The Genius in my Basement by Alexander Masters had been squirreled away for Christmas reading. The book is about the author’s relationship with mathematician and child prodigy, Simon Norton.
I found Alexander Masters’ book humorous, engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable. But don’t expect to learn much about those most elusive of phenomena childhood genius, and unfulfilled personal potential.
The story line
The story line broadly is
‘would-be author becomes fascinated by Simon Norton, the person occupying the basement of a Cambridge house. Simon is known as a mathematical prodigy who sparkled as a schoolboy at Eton and then at Cambridge before becoming increasingly reclusive and distracted by obsessive attention to bus routes and the evils of car ownership. Author hopes to discover how a great mind works, and maybe explore the tale of unfulfilled genius’.
Norton and his mathematics
The author grapples with the mysteries of finite group theory to which Norton had made important contributions. Fortunately, the reader can skip the tricky bits and still be left with an enjoyable read.
It works very well at a feel-good level , yet there is much more than feel-good to the book. I found it a personal remedy to over-exposure to the Ricky Gervase school of humour and its treatment of the sociological ‘Other’.
If a lion could speak …
There was an obligatory reference to Wittgenstein’s struggles with reality. His point (as I understand it) is that even of a lion could speak, humans would not understand what it was saying. Masters reached a similar conclusion about communicating with Simon Norton.
The communication gap
The communication gap between author and subject, and how it was addressed, is one of the themes of the book. Simon was all too prepared to supply extensive feedback on Masters’s drafts and to insist on more being added about bus schedules, but about mathematical creatiion, Simon choose to remain silent.
This called for ingenuity often found in attempts by journalists attempting to extract the ‘real’ story behind the myth. As in: “we didn’t get the promised interview with Fidel Castro, but our taxi-driver took us to his old school teacher, still living in a remote village…” or, [from this week’s TV documentary] “I didn’t actually get to interview Sarah Palin, but the inhabitants of her home town of Wasilla painted a fascinating picture … ”. One ingenious approach was to suggest what Simon might have said during a disjointed exchange between the two.
What worked for me
What worked for me was a focus on the quirky relationship between the author and subject. He is sensitive to the dangers of stereotyping Simon Norton as a clinically disturbed idiot savant. Simon’s lack of social niceties is presented with absence of psychiatric terminology.
There was something engaging about much of Simon’s behaviour which some features also to be found in individuals occupying senior common rooms, computer cafes and chess clubs.
Was there a ‘critical incident’?
Was there a ‘critical incident’ which tipped Simon over from a highly promising mathematician to Cambridge recluse?. The book suggests it was his finding a treasure trove of bus time-tables. This was one of points I felt needed a little more development and reflection from the author.
Maybe Masters was too easily influenced by the ‘creative’ suggestions of the support team involved in the production of the book. The author, who does a nice line in self-deprecation anyway, defended its ‘outrageous yellow’ colour of the cover. He took a similar line on some illustrations, which may stand for what popular creative writing used to describe as ‘right brain thinking’. These are minor points and may be part of a calculated marketing strategy.
Overall, this was one of the successes of my Christmas reading. Well worth a browse. You can’t miss that banana-coloured cover.