Not quite Donne yet, and other treasures


Not quite Donne yet, and other treasures

LOUIS GAIGHER read books by Katherine Rundell on the sensual poet and cleric and on endangered natural treasures.


WONDER is indispensable for Katherine Rundell — renowned children's book writer, academic associated with All Souls College in Oxford, Renaissance scholar, roof climber, and, at 35, the youngest winner yet of the Baillie Gifford Prize (non-fiction's Booker) for Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne.

“It is an astonishment to be alive and it behoves you to be astonished," she quotes the subject of her super-vital biography, which she describes as “an act of evangelism". Wonder requires focused attention. For Rundell, attentiveness is not cerebral; it is the way you inhabit your body and time: forward-looking, active and political. It is a form of resistance. Power-holders and stakeholders constantly try to splinter and divert your attention from what is at stake, such as democracy and a livable environment.

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Referring to Donne, Rundell writes that a point you want to make must be strange and clear enough to “cut straight through your interlocutors’ complacent inattention" — a fitting description of her approach, the Donne biography and The Golden Mole, her second book for adults of 2022. (Readers mention her recently released Impossible Creatures, the first in a fantasy trilogy, in the same breath as His Dark Materials.)

Rundell presents Donne (1572–1631) as a young portrait-sitter, “cutting the right kind of dash", with a hat “big enough to sail a cat in, a big lace collar and an exquisite moustache". Donne's life encompassed the extremes of human experience. From his birth into a prominent Roman Catholic family — he lived in a time of Catholic persecution — to his eventual transformation into a star Protestant preacher who led crowds of thousands to spiritual ecstasy with sermons on death and sin, Donne led many lives. He was a sea adventurer, a member of parliament, a lawyer, a heretic, a husband who secretly married a 16-year-old, and sometimes, almost to the point of self-destruction, despondent.


Donne, one of the most widely read poets of his time, was a writer of desire, sex and strangeness. Take, for example, the opening lines of The Flea:

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee.
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be

Donne's poetry delights in strangeness and excess. It breaks away from the main poetic tropes and the worldview of the time that kept body and mind separated: “One might almost say, her body thought," he writes in an elegy.

His preference for the prefixes “trans-" and “super-", as in his neologism “super-infinite", indicates an awareness striving beyond the possible, attempting to carry intellect to the farthest point of originality in a unique language. Rundell provides us with an inspiring encounter with an iconoclast and a contrarian to anti-intellectualism. She pays fascinating attention to labyrinthine church and state intrigues, as well as swimming styles and handshake practices of the time. Gaps in the historical record are also productive: according to Rundell, whether Shakespeare and Donne knew each other is “tantalisingly impossible to know”.

In The Golden Mole, Rundell directs our attention to 22 remarkable animal species, or rather “imperilled astonishments", and “moments where we have collided with living things, in both joy and destruction, delight and grandeur and folly".

The survival of all 22 hangs on a razor's edge due to human-made catastrophes. Among the 22, humans themselves are counted — remarkable in their perilousness and destructiveness, yet astonishing.  “Tap a human […] and they ring with the sound of infinity," Rundell paraphrases Donne. The book's subtitle (And Other Living Treasure), its design (a gilded border and grey-on-gold Tanya Baldwin opening illustrations), and structure (short essays, some previously published in the London Review of Books) create the impression of a children's encyclopaedia or bestiary. Consequently, the book teems with titbits of knowledge: facts (including former facts from classical times), descriptions and folklore. As for gleaming scientific blunders, classical thinkers, for instance, believed  a bear's tongue could shape a bear cub from a mass of fur, that a porcupine could lie on its back and spear fruit for its pantry, and that ostriches had a fondness for metal.

Swifts sleep in flight

Facts that meet current verification standards are no less astonishing. For example, we read that a Greenland shark, now swimming undisturbed in the North Sea at 3km/h, was already 100 years old during the Great Plague of 1666, that a seahorse has no stomach and is the only male animal that gives birth, and that a swift covers a distance equivalent to two round-trips to the moon, with an additional one-way flight, without touching the ground. (Swifts sleep in flight by alternately turning off their brain hemispheres.) And about lemurs who sailed on tree stumps for a population transfer to Madagascar. Rundell strikes a witty note with facts that are macabre and fascinating: “It was, perhaps, a hermit crab that ate Amelia Earhart." (This colossal crab is “exactly the right size for a nightmare" but “off-kilter beautiful", with one species having emerald-green eyes on red-and-white striped stalks resembling barber poles.)

Misconceptions about animals reveal people's concerns, fears and desires, sometimes accompanied by staggering harm. The ancient lie that the planet exists to meet human needs also endangers human survival.

The presumed aphrodisiac effect of animal material is equally destructive and can be addressed only with structural political change (applied legislation). Rundell is reminded of this during a visit to a pangolin and her keeper at a wildlife conservation project outside Harare, the city where she spent a formative part of her childhood as a diplomat's child. The pangolin, an ancient creature whose origin dates back 80 million years compared to our 6 million, reminds Rundell of a particularly gracious academic: “her loveliness makes other forms of loveliness — diamonds, rubies, wrists bedecked with Rolexes — look like a con".

The fact that a ton of pangolin scales exported to the East destroys 1,600 pangolin lives is “a fact so exhausting, so dreary, that it’s difficult to fathom".

Rundell maintains a delicate balance between sparkling descriptions and a litany of plastic, noise and habitat destruction. With witty attention, she prevents the reader from sinking into a stupor of depression. What remains is that wonder and destruction both require our immediate, focused and active attention.

What, who, where and how much?

The Golden Mole: and Other Living Treasure by Katherine Rundell was published by Faber & Faber and costs R380 at Exclusive Books.

Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell was published by Faber & Faber and costs R335 at Exclusive Books.


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