Apostolos Doxiadis

Nicholas Lezard – The Guardian

Number crunching
by Nicholas Lezard

It is a matter of some concern over and above the purely literary when a publisher, in whom the present reviewer has to declare an interest, announces that it is prepared to give away a cool $1 million. And all the more so when, in the last financial year, it made a profit of only £256,000, a sum I had thought perfectly respectable until announcement of this damn fool publicity stunt was made.
You are all presumably familiar with Goldbach’s Conjecture. For those who are not, it is this: that every even number greater than two is the sum of two prime numbers. Now, while this conjecture has been painstakingly verified for all numbers up to a gadzillion, no one has supplied an actual proof for every number in the universe. And they’ve been trying since 1742.

So where mathematics flounders, literature steps in to lend a hand, and this is where Faber’s publicity stunt comes in: tied to the hardback publication of this novel last April and still unclaimed. (One imagines listless coteries of mathematicians, preferring to work on anything on earth rather than Goldbach’s Conjecture, until the Faber offer comes along. It is bankrolled, incidentally, by Bloomsbury US, so I suppose that, as their coffers are bursting with gold clawed from the pockets of Harry Potter fans, no one at Faber is really that worried.) By the way, Goldbach himself, and indeed this novel’s narrator until about page 41, would be ineligible for the prize, being respectively non-US and non-UK citizens, and, in the latter case, under 18.

But that is nit-picking. For, when science meets art, the results are acclaimed around the world. I count 24 different encomia printed within and without the book itself, from George Steiner to the Morning Star. The book is manifestly readable, its scanty characterisation and liberal use of exclamation marks no bar to one’s enjoyment; the mathematics has been made light and fluffy enough for ordinary people, and there is a cunning blend of fiction and reality (pen portraits of the Trinity of mathematicians G H Hardy, JE Littlewood and Srinivasa Ramanjuan, with cameos from Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel). One imagines Doxiadis knows whereof he speaks: he was apparently admitted to Columbia University after presenting an original paper to the Department of Mathematics, has written at least four other novels, directed for the theatre, won a prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, and translated Hamlet and Mourning Becomes Electra , for crying out loud.

The story is poignant: the narrator (unnamed; it is possible he is a version of Doxiadis himself) has an Uncle, gifted but broken, presumably in the course of trying to solve this Conjecture; he makes his nephew promise that he will never pursue a career in mathematics. It is a portrait of mathematical genius, of relentless application and insanity; and it makes the character of the driven mathematician less of a mystery. To paraphrase more of the book would be to spoil its simple impact. As for Goldbach’s Conjecture itself, I have discovered a most marvellous proof of this, only I do not have enough space in this review to … oh, wait, that’s a Fermat’s Last Theorem joke.

March 3, 2001: Nicholas Lezard – The Guardian

Comments are closed.