character or shifts the perspective enough to call into question the driving assumptions of the original.  John Gardner’s Grendel, Jane Smiley’s Ten Thousand Acres, and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea are three of the better-known examples of the genre.  More recently, the Pulitzer-prize winning novel March, by Geraldine Brooks, fits this label.  All of these “literary re-writes” are didactic novels like Klinkenborg’s Timothy.  They set out to make the reader feel uneasy about the cultural and historical milieu which produced the original.  At worst they are preachy and supercilious.  At best, they present convincing and compelling characters that enable one to inhabit a world that exists alongside the one created by the original, in a tension that deepens one’s reading of both the original and the re-write.         

It is not difficult to see why Jane Smiley might take on family dysfunction in King Lear or Jean Rhys might explore the unwritten story of the mad wife in Jane Eyre, but why would Klinkenborg choose the relationship of a little-known eighteenth-century clergyman and a tortoise for interrogation?

The answer has to do with the importance of Gilbert White in the history of science and the interest that his life has always generated among nature lovers.  White lived from 1720-1793, largely in the parish where he was born.  He spent most of his life, from age 30 until eleven days before his death, keeping minute notes on the plants, animals, and especially birds that he saw in his garden and environs.    When he was 47 years old he began corresponding with several eminent naturalists and sharing his observations.  These letters would later be polished and published as White’s sole book, but one which would ensure his literary and scientific acclaim for at least a hundred and fifty years: The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, in the County of Southampton. 

White’s place in the history of science stems from the fact that he was the first person in western scientific history to publish observations of the natural world based not on identification and classification, but on how birds and animals behaved, and how and where plants grew, and how different parts of the natural world interacted with each other.  In other words, White saw the world ecologically—as a system rather than as a collection of parts.  And his writing is beautifully fluid.  He writes with the same care he takes in observing the world.  In a characteristic passage, White observes that the swift, his favorite species of bird, “is never so much alive as in sultry thundry weather, when it expresses great alacrity, and calls forth its powers.  In hot mornings several, getting together in little parties, dash round the steeples and churches, squeaking as they go in a very clamorous manner.”

The beauty and significance of The Natural History of Selborne earned it a prominent place on bookshelves of the well-educated throughout the nineteenth century.  White’s popularity, however, waned somewhat in the twentieth.  White’s home in Hampshire receives a modest number of visitors compared to Jane Austen’s Chawton, just seven miles up the road, and while he does get a mention in the recent movie about Austen’s life, I don’t anticipate a film based on White’s unfulfilled romances any time soon.   

Even so, with increased interest in ornithology in recent years, amateur natural history seems to be on the rise again and Klinkenborg clearly found an audience of twenty-first century readers interested in both the natural world and the history of science.  I feel both kinship with and distance from this audience.  For, while Klinkenborg wants to revitalize interest in White, presumably as a model for a healthy kind of engaged, reflective, and locally-aware environmentalism, he doesn’t want to accept White as a package.  Accepting White as a model, as the Victorians did in giving his book to their children, would mean accepting his Christianity.  And that Klinkenborg will not do.

As I noted above, this is a didactic novel.  Timothy has much to say about the differences between her species (as twentieth-century naturalists would discover, looking at her shell, Timothy was a female) and humans:  According to Timothy, we have “Reason in place of a good nose.  Logic instead of a tail.  Faith instead of the certain knowledge of instinct.  Superstition instead of a shell.”  Timothy’s voice as a narrator is clipped, even brusque, speaking in short phrases, often fragments—her voice echoes the tone and style of a naturalist’s journal.  One effect of this style is to create a distinctive voice to support the reader’s imagination in hearing a non-human narrator.  Another effect is that Timothy’s words become pronouncements, judgments, on what she sees and hears.  At several moments she begins a statement with the words, “Mr. Gilbert White believes…” and then presents with irony some conviction that a tortoise (or an enlightened twenty-first century nature writer) could not possibly accept. 

Timothy’s judgments are directed at two Christian beliefs: that there is life after death and that humans have a privileged place in the universe.  Early in the novel, she reflects on a theme from one of White’s Easter sermons, that “The Captain of our salvation” has conquered death.  This leads to the ironic observation that even though White believes that death has been defeated, he still has a holly-hock screen between his window and the place where animals are slaughtered for dinner.  Later she asks: “Is death so fearsome that it must be undone?  Is this life so poor a thing?  Is not eternity somewhat too long?”  These questions lead Timothy to a pronouncement about human religious motivation: “Theirs is a niggardly faith, withal.  Parishioners believe only as much as will save the humans among them.  Never mind the rest of creation.”  These thematic threads will continue until Timothy’s narration of White’s death, pronouncing over his grave: “Merely human at last.  One earthly parish only.” 

This knowing tone—the tortoise who has arrived at theological certitude—is a characteristic temptation for literary re-writes.   There is a striking similarity between the voice of Timothy and that of Grendel in John Gardner’s novel of the same title.  In both cases, the author creates a character who is not human, but who has the opportunity to comment on human activities and commitments from the outside.  The views of Grendel and Timothy are similar—humans have an unaccountable capacity for belief and an unaccountable desire to see themselves as important, a cherished part of the universe.  Klinkenborg asks his reader to look generously at the non-human world, to suspend our reason for a moment and imagine something like the heliocentric revolution: humans not as observers but as observed.  But while we are asked to be generous, he does not return the favor.  Timothy’s good nose, tail, certain knowledge of instinct, and shell do not give her the capacity to understand faith, belief in a creator, knowledge nurtured and sustained through traditions, texts, and stirrings of feeling.  So Timothy concludes that White’s beliefs are false.   

The overarching irony of this novel’s project, an irony of which Klinkenborg is certainly aware, is that only through the uniquely human tool of written language, words printed and published by Alfred A. Knopf, is Timothy is able to deliver her message.  Klinkenborg delivers his own messages in the op-ed pages of The New York Times and his voice can be as strident as Timothy’s.  In a column eulogizing Alex, an African-Grey Parrot with unusual cognitive gifts, Klinkenborg writes: “Most humans are not truly dispassionate observers. We’re too invested in the idea of our superiority to understand what an inferior quality it really is.”  If Mr. Gilbert White unwaveringly believes in the resurrection of the dead, Mr. Verlyn Klinkenborg unwaveringly believes that humans need to be taken down a notch or two.  When he writes of the contemporary furor over evolution and intelligent design, he makes a point not only to praise the scientific community, but also to disparage the beliefs of those who have not yet reconciled Darwinian evolution with divine creation.  Several years ago, he wrote in another Times column in response to new evidence about the age of the earth, that “To the extent that the furor over evolution represents a cultural crisis in America – and only in America – it is a crisis of credulity, not faith, a crisis rooted in neglect and ignorance.” 

Awareness of Klinkenborg’s self-proclaimed role as critic of human hubris makes it more difficult to fully engage in the thought-experiment proposed in Timothy.  When I ignore the voice of Mr. Verlyn Klinkenborg, however, and listen carefully to what the voice of Timothy has to say about Mr. Gilbert White, I wonder if there is a message for Christians in this novel.  In spite of the annoying superiority of Timothy’s message and tone, I do think there is something worth hearing here.  Timothy’s judgments about death and resurrection seem merely a statement of Klinkenborg’s unbelief.  But her other message, her judgment of human hubris, is worth hearing.  The idea that God could care as much about a tortoise as a human may be theologically controversial, but is not unthinkable.

Perhaps the thought experiment we should take from this novel is not quite the one Klinkenborg intended.  Instead of imagining a world of no faith, only instinct, no resurrection, only this life, perhaps we could imagine a world in which Timothy joins humanity in longing for the new heavens and the new earth.   

I am not sure what faith might look like for a tortoise and I am confident that whatever it is, it is not expressed in words on a page, published by Knopf. But Klinkenborg has asked us to imagine.  And that, I think, is always a worthwhile project.

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