Tuesday 27 September 2011

'at an angle to the rest of the world'

The Genius In My Basement
by Alexander Masters

Masters' first book, Stuart: A Life Backwards, was a fabulous piece of biography which, a little like Ross Raisin's latest novel Waterline, forced the reader to look in a little more detail behind the haggard faces of the country's homeless. By choosing to work in a reverse chronology we were able to trace back to the definitive moment that set Stuart on his tragic course in life, not so much to prove that it was a single event that 'caused' him to end up where we first met him but certainly to realise that it wasn't his fault and he certainly didn't deserve to be there. That book sold well, won awards, was turned into a BBC/HBO drama and was given away by me on the inaugural World Book Night. How to follow up the success of that? Certainly not by changing a winning formula. Masters may have chosen a very different subject for his next book but the combination of scatty-seeming chronology, sketches and humour are all pleasingly familiar so that even if this book fails to have anything close to the impact of his first it is an enjoyable read that also provides, in an age of z-list celebrity biography and misery memoir, a far more positive and worthwhile read. The subtitle this time: The Biography of a Happy Man.

The man in question is Master's landlord in Cambridge, Simon Philips Norton, who lives in the basement of the building. That basement is something of a death-trap; the stair carpet flaps loosely, a danger to descending feet whilst a broken step at the bottom threatens to swallow your legs whole. Norton's living space is a jumble of plastic bags filled with all manner of things from his past, extensive bus timetables and the cans of mackerel which form his staple diet. It's the kind of space you expect to see featured on one of those environmental health clean-up programmes and it is inhabited by a once-in-a-generation mathematical genius. Norton showed his promise at an early age, organising coloured blocks in sequence at the age of just one and developing into a master of long multiplication before he'd even reached four. The kind of child who sat on his parent's sofa working out the value of two to the power of thirty. For fun. Norton went on to specialise in Group Theory. Masters does a grand job of explaining the basics of Group Theory, using his illustrations to help us picture the rudiments of mathematical symmetry and the sudoku-like tables that are their 'life-blood.' The standard sudoko board we are all familiar with has nine columns of numbers. Norton is obsessed with the grandest conundrum in Group Theory, dubbed The Monster. It too looks like a sudoko table except that instead of nine columns it has

Answer to Fundamental Biographical Question Number 74, subsection b), namely, Why write a book about Simon? Because he is to biography what the Monster is to the mathematics of Group Theory: an intractable problem who nevertheless represents a purified type of human, a part of all people.

Masters voices a familiar refrain at the beginning of this book; 'Writing biographies of living people, the subject is an irritant. Why is he needed? All he does is is insist that whatever you've written is wrong.' Just as Stuart frequently interrupted his biographer to say how crap the book was, Norton is constantly making corrections, complaining about inaccuracies to the point where Masters actually enjoys 'his revulsion at my attempts to make him novelistically tidy.' There is a less-singular drive in this book, it is not the 'Tom Clancy murder mystery' that Stuart wanted his story to read like. It is more like an attempt to understand genius, whatever that means. We look at various points at his childhood, is there something in that upbringing that creates or fosters such a gift? Is it any wonder that this singular boy is bullied at school (especially as 'one of the things he did in his spare time was to 'reorganise' the school timetable so that 'it would be more efficient and not include so much unnecessary time between lessons'?) or that teachers struggle to keep up with him and his 'instant eye for the balance and elegance of a solution' We can all remember our teacher's insistence that we show our workings, but for Norton the answer was always just there, no work required.

The destination, if there is one, is that squalid basement and the fact that Norton is essentially unemployed. How does a man whose genius and promise was once compared to a man like Einstein end up becoming obsessed by bus routes and timetables. And mackerel.

It is not just that Simon's perspicacity collapsed, but that it vanished so drearily. From the greatest mathematical prodigy Cambridge had seen...he sank to chasing footpaths and hoarding bus catalogues. He became a cursed figure.

There is plenty to grasp in this book. There are the usual biographical details about childhood and upbringing, the excitement of school days and a boy's intelligence that outstrips not only that of his peers but his instructors too, the crash course in Group Theory and mathematics in general (boy, it's been a while). What we really want to know is what went wrong and, as the book's subtitle suggests, it is possible that that is the wrong way of phrasing the question. Norton is a happy man. He is really only unhappy about our reliance on the car and our resistance to public transport. And that Masters' description of his flat is going to send the building regulators to his door. There is something fascinating about his supposed collapse and there are a couple of significant moments: the moment when a man who had never had to search for an answer to a mathematical question provided an answer that turned out to be wrong and the time when his colleague John Conway left Cambridge for America, a time Norton refers to as his 'bereavement'. It is that second moment I wanted to know more about, Conway was clearly such an important figure in Norton's life but perhaps through over-sensitivity we only ever scratch the surface of that relationship.

What comes through very strongly at the end of it all is that one incredibly important feature of genius, if that is what we want to call it, is play. Having shown such innate understanding of mathematics so young, and taken such joy in its workings it is possible that the one period when Norton was asked to go back over the same work twice might have stagnated his progress and, crucially, taken the element of fun out of what was after all just Norton's way of playing. Whatever skills a young child might show 'let him stay free and guided by delight' seems to be the mantra. Think back to that one-year-old sat on the carpet arranging coloured blocks into sequences and it's tempting to wonder what Norton might have achieved (and that isn't to say he achieved nothing - he remains one of the foremost names in his field of mathematics) if he'd been left to play.


Nivedita Barve 27 September 2011 at 08:59  

Biography of a math genius! Sounds fascinating. Loved your review and your blog too. Blogrolling it on mine. Cheers!

Shelley 27 September 2011 at 16:40  

As a writer, my favorite phrase here was the affecting "if he'd been left to "play"....

And congratulations for being selected for the Wikio Top Blogs List.

William Rycroft 27 September 2011 at 20:39  

Two new commenters, how lovely! Thank you both for stopping by with such kind words, please come again (I guess I have Wikio to thank for this).

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