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Descartes’ Daughter extract

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Issue number: 2024:1


from Descartes’ Daughter

by Magnus Florin

introduced and translated by Harry D. Watson

Amsterdam. Descartes is standing on the quay. Beside him are three locked chests. In the first chest are his duds. In the second chest are the youthful manuscripts that he does not wish to publish. In the third chest, which is smaller and has a double lock, is Francine, his daughter, the vacuum.

No, there is no such thing as a vacuum.

Descartes’ Daughter plays out during the philosopher René Descartes’ last journey, a month-long voyage from Holland to Stockholm in the autumn of 1649. With him on board he has the chest where he imagines that his daughter lives, although she died young at the age of five. In the evenings he chats with her, and as long as the chats last there is no vacuum. The sailors stand outside and listen suspiciously. They believe that Descartes has brought with him an evil mechanical doll that endangers the ship’s voyage.

Florin is a man of the theatre and a librettist and, as in his previous novels, dialogue is central to carrying the story forward. Also typical of Florin’s style is the formality of the language and the employment of a specialised area of vocabulary, in this case, nautical (earlier novels employed the language of botany, and pharmacy).

Magnus Florin wearing glasses against a dark background
Magnus Florin. Photo: Fredrik Hjerling.


from Descartes’ daughter

Amsterdam. Early morning. Descartes is standing on the quay along with his friends. Beside him are three locked chests, two of them equal in size, the third smaller, the lid and the sides decorated with compass cards. In the first chest are his duds, few but sufficient. In the second chest are the youthful manuscripts that he does not wish to publish.

‘Not as long as I live.’

In the third chest, the smaller one with a double lock, is Francine, his daughter, the vacuum.

‘No, there is no such thing as a vacuum.’

His will is written and witnessed, his debts settled. His friends:

‘It is as if you were going to travel to another world and never return.’

The chests are hoisted on board the admiralty yacht. Descartes:

‘I will keep the smaller chest beside me!’

On his head a fur-trimmed hat with a plume. A white scarf. A black wig with a touch of grey. Over his fingers snow-white gloves. On his shoulders a white-collared velvet cloak. Around his waist a sword-belt. Silk hose. On his feet elegant shoes of soft leather, the uppers decorated with lace. Grey woollen stockings. His friends:

‘The hermit in chamberlain’s clothing.’

Descartes has premonitions of pirates, storms, shipwreck and death.

‘Evil portents. I do not wish to travel.’

His friends:

‘So why are you travelling?’


‘To avoid persecution. Because I lack protection. To be able to devote my time undisturbed to experiments that show that no vacuum exists. I wish to travel and I do not wish to travel. Odysseus was glad to leave Circe’s enchanted isle but I, who was born in the gardens of Touraine, am unwilling to live in the realm of bears, among rocks and frost. Perhaps all its people congeal into ice in winter, like water?’

A vacuum cannot exist. Even in that which we take to be a vacuum, substance extends. All that exists is matter, all matter is extent, therefore a vacuum cannot exist. Pascal is wrong, the only vacuum that exists is the one in his brain. I would rather travel to England or Brazil, but the protector I require is in Sweden. She has a passion for Greek studies and poses questions to me about the nature of love. There is a love of reason and a love of the body; they occasion similar emotions but must be kept apart.

His friends:

‘In that country people look upon foreigners with suspicion, and they generally poke fun at the female monarch who collects Europe’s scholars like rare fruits in a porcelain dish. Her government consists of grammarians and ballet masters, the court devotes itself merely to flirtations in verse, and she herself dances every day masquerading as the goddess of the hunt.’


‘In Amsterdam they all busy themselves with trade. Holland’s floating elements. Water and money.’

His friends:

‘You too are a coveted good.’

Descartes boards the admiralty yacht that will take him over the inland sea of the Zuider Zee to the Swedish royal ship. His friends:

‘So off you go to your high-born hostess.’

Zuider Zee. Tyoor, Pampus, Marchen, Muydlersand, Val van Urck, Enckhuysensand, Creupelsand. Day, evening, night. I fluttered around the world for many years, more as a spectator than as an actor in all the games that were played there. I followed warlords and saw armed men but no pitched battles; I calculated the trajectories of cannonballs and saw towns and villages change ruler time after time. I have lived sparingly, off vegetables and fruit from my own garden. Sometimes as an experiment in physics and medicine, but mostly for food. Seeds from Paris. Currants, apples, cherries, plums, cabbage, onions, beets, turnips, beans, peas, white cabbage, red cabbage, radishes, dill, sage, coriander, thyme, marjoram, rosemary and chervil. My body is less than average height but my skull is large. Shortness of breath on speaking. My own hair black, almost-black pupils, eyebrows black but turning white; they are naturally high, which gives my face a startled expression. Yellowish cheeks with pink flecks, near my right ear a boil that sometimes disappears but always comes back. A constantly vigilant expression under heavy eyelids. Shaved in the French fashion, a small beard round my mouth. My lower lip protrudes. I own five wigs all ordered from Paris, which I wear for reasons of health, not wishing to expose my head to chill and nakedness. I drink wine extremely seldom. Prefer to eat fowl and fish rather than beef, in small mouthfuls in order to ease digestion. Rather fruit than fowl, rather vegetables than fish. Fruit and vegetables prolong life, and I wish to grow very old. There is nothing better than an omelette of fresh eggs, sat on by the hen for eight, nine or ten days. I sleep long anywhere, especially amid sorrows and troubles. I prefer the quietness in the countryside, hidden among the sand dunes. My tranquil, peaceful wilderness. No, the countryside is not so tranquil, noise everywhere from windmills and waterwheels. I have moved around Holland twenty-three times, now I will move no more. It has been my custom in letters not to give my place of residence. Sometimes I have corresponded in cipher, because of the censorship and the frightful theologians. Anonymous pamphlets, arrest warrants. Galileo’s fate terrified me. I requested a royal pension in France, granted but never paid. Paris is hypocrisy; I thought I had been solemnly bidden to a palace dinner, only to find the kitchen in chaos and everything upside down. They only wanted to show me off. Like an ape, useful only for its rarity value.

Texel. Morning. Descartes sees the Swedish ship, at anchor in the roads inside the West Frisian island. In the sheltered lee of the North Sea’s powerful gales, in waiting for the right combination of tide and wind. The three chests are heaved on board. He hears the sailors’ strange oaths.

‘Mind now, I want the smaller chest right beside me!’

The sailors wave and make signs. But what signs they are making, what the signs mean, Descartes does not know, he only knows that they are the right signs to make for sailors who make signs. The ship is a floating palace. The stern with painted quarter galleries, balconies, oriels. Sea monsters, tritons, nereids. Dolphins with large heads, broad jaws and fish tails. The citadel with small and large cabins. At the bow the beakhead and bowsprit. The figurehead in the form of a crowned lion, to safeguard the ship’s course, strengthen the crew against fear, appeal to the powers and embody the soul of the ship. The stem and stern decorated with grinning gargoyles, griffons, crowns, garlands, coats of arms, pilasters and capitals. The rows of windows in the stern that provide light for the cabins. The arms of the Vasa dynasty, a sheaf of corn. Cannon ports in the transom and on each side over the waterline, adorned with lions’ heads of spruce, alder, ash and linden.

Descartes is received by the captain:

‘I saw you admiring my ship, you are almost on her maiden voyage.’


‘What is the ship’s name?’

The captain:

‘Fortune, actually New Fortune. In hope of a successful voyage.’


‘Why New Fortune?’

The captain:

‘Because she replaces a ship with the name Fortune.’


‘What happened to that ship?’

The captain:

‘She sank. On her maiden voyage, like the Vasa.’

To the large cabin, the captain’s cabin, on the rear weather-deck. The entrance decorated with ornaments and small carved sculptures. Fantastic animals, putti that make music. Inside, wallpapers in gold leather on green backing. Panels, a cassette roof. The floor chequered. Glass windows behind expensive curtains. Oil paintings depicting famous admirals. In the centre an oak table covered with a deep-blue velvet cloth. Over the table a canopy of golden cloth with a gold fringe. Chairs with calfskin backs and seats. Blue fringing along the sides of the seats.

The captain:

‘Settle yourself in the upper small cabin, which will be your home during the voyage.’


‘How long?’

The captain:

‘A month, if God and the winds will it.’


‘I have nothing against the voyage being long.’

The captain:

‘Sometimes two months. But the time passes quickly on board, there is always something to do, in good time you’ll be able to bow in the palace. My man will show you the conveniences. He will be your servant but he needs a firm hand, he is an ignorant lad, you will need to give him a good slap and often.’


‘And my special chest? Where is it?’

The captain:

‘It’s in place according to your wish. A double lock? The contents must be valuable?’

Descartes is led by the captain’s man to the upper small cabin. The boy shows him the privy, then leaves. A seat in an inbuilt cupboard. A pipe leads out through the transom. Descartes tries out the seat.

‘Do you see, Francine? So ingenious. Right out into the waves.’

The ship is lying at anchor by the island of Texel. The sailors are smoking, gathered round the water tub beside the mainmast. Tobacco, clay pipes. The sailors:

‘The pipes are fragile and are constantly going out, we need to have lots of pipes with us so that they last out the whole voyage. We smoke one pipe for as long as it draws, till there is only a stump left, then it doesn’t draw any more, so we take a new one.’

Descartes is offered a smoke, declines. Uncomfortable for the nose, harmful to the brain, ruinous for the lungs, the black wisps the vapours of hell. The sailors:

‘Only if the tobacco gets wet. It must be kept dry, rolled tight and packed in tarred sailcloth.’

The sailors puff, the tobacco flames up.

‘We say that we drink tobacco, we light it and drink.’


‘Why are we at rest?’

‘We’re waiting for wind, waiting for the tide, for the right relationship between wind and water.’


‘I have written about the tide. About ebb and flow, I worked all that out. The reason why one doesn’t notice a movement in which one is included oneself.’

The skipper shows Descartes the fo’c’s’le.

‘These are the living quarters for the first mate and the steersman.’

The first mate:

‘The fo’c’s’le is the heart of the ship, the binnacle is its innards.’

He points out the cupboard containing compasses, a time-glass and Jacob’s staff. Lying on the floor is the lead for measuring depth. Descartes takes a little book out of the cupboard. The first mate:

‘Not a proper book, just my notes.’

Descartes opens the book and tries to read the letters. The first mate:

‘Not proper letters, just my strange signs.’

The steersman:

‘No-one understands them, not even him.’

The first mate:

‘Just you stick to your peg.’

The peg is a whipstaff connected to the tiller. The steersman:

‘It’s simple. If I turn the whipstaff to port, the rudder turns so that the ship goes in the same direction.’

Supper with the captain. The table is laid, the servant in a corner. Table pewter, serving pewter, a flagon, plates, dishes and butter dishes. Silver spoons. The captain’s unsmiling politeness, a gesture with his arm.

‘My distinguished guest!’

Silence. The captain:

‘Have you made my parrot’s acquaintance?’

The parrot sits in a tall, barred cage. Red beak, small yellow feathers over its green body. The captain:

‘Bow, he is oriental.’

Descartes bows. The captain:

‘Now you will see that he returns the greeting with equal politeness.’

The parrot squawks. A sharp sound. The captain:

‘Not exactly a call, more a screech. How can he screech so? But for me it is the most beautiful music.’

The captain opens a little hatch in the cage and inserts his finger. The parrot bites it.

‘He has a dreadful temper, watch out! Now look at the wall clock. Soon it will strike.


‘Now it will strike!’

The clock strikes.

‘It is the signal to proceed to table.’

To the servant:

‘Serve my distinguished guest. Quickly, he is French! No slacking!’

The servant serves up. Meat, bread, apples, cherries, wine, ginger biscuits, arrak and lemons. The captain:

‘Light the candles. Light them, I say!’

Brass candlesticks, tallow candles. The servant lights the candles. The captain:

‘Burning candles on the table is the captain’s privilege. Otherwise the naked flame is permitted only down in the galley and by the mainmast when smoking tobacco. If you go out on deck during the night take your hand lantern. I have my own cook, the others have to put up with that incompetent down below. Everyone here is useless except for you and me. When will the first mate and the steersman remember to check the compasses before departure? Out at sea it is already too late. Now, have a taste!’

Descartes has a taste. The captain talks about the Mediterranean.

‘Favourable winds, known depths, you avoid shallows and sandbanks. So you are a philosopher? So you think all day about knotty problems? Do animals have a soul? Does my parrot have a soul? Is that why he screeches so persistently?’


‘We cannot say that animals do not have a soul or that they do have one, we cannot see that in their hearts. I have not written much about animals and almost nothing about plants. Why do we not ask if plants have a soul?’

The captain:

‘And we can be compared to machines?’


‘The machine is not an image. Living beings are machines. Moving of their own volition. We can say that a dog is a clock.’

The captain:

‘Is my parrot a wall-clock?’


‘We can also say that your wall-clock is a parrot. There is nothing in their anatomy that is different from a grain of salt. The difference between a dead person and a living one is like the difference between a stopped clock and one that is still ticking.’

The captain:

‘So can I say that I am a wall-clock and you are a parrot?’


‘Yes, that is just the sort of thing that can be said and thought. But a parrot can only imitate, it could call out the whole Bible and still be nothing more than a parrot, it has no free will.’

The captain:

‘My parrot thinks he has free will, he always does what he wants, screeches and shits at his pleasure.’

Silence. The captain:

‘It is interesting to be able to talk with a philosopher. We live in different worlds, I am a simple man, but respected. Look at my furniture, it has stood in the most stately palaces. And my expensive clothes. Gold thread.’


‘All to be envied.’

The captain:

‘Thank you! I still have my hair, the court ladies caress my locks, almost all my teeth are firm and the queen does not talk ill of me. Are you well-off? I am well-off. My wife is on board, she is sad. Have a little chat with her, about something other than clocks. To cheer her up.’


Descartes dotter

Albert Bonniers förlag, 2023, 123 pages

Rights: the publisher

We are grateful to Albert Bonniers förlag and to Magnus Florin for granting permission to publish this translated extract.

Magnus Florin is an author and a cultural critic, a former chief dramaturge at Dramaten, Sweden's national theatre, and a former head of drama at Swedish National Radio. He made his debut in 1989 with Berättelsens gång (How the tale goes, 1989) and was nominated for the August Prize for his works Trädgården (The Garden, 1995), Syskonen (Brothers and Sisters, 1998) and Ränderna (The Stripes, 2010). He was awarded Swedish National Radio’s Novel Prize for Syskonen and nominated for Ränderna. He is also a librettist, most recently for Syskonen i Mantua (The siblings in Mantua) at Drottningholms Slottsteater.

Harry D. Watson is a retired teacher and lexicographer and a translator of fiction and non-fiction from Swedish.