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Archive for June, 2011

I discovered John Banville’s ‘The Infinities’ sometime last year during one of my random browsings at the bookstore. I didn’t know that Banville had come out with a new novel after ‘The Sea’. I couldn’t resist it and so I got it. But it was lying on my bookshelf for nearly a year, before I decided to take it down last week and read it for the ‘Read-a-Myth’ challenge hosted by Jo from ‘Bibliojunkie’ and Bina from ‘If You Can Read This’. I finished reading it today. Here is what I think about it.

 

What I think

 

‘The Infinities’ is a story about Adam Godley who is lying on his deathbed and his family – his wife Ursula, his son Adam and his wife Helen, and his daughter Petra. Adam Godley senior was a famous scientist in his heyday, but now he is in a coma, though according to the story, others feel that he is in a coma, while Adam himself is conscious and is able to see what is happening around him and is able to think. His wife Ursula is nursing him, while his son and daughter-in-law have come to visit him. There are a few other characters in the story too. Every character in the story has different problems. To make things interesting, the Greek gods come visiting too – Zeus and Hermes – though none of the humans know about it. The Greek gods start intervening in the affairs of the family and that leads to some interesting happenings. The story is narrated by Hermes, while Zeus plays a small part. The ending of the story made me remember the Shakespeare play ‘The Midsummer Night’s Dream’.

 

They say history is one damned thing after another. Someone modified this and said that a novel is one damned event / scene after another. But while reading this story I started wondering when the second ‘damned scene’ was coming, because the story seemed to be stuck with the first ‘damned scene’. There are two narrators in the story – Hermes who tells the story most of the time, and Adam senior who though supposedly in a coma (with respect to the way the outside world perceives him), narrates some part of the story. There are long monologues where Hermes while describing current events also shares his thoughts on human beings and Greek gods, while Adam senior shares memories from his past and his thoughts on them. I was in the mood for a traditional story when I picked up this book – I wanted a beginning, a middle and an end. But the narrators went on describing their thoughts on different things that at some point of time, I wanted to take a break and read a more straightforward book. There were long sentences and paragraphs – which were sometimes contemplative, sometimes ruminative and most of the time descriptive. Sometimes I kept wondering when the author was going to worry about what was going to happen next. The problem was with me, of course. Did I tell you that John Banville is a favourite author of mine? J If one wants a plot, one doesn’t read a John Banville novel. But if one wants to read beautiful prose and contemplative passages, a John Banville novel is the place to go. One review called this book as ‘written in saturatedly beautiful, luminous prose’. I will also use the following adjectives to describe Banville’s exquisite prose – luscious, brilliant, incandescent, radiant, dazzling, glittering, sparkling, delightful. I have read just one book by Banville before – ‘The Sea’ – but when I read it and discovered what Banville did with his prose, it was love at first sight for me. Banville doesn’t disappoint in that department in ‘The Infinities’ too. The book is filled with beautiful passages, page after page. Having come to the book with a different reading mood though, I had to plough through the book initially and push myself to read faster before I got into the flow and the prose started to work its magic. I am glad I pushed myself till I reached that state, because it was worth it.

 

Excerpts

 

I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

The Beautiful Dawn

 

Of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works. When darkness sifts from the air like fine soft soot and light spreads slowly out of the east then all but the most wretched of humankind rally. It is a spectacle we immortals enjoy, this minor daily insurrection, often we will gather at the ramparts of the clouds and gaze down upon them, our little ones, as they bestir themselves to welcome the new day. What a silence falls upon us then, the sad silence of envy.

 

The Softest Touch

 

Something brushes past her in the air, less than a draught, more than a thought.

 

The Secret of Survival

 

The secret of survival is a defective imagination. The inability of mortals to imagine things as they truly are is what allows them to live, since one momentary, unresisted glimpse of the world’s totality of suffering would annihilate them on the spot, like a whiff of the most lethal sewer gas. We have stronger stomachs, stouter lungs, we see it all in all its awfulness at every moment and are not daunted; that is the difference; that is what makes us divine.

 

The Nature of Time

 

And then there is the question of time. What for instance is an instant? Hours, minutes, seconds, even these are comprehensible, since they can be measured on a clock, but what is meant when people speak of a moment, a while – a tick – a jiffy? They are only words, of course, yet they hang above soundless depths. Does time flow or is it a succession of stillnesses – instants – moving so swiftly they seem to us to join in an unbreaking wave? Or is there only one great stillness, stretching everywhere, in all directions, through which we move like swimmers breasting an infinite, listless sea? And why does it vary? Why is toothache time so different from the time when he is eating a sweet, one of the many sweets that in time will cause another cavity? There are lights now in the sky that set out from their sources a billion years ago. But are there lights? No, only light, flowing endlessly, moving, every instant.

 

Time too is a difficulty. For her it has two modes. Either it drags itself painfully along like something dragging itself in its own slime over bits of twigs and dead leaves on a forest floor, or it speeds past, in jumps and flickers, like the scenes on a spool of film clattering madly through a broken projector. She is always either lagging behind or hopelessly far in front of everyone else, calling plaintively after them through cupped hands or gabbling back at them breathlessly over her shoulder. When she confessed this to her father, confessed how she never seemed to be in step with anyone else, he showed no surprise, and only dull people imagine it so.

 

Separation and Unity

 

He ponders the problem and, having pondered, comes to the conclusion that it is not a matter of the river being one thing and the estuary another; all that separates them, really, and it is not a real separation at all,  is his having put the question in the first place. For the question is premised on two, man-made, terms – river, estuary – whereas in fact there is but one body of water, commingling here at the whim of unceasing flow on one side and of changing tides on the other; any separation is a separation made only by the action of his asking. This is strange.

 

Reality and Manifestation

 

He sought to cleave exclusively to numbers, figures, concrete symbols. He knew, of course, the peril of confusing the expression of something with the something itself, and even he sometimes went astray in the uncertain zone between the concept and the thing conceptualised; even he, like me, mistook sometimes the manifestation for the essence . Because for both of us this essence is essentially inessential, when it comes to the business of making manifest. For me, the gods; for him, the infinities. You see the fix we are in.

 

What is Love?

 

      Did I, do I, love them? It is a simple question but extremely ticklish. I shielded them from what dangers I could, did not stint or spoil, taught them such virtues as I knew and as I judged they would benefit from. I worried they would suffer falls, cut themselves, catch a cold, contact leprosy. I think it safe to say that in certain dire circumstances if called upon I would have given up my life to save theirs. But all that, it seems, was not enough : a further effort was required, no, not an effort but an effect, an affect, whatever to say – a state of being, let us call it, a stance in relation to the world, which is what they mean by love. When they speak of it, this love of theirs, they speak as of a kind of grand mal  brought on catastrophically by a bacillus unknown to science but everywhere present in the air about us, like the tuberculosis spore, and to which all but the coldest constitutions are susceptible. For me, however, if I understand the concept, to love properly and in earnest one would have to do it anonymously, or at least in an undeclared fashion, so as not to seem to ask anything in return, since asking and getting are the antithesis of love – if, as I say, I have the concept aright, which from all I have said and all that has been said to me so far it appears I do not. It is very puzzling. Love, the kind that I mean, would require a superhuman capacity for sacrifice and self-denial, such as a saint possesses, or a god, and saints are monsters, as we know, and as for the gods – well. Perhaps that is my trouble, perhaps my standards are too high. Perhaps human love is simple, and therefore beyond me, due to my incurable complicating bent. That might be it, that might be the answer. But I do not think so.

      And yet perhaps I do love, without knowing it; could such a thing be possible, an unwilled, and unconscious, loving? On occasion, when I think of this or that person, my wife, say, my son or daughter – let us leave my daughter-in-law out of this – my heart is filled, what we call the heart, with an involuntary surge of something, glutinous and hot, like grief, but a happy grief, and so strong that I stagger inwardly and my throat thickens and tears, yes, real tears, press into my eyes. This is not like me, I am not given to swoons and vapourings in the normal run of things. So maybe there is a vast, hidden reservoir of love within me and these wellings-up are the overflow of it, the splashes over the side of the cistern when something weighty is thrown in.

 

I have to say here that my review of ‘The Infinities’ is highly inadequate. If I had been a smarter reviewer, I would have talked about how Banville has created a highly intelligent novel by gently embedding scientific concepts in his book – like Relativity, String Theory, Theory of Everything, Quantum Mechanics, Schrodinger’s Cat, the nature of time, the difference between scientific models and reality – and integrating them beautifully with Greek mythology using his luminous prose to tell an interesting story, which one can read at many levels. I would have also talked about how the novel shows that while human life and the human condition is imperfect, it is also delightful.

 

If you like a combination of Greek mythology and the innovative uses it can be put to while telling stories, modern science and beautiful prose, you will love this book.

 

Have you read ‘The Infinities’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘Till We Have Faces’ by C.S.Lewis through the wonderful review of Eva from ‘A Striped Armchair’ (Thanks, Eva J). I have wanted to read it for a while but I was not able to get hold of a copy. Luckily, recently I was able to get a copy. I also had a wonderful reason to read it – the delightful ‘Read-a-Myth’ challenge hosted by Jo from ‘Bibliojunkie’ and Bina from ‘If You Can Read This’. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think about it.

 

What I think

 

‘Till We Have Faces’ is a retelling of the Psyche-Cupid myth. The first thing I had to decide before starting the book was whether I should read the original myth first. Though I had a sketchy knowledge of the original story, I thought that if I read it again, I will appreciate Lewis’ retelling better. I had a beautiful graphic novel version of the original myth – it was called ‘Stolen Hearts : The love of Eros and Psyche’ – which was lavishly illustrated, which was also tempting me. But after thinking about it for a while I thought I will read Lewis’ version first, because I wanted to get the new perspective first. So I read ‘Till We Have Faces’ first and then I read the graphic novel version.

 

 

 

 

I liked Lewis’ retelling of the original myth. He had taken many liberties with the story – it was similar to how a novel is sometimes converted into a screenplay and how major liberties are taken with respect to the plot arcs, points of view and the importance given to different events. Lewis does all that to the original myth which results in a story which is very new and very fresh. The story is told from the point of view of Orual, the elder sister of Psyche. The action happens in the country of Glome, a barbaric pre-Christian world, not in Greece. The divine and magical elements in the story are all described in such a way that the reader can assume that they didn’t really happen, but they were really there only in the imagination of different characters. This was probably Lewis’ way of making the story more realistic to a twentieth century audience. The story also sheds interesting light on the differences between actual events and our memory and feelings about them, how our points of view prevent us from seeing reality the way it is and how myths originate from real stories and how they get transformed across ages into something unrecognizable from their original forms. I liked the major characters in the story – Orual and Psyche – and the minor and important characters –  the Fox and Bardia. The Fox is a Greek slave who is also the teacher of Orual and Psyche and his sense of humour and the pearls of wisdom he comes up with, time and again, are some of my favourite parts of the book. I loved the book till around 190 pages (when Psyche’s husband Cupid leaves her) and liked it till around 250 pages (which is the end of part one). I felt that the story in the last fifty pages was a bit weak, as Orual recants what she had told in the earlier part of the book and tries to see reality from a new perspective.

 

After reading ‘Till We Have Faces’ I read the graphic novel version of the original Psyche – Cupid myth. It was published by a company called Campfire and it was gorgeously illustrated. I loved the original myth – in some ways I liked it more than the C.S.Lewis version. But I also liked the way Lewis has given more prominence to the minor characters in his version (in the original myth Psyche’s sisters are jealous of her and bring her misery. In Lewis’ version, Orual’s character is fleshed out and her motivations are complex). My favourite characters from the original version I read, in addition to Psyche, were Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld, Zephyrus the western wind, and the narrator of the story Demiarties. (The Psyche-Cupid story is told by Demiarties to her student Aspyritus, who is a teenage girl in love with a boy). One of my favourite scenes in the graphic novel happens in the end after Demiarties has told the story and tries to answer one of Aspyritus’ questions about it. It goes like this :

 

Aspyritus : It is a wonderful tale, Lady Demiarties. But I’m still trying to see how it applies to my situation with Promilion and his mother. Am I to perform some grand task to prove my love for him?

 

Demiarties : So you want a moral to the story?

 

Aspyritus : Quite.

 

Demiarties : You are still young Aspyritus, and I certainly don’t want to regale you with a when-you-get-older-you’ll-understand speech. This is the secret. Anyone can fall in love. Falling in love is easy. It happens every single day. It is easy to fall in love when things are happy and wonderful. But it is also easy to fall out of love. The ultimate goal – of any person – is to find true love. But true love cannot be found. It has to be forged. Think of it like a sword. Hephaestus forges a sword by pounding it between the hammer and the anvil. That is what makes it strong. The soul is like the sword. We are made strong through hardships, struggles and challenges. It is easy to fall in love with someone when things are perfect. But true love is formed through adversity. True love is letting someone see you at your worst. False love will run at the first sign of trouble. But true love will pick you up, dust you off, and convince you to keep moving forward. True love will suffer through all and endure the rough times. It suffers the lowest of lows, but it also achieves the highest of highs. You cannot have mountains without valleys. You cannot have light without darkness. If your love with Promilion is meant to endure, then problems will help develop it from infatuation and attraction to the one true love.

 

I liked very much what Demiarties said – that true love cannot be found but it has to be forged. It made me remember something similar that Erich Fromm said in his book ‘The Art of Loving’.

 

Excerpts

 

I will leave you now with some of my favourite lines from ‘Till We Have Faces’ and some beautiful pictures from ‘Stolen Hearts’.

 

From ‘Till We Have Faces’

 

“Are there no things, but what we see?”

 

      “You don’t think – not possibly – not as a mere hundredth chance – there might be things that are real though we can’t see them?”

      “Certainly I do. Such things as Justice, Equality, the Soul, or musical notes.”

      “Oh, Grandfather, I don’t mean things like that. If there are souls, could there not be soul-houses?”

      He ran his hands through his hair with an old, familiar gesture of teacher’s dismay.

      “Child,” he said, “you make me believe that, after all these years, you have never even begun to understand what the word soul means.”

      “I know well enough what you mean by it, Grandfather. But do you, even you, know all? Are there no things – I mean things – but what we see?”

      “Plenty. Things behind our backs. Things too far away. And all things, if it’s dark enough.” He leaned forward and put his hand on mine. “I begin to think, daughter, that if I can get that hellebore, yours had better be the first dose,” he said.

 

The 80-20 rule

 

On a great day the thing that makes it great may fill the least part of it – as a meal takes little time to eat, but the killing, baking and dressing, and the swilling and scraping after it, take long enough.

 

Men and Women

 

      “Do you tell me a strong man’d break under the burden a woman’s bearing well?”

      “Who that knows men would doubt it? They’re harder, but we’re tougher. They do not live longer than we. They do not weather a sickness better. Men are brittle. And you, Queen, were the younger.”

 

The Brightest Colours and the Deepest root

 

Perhaps in the soul, as in the soil, those growths that show the brightest colours and put forth the most overpowering smell have not always the deepest root.

 

Reality and Dreams

 

      Of the things that followed I cannot at all say whether they were what men call real or what men call dream. And for all I can tell, the only difference is that what many see we call a real thing, and what only one sees we call a dream. But things that many see may have no taste or moment in them at all, and things that are shown only to one may be spears and water-sprouts of truth from the very depth of truth.

 

From ‘Stolen Hearts’

 

Psyche flies with Zephyrus the West wind to her new husband’s abode

 

 

Persephone

 

 

 

Psyche becomes a goddess

 

 

And they lived happily ever after 🙂

 

 

 

Have you read ‘Till We Have Faces’ or ‘Stolen Hearts’ or another version of the Psyche-Cupid myth? What do you think about them?

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I haven’t read a lot of German literature, except for a few books by Hermann Hesse, one by Johnann Wolfgang von Goethe and one by Pascal Mercier (Mercier was actually Swiss but he wrote in German). So sometime back when I was discussing about books with Bina from ‘If You Can Read This’, I requested her to recommend interesting German authors. One of the authors that Bina recommended was Friedrich Dürrenmatt (Thanks Bina 🙂 ). Dürrenmatt was Swiss and he wrote in German. He is famous for his plays ‘The Visit’ and ‘The Physicists’ but his mystery novels are also famous. I decided to try reading his mystery novels first. So recently I got three books by Dürrenmatt – The Inspector and his Hangman’, ‘Suspicion’ and ‘The Pledge’. I finished reading them recently. Here is the review.

 

 

What I think

 

The three books of Dürrenmatt came in two volumes – the first one had ‘The Inspector and his Hangman’ and ‘Suspicion’ and the second one had ‘The Pledge’. The editions I got were published by University of Chicago press. They had beautiful covers, were printed in good quality paper which had a delightful fragrance and the font was beautiful – they were exquisitely produced! I am dying to get more books by this university press! I love university presses!

 

‘The Inspector and his Hangman’ is a story about the murder of a policeman and how Inspector Barlach investigates the case to unmask the killer. There is also a crime behind a crime here and Dürrenmatt skillfully uses the scenario to ask interesting questions on whether people are intrinsically good or not, and whether crimes can be detected most of the time or not. The climax and the revelations at the end are unexpected and add excitement to the story.

 

‘Suspicion’ is a story where Inspector Barlach discovers that there might be a Nazi who is posing as a director of a private clinic for wealthy patients. He registers himself in the hospital as a patient and tries to discover the truth for himself. There are not many secret revelations in ‘Suspicion’ as the identity of the villain is known in advance. But the story moves slowly into dangerous terrain and takes us there without us realizing it – the blurb said this about the book which I could totally identify with – “Once I got into the story I could no more have stopped reading than the drug addict in the book could have given up morphine”. One of my favourite things about the book was that Dürrenmatt made some of the villains ask some tough questions about life, luck, good and evil, nihilism and unfairness, fighting for justice and whether it can change anything. In one place one of the good characters also asks some interesting questions on these topics. I loved these conversations, passages and questions. They made me think.

 

‘The Pledge’ is about the murder of a young girl and how Inspector Mathäi promises the mother of the girl that he will bring the murderer to justice, how he sets a trap like a master fisherman to catch the killer and how things go wrong after that. It is structured as a story told by a former Chief of police to a novelist who writes detective fiction to illustrate how real cases are very different from detective fiction and how the real world makes people look like fools while in detective fiction all the loose ends are tied up in the end. I liked this structure of the book. There is a scene in the book where a suspect is interrogated which I found quite chilling. It went like this – “You ran to Mägendorf because you wanted to turn yourself in, but then you lost courage. The courage to confess. You must find that courage again, von Gunten. And we want to help you find it.”  The blurb said this about the book, which I liked very much – “Each word falls into place like a footstep of approaching doom” J ‘The Pledge’ also made me very sad in the end, because it was a tragic story which had a sad ending. I haven’t felt like this while reading a mystery novel before. I also loved a few other things about the book which were not really related to the story – the mention of Lindt’s milk chocolate (my favourite!), St.Gallen (where I went many years back for a symposium and about which I have many fond memories) and fairy tales – by Hans Christian Andersen, Brothers Grimm and the  A Thousand and One Nights.

 

So what do I think about the three Dürrenmatt stories, when I consider them together? How are they as mysteries? Which one is my favourite? I think the three of them are very different. ‘The Inspector and his Hangman’ had a lot of suspense, and the identity of the murderer is known only towards the end. So, as a mystery it would score very high. ‘Suspicion’ was a story where the villain’s identity is nearly known at the beginning and the story moves faster because the main character moves closer and closer towards danger. While I cared for the main character and was worried about his fate, my favourite parts of this book were the beautiful insightful passages that different characters speak – especially the villains. When I was a boy, I hated villains in stories, but now I regard them as complex characters who are more interesting than the good guys (like Hans Landa in ‘Inglourious Basterds’ J). The passages spoken by the villains in this book were really awesome – they are passages that I am going to read again. ‘The Pledge’ also had a mystery which was resolved only in the end, but more important than the mystery was how the book depicted the way people stake their careers in solving one mystery or one problem and how things can go bad from there and how one can get obsessive with one thing for one’s whole life and how life will make one look silly in the end. It was a heartbreaking story and it made me sad. I am a sucker for tragic stories and so I loved it. I loved the three Dürrenmatt stories in different ways but if I can pick only one favourite, it has to be ‘The Pledge’. It has been made into a movie starring Jack Nicholson, and I want to see that now.

 

I had just one issue with the books – specifically with the collection which had ‘The Inspector and his Hangman’ and ‘Suspicion’. It had a foreword by Sven Birkerts and I started reading it first, but after reading a couple of pages, I felt that it was summarizing the plots and had so many spoilers that I stopped reading it and dived into the book proper. Later, after I finished the book I came back and read the foreword. I was disappointed that the foreword had so many spoilers and if one reads it completely I feel it would ruin one’s experience of reading the actual book. Some editions (for example Wordsworth editions) carry a warning before the ‘Introduction’ / ‘Foreword’ saying that there are spoilers and it is advisable if readers first read the book and come back and read the introduction later. I think a warning like that would be better. Alternatively, it would be nice if books like this didn’t have introductions but had an ‘Afterword’ where the writer of it can say what he / she wants and it can contain any number of spoilers. But it also carries the risk that after reading the book, a reader might not want to read the ‘Afterword’ J Atleast I want to be careful from now on, while reading forewords and introductions.

 

Excerpts

 

Here are some of my favourite passages from the three books.

 

From ‘The Inspector and his Hangman’

 

Shifting Opinion

 

The reason for his return was not his love of Bern – his golden grave, as he often called it – but a slap he had given a high-ranking official of the new German government. This vicious assault was the talk of Frankfurt for a while. Opinions in Bern, always sensitive to the shifts in European politics, judged it first as an inexcusable outrage, then as a deplorable but understandable act, and finally – in 1945 – as the only possible thing a Swiss could have done.

 

How to treat one’s boss

 

He…lit a cigar, and went to Lutz’s office, well knowing how Lutz always resented the liberty the old man took by smoking in his room. Only once, years ago, had Lutz dared to object but Barlach with a dismissive gesture replied that he had served ten years in Turkey and had always smoked in the offices of his superiors in Constantinople, a remark that carried all the more weight in that there was no way to disprove it.

 

Suspicion and Detection

 

      “Dr.Lutz told me you have a definite suspicion.”

      “Yes, Tschanz, I do.”

      “Commissioner, since I have become your assistant in the Schmied murder case, don’t you think it might be better if you told me who it is you are suspecting?”

      “You see,” Barlach answered slowly, deliberating each word as carefully as Tschanz did, “my suspicion is not a scientific criminological suspicion. I have no solid reasons to justify it. You have seen how little I know. All I have is an idea as to who the murderer might be; but the person I have in mind had yet to deliver the proof of his guilt.”

      “What do you mean, Inspector?” Tschanz asked.

      Barlach smiled. “Simply that I have to wait for the evidence to emerge that will justify his arrest.”

      “If I am to work with you, I have to know who it is I am targeting with my investigation,” Tchanz declared politely.

      “Above all we must remain objective. That applies to me, as the one who holds the suspicion, and to you, as the one who will conduct most of the inquest. I don’t know whether my suspicion will be confirmed. I await the results of the investigation. It is your job to find Schmied’s killer regardless of my suspicion. If the person I suspect is in fact the killer, you will find him in your own way – which unlike mine, is impeccably scientific. And if I’m wrong, you will find the right man, and there will have been no need to know the name of the person I falsely suspected.”

 

From ‘Suspicion’

 

The Law and its Subtleties

 

“I see, you like mathematics,” she replied…”I thought right away you’re the type of fool who swears by mathematics. The law is the law. X = X. The most monstrous phrase ever to rise to the eternally bloody night sky that hangs above us,” she laughed. “As if there were some sort of moral law that held true for man regardless of the amount of power he possesses. The law is not the law. Power is the law; that is the decree written over the valleys of our destruction. Nothing is itself in this world, everything is a lie. When we say law, we mean power; when we pronounce the word ‘power,’ we think of wealth, and when the word ‘wealth’ passes our lips, we hope to enjoy the vices of the world. The law is vice, the law is wealth, the law is cannons, monopolies, political parties. Whatever we say, it is never illogical, except for the statement that the law is the law, which is the only lie. Mathematics lies, reason, intelligence, art, they all lie. What do you want, Inspector? We’re deposited on some brittle shoal, without being asked, and without knowing why; there we sit staring into a universe, monstrously empty and monstrously full, a meaningless waste, drifting toward those distant cataracts that we’ll eventually reach – the only thing we know. We live in order to die, we breathe and speak, we love, we have children and grandchildren, so that we and our loved ones and those we have brought forth out of our own flesh can end up as carrion and disintegrate into the indifferent, dead elements we are composed of. The cards were shuffled and dealt and gathered together : c’est ça. And because all we have is this drifting shoal of dirt and ice to which we cling, our dearest wish is that this our only life – this fleeting moment within view of the rainbow that arches across the foam and stream of the abyss – should be a happy one; that the earth – our only, meager grace – should give us all her abundance for the brief time she carries us. But that is not how it is, and it never will be, and the crime, Inspector, is not that life isn’t that way, that there is poverty and misery, it’s that there are poor and rich people, that the ship in which we are all sinking together has cabins for the rich and powerful next to the mass quarters for the poor. We all have to die, they say, so it doesn’t matter. To die is to die. Oh this farcical mathematics! The dying of the poor is one thing, and the dying of the rich and powerful is another, and there is a world in between, the stage on which the bloody tragicomedy between the weak and the powerful takes place. The poor man dies the way he lived, on a sack in a cellar, on a tattered mattress if he climbs a little higher, or on the bloody field of honor if he reaches the top; but the rich man dies differently. He has lived in luxury and wants to die in luxury, he is cultivated and claps his hands as he kicks the bucket: Applause, my friends, the show is over! Life was a pose, dying an empty phrase, the funeral an advertisement, and the whole thing a good deal. C’est ça.”

 

“What do you believe in?”

 

“A man of our time does not like to answer this question : What do you believe in? It has become improper to ask that. People don’t like to make grand pronouncements, as they modestly say, and least of all to give definite answers, such as : ‘I believe in God the father, the son and the holy ghost,’ as the Christians used to answer, proud that they were able to answer. Nowadays people like to keep silent when they are asked, like a girl when she’s asked an embarrassing question. Basically one doesn’t really know what it is one believes in. It’s not nothing, God knows, it’s definitely something, though one’s notions of it are rather vague, like some sort of inner fog – something like humanity, Christianity, tolerance, justice, socialism, loving one’s neighbor, things that sound rather hollow, and people admit that, too, but when they think : It doesn’t matter what you call it; what’s important is that you live a decent life according to your best conscience. And they’ll try to do that, partly by making an effort and partly by letting things drift. Everything they do, their deeds and their misdeeds, happens by chance, good and evil fall into their laps like lottery tickets; it’s by chance that one of them turns out well and the other ill. No matter : That fancy word, ‘nihilist,’ is always at hand as a weapon to throw – with a lot of bluster and even greater conviction – at anyone who makes them uneasy. I know these people, they are convinced it’s their right to claim that one plus one is three, four, or ninety-nine, and that it would be unfair to ask them to answer that one plus one is two. Anything that’s clear looks rigid to them, because in order to have clarity, you need character. They don’t realize that a determined Communist – to use a far-fetched example; for most Communists are Communists the way most Christians are Christians, out of a misunderstanding – they don’t realize that a person who believes with his whole soul in the necessity of revolution, and believes that only this path, even if it is paved with millions of corpses, will one day lead to a better world, is less of a nihilist than they are, than some Mr.Müller or Schmidt who believes neither in God nor in the absence of God, neither in hell nor in heaven, but only in his right to make money – a belief that they are too cowardly to postulate as a credo. And so they muddle along like worms in some sort of general pulp that doesn’t allow for any decisions, with a nebulous notion of something that is good and right and true, as if there could be such a thing when everything has been reduced to pulp.”

 

The Only True Adventure

 

“We can’t save the world as individuals, that would be a task as hopeless as that of poor Sysyphus; it is not up to us, nor is it up to any man of power, or any nation, or the devil himself, who is surely more powerful than anyone; it is in the hand of God, who makes his decisions alone. We can only help in particular cases, we cannot affect the whole. Those are the limits of the poor Jew Gulliver, those are the limits of all human beings. Therefore, we should not try to save the world, but we must endure it. This is the only true adventure left to us at this late hour.”

 

From ‘The Pledge’

 

Staying within limits

 

“…we can’t weave the nets of police surveillance so tightly that no crimes ever happen. Crimes always happen, not because there aren’t enough policemen, but because there are policemen at all. If we weren’t needed, there wouldn’t be crimes. Let’s keep that in mind. We have to do our duty, you’re right about that, but our first duty is to stay within our limits, otherwise we’ll end up with a police state.”

 

Fantasy and Reality

 

“You see, children don’t just draw what they see, they also draw what they feel about what they see. Fantasy and reality are mixed together.”

 

Postcard world

 

The sun stood low now, the shadows were tremendous, the wide valley lay steeped in a strong golden glow, and the sky above was a pure blue; but I hated everything. I felt as though I have been exiled to some huge, awful postcard world.

 

Reality and the bookish world

 

“…People hope the police at least will know how to put the world in order, which strikes me as the most miserable thing you could possibly hope for. But unfortunately, these mystery stories perpetrate a whole different sort of deception. I don’t even mean the fact that your criminals are always brought to justice. It’s a nice fairy tale and is probably morally necessary. It’s one of those lies that preserve the state, like that pious homily ‘crime doesn’t pay’ – when all that’s required to test this particular piece of wisdom is to have a good look at human society;…No, what really bothers me about your novels is the story line, the plot. There the lying just takes over, it’s shameless. You set up your stories logically, like a chess game : here’s the criminal, there’s the victim, here’s an accomplice, there’s a beneficiary, and all the detective needs to know is the rules, he replays the moves of the game, and checkmate, the criminal is caught and justice has triumphed. This fantasy drives me crazy. You can’t come to grips with reality by logic alone. Granted, we of the police are forced to proceed logically, scientifically; but there is so much interference, so many factors mess up our clear schemes, that success in our business very often amounts to no more than professional luck and pure chance working in our favor. Or against us. But in your novels, chance plays no part, and if something looks like chance, it’s made out to be some kind of fate or providence; the truth gets thrown to the wolves, which in your case are the dramatic rules. Get rid of them, for God’s sake. Real events can’t be resolved like a mathematical formula, for the simple reason that we never know all the necessary factors, just a few, and usually a rather insignificant few. And chance – the incalculable, the incommensurable – plays too great a part. Our laws are based only on probability, on statistics, not on causality; they apply to the general rule, not the particular case. The individual can’t be grasped by calculation. Our criminological methods are inadequate, and the more we refine them, the more inadequate they get. But you fellows in the writing game don’t care about that. You don’t try to grapple with a reality that keeps eluding us, you just set up a manageable world. That world may be perfect, but it’s a lie. Forget about perfection if you want to make headway and get at the way things actually are, at reality, like a man; otherwise you’ll be left fiddling around with useless stylistic exercises.

 

Have you read these books or other books by Friedrich Dürrenmatt? What do you think about them?

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A beautiful passage from the book I am reading now – ‘Till We Have Faces’ by C.S.Lewis. It is a retelling of the love story of Psyche and Cupid. I am reading this as part of the ‘Read-a-Myth’ challenge hosted by Jo from ‘Bibliojunkie’ and Bina from ‘If You Can Read This’.

Of Psyche’s beauty – at every age the beauty proper to that age – there is only this to be said, that there were no two opinions about it, from man or woman, once she had been seen. It was beauty that did not astonish you till afterwards when you had gone out of sight of her and reflected on it. While she was with you, you were not astonished. It seemed the most natural thing in the world. As the Fox delighted to say, she was “according to nature”; what every woman, or even every thing, ought to have been and meant to be, but had missed by some trip of chance. Indeed, when you looked at her you believed, for a moment, that they had not missed it. She made beauty all round her. When she trod on mud, the mud was beautiful; when she ran in the rain, the rain was silver. When she picked up a toad – she had the strangest and, I thought, unchanciest love for all manner of brutes – the toad became beautiful…I wanted to be a wife so that I could have been her real mother. I wanted to be a boy so that she could be in love with me. I wanted her to be my full sister instead of my half sister. I wanted her to be a slave so that I could set her free and make her rich.

– From ‘Till We Have Faces’ by C.S.Lewis

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One of my dear friends gifted me Pablo Neruda’s ‘Odes to Common Things’. I have been reading it on and off for sometime, but recently I thought I will take the book and read it ‘properly’ – from the first page to the last. I finished it recently. Here is the review.


What I think

 

I have to start from the way the book looked. It has a beautiful brown cover with a black-and-white drawing of a salt bottle (or is it a pepper bottle?) and green coloured cloth binding. The paper was smooth, thick and wonderful to touch. The book had the wonderful bookish fragrance that the best books have. It was published by Bulfinch press. There were twenty five odes in the book. Each of the odes celebrated an everyday object – table, chair, bed, guitar, dog, cat, flowers, soap, socks, dictionary, scissors, tea, spoon, plate, orange, apple, bread, onion, tomato and a few more. Every poem was in bilingual form – the Spanish version was on the left hand side while the English translation was on the right hand side. Before the start of the poem there was a beautiful drawing of the everyday object which was the subject of the poem – the pictures on the two pages revealed two different facets of the object.

 

I loved the book. Neruda’s odes were beautiful. Neruda takes each everday object and sings its glory. He also uses the occasion to talk about love and life and music and nature and friendship and war and dreams and beauty and travel and learning and everything in between. One marvels at Neruda’s talent. One marvels at the beauty of the odes. One is engulfed slowly by their melody.

 

I highly recommend this collection of Neruda’s odes. If you like poems you will love this. If you don’t read much poetry, you will still love this 🙂

 

Favourites

 

I loved all the odes in the book. But I loved some of them more than the others. Here are some of my favourites.

 

From ‘Ode to the cat’

 

Men would like to be fish or fowl,

snakes would rather have wings,

and dogs are would-be lions.

Engineers want to be poets,

flies emulate swallows,

and poets try hard to act like flies.

But the cat

wants nothing more than to be a cat,

and every cat is pure cat

from its whiskers to its tail,

from sixth sense to squirming rat,

from nighttime to its golden eyes.

 

From ‘Ode to the onion’

 

Generously

you give up

your balloon of freshness

to the boiling consummation

of the pot,

and in the blazing heat of the oil

the shred of crystal

is transformed into a curled feather of gold.

 

From ‘Ode to the tomato’

 

Tomatoes have

their own glow,

and a benign grandeur.

All the same, we’ll have

to put this one to death :

the knife

sinks into

its living pulp,

it’s a bloody

organ,

a poignant,

raw,

inexhaustible

sun.

 

Ode to things

 

I have a crazy,

crazy love of things.

I like pliers,

and scissors.

I love

cups,

rings,

and bowls –

not to speak, of course,

of hats.

I love

all things,

not just

the grandest,

also

the

infinite-

ly

small –

thimbles,

spurs,

plates,

and flower vases.

 

Oh yes,

the planet

is sublime!

It’s full of

pipes

weaving

hand-held

through tobacco smoke,

and keys

and salt shakers –

everything,

I mean,

that is made

by the hand of man, every little thing :

shapely shoes,

and fabric,

and each new

bloodless birth

of gold,

eyeglasses,

carpenter’s nails,

brushes,

clocks, compasses,

coins, and the so-soft

softness of chairs.

 

Mankind has

built

oh so many

perfect

things!

Built them of wool

and of wood,

of glass and

of rope :

remarkable

tables,

ships, and stairways.

 

I love

all

things,

not because they are

passionate

or sweet smelling

but because,

I don’t know,

because

this ocean is yours,

and mine :

these buttons

and wheels

and little

forgotten

treasures,

fans upon

whose feathers

love has scattered

its blossoms,

glasses, knives and

scissors –

all bear

the trace

of someone’s fingers

on their handle or surface,

the trace of a distant hand

lost

in the depths of forgetfulness.

 

I pause in houses,

streets and

elevators,

touching things,

identifying objects

that I secretly covet :

this one because it rings,

that one because

it’s as soft

as the softness of a woman’s hip,

that one there for its deep-sea color,

and that one for its velvet feel.

 

O irrevocable

river

of things :

no one can say

that I loved

only

fish,

or the plants of the jungle and the field,

that I loved

only

those things that leap and climb, desire, and survive.

It’s not true :

many things conspired

to tell me the whole story.

Not only did they touch me,

or my hand touched them :

they were

so close

that they were a part

of my being,

they were so alive with me

that they lived half my life

and will die half my death.

 

Ode to the dog

 

The dog is asking me a question

and I have no answer.

He dashes thruogh the countryside and asks me

wordlessly,

and his eyes

are two moist question marks, two wet

inquiring flames,

but I do not answer

because I haven’t got the answer.

I have nothing to say.

 

Dog and man : together we roam

the open countryside.

 

Leaves shine as

if someone

had kissed them

one by one,

orange trees

rise up from the earth

raising

minute planetariums

in trees that are as rounded

and green as the night,

while we roam together, dog and man

sniffling everything, jostling clover

in the countryside of Chile,

cradled by the bright fingers of September.

The dog makes stops,

chases bees,

leaps over restless water,

listens to far-off

barking,

pees on a rock,

and presents me the tip of his snout

as if it were a gift :

it is the freshness of his love,

his message of love.

And he asks me

with both eyes :

why is it daytime? why does night always fall?

why does spring bring

nothing

in its basket

for wandering dogs

but useless flowers,

flowers and more flowers?

This is how the dog

asks questions

and I do not reply.

 

Together we roam,

man and dog bound together again

by the bright green morning,

by the provocative empty solitude

in which we alone,

exist,

this union of dog and dew

or poet and woods,

For these two companions,

for these fellow-hunters,

there is no lurking fowl

or secret berry

but only birdsong and sweet smells,

a world moistened

by night’s distillations,

a green tunnel and then

a meadow,

a gust of orangey air,

the murmurings of roots,

life on the move,

breathing and growing,

and the ancient friendship,

the joy

of being dog or being man

fused in a single beast

that pads along on

six feet,

wagging

its dew-wet tail.

 

Ode to a bar of soap

 

When I pick up

a bar

of soap

to take a closer look,

its powerful aroma

astounds me :

O fragrance,

I don’t know

where you come from,

– what

is your home town?

Did my cousin send you

or did you come from clean clothes

and the hands that washed them,

splotchy from the cold basin?

Did you come from those

lilacs

I remember so well,

from the amaranth’s

blossom,

from green plums

clinging to a branch?

Have you come from the playing field

and a quick swim

beneath the

trembling

willows?

Is yours the aroma of thickets

or of young love or birthday

cakes? Or is yours the smell

of a dampened heart?

 

What is it that you bring

to my nose

so early

every day,

bar of soap,

before I climb into my morning

bath

and go into the streets

among men weighed down

with goods?

What this smell of people,

a faint smell,

of petticoat

flowers,

the honey of woodland girls?

Or is it

the old

half-forgotten

air of a

five-

and-ten,

the heavy white fabric

a peasant holds in his hands,

rich

thickness

of molasses,

or the red carnation

that lay on my aunt’s

sideboard

like a lightning-bolt of red,

ike a red arrow?

 

Do I detect

your pungent

odor

in cut-rate

dry goods and unforgettable

cologne, in barbershops

and the clean cuontryside,

in sweet water?

This is what

you are,

soap : you are pure delight,

the passing fragrance

that slithers

and sinks like a

blind fish

to the bottom of the bathtub.

 

Ode to a pair of scissors

 

Prodigious

scissors

(looking like

birds, or

fish),

you are as polished as a knight’s

shining armor.

 

Two long and treacherous

knives

crossed and bound together

for all time,

two

tiny rivers

joined :

thus was born a creature for cutting,

a fish that swims among billowing linens,

a bird that flies

through

barbershops.

 

Scissors

that smell

of

my seamstress

aunt’s

hands

when their vacant

metal eye

spied on

our

cramped

childhood,

tattling

to the neighbours

about our thefts of plums and kisses.

 

There,

in the house,

nestled in their corner,

the scissors crossed

our lives,

and oh so

many lengths of

fabric

that they cut and kept on cutting :

for newlyweds and the dead,

for newborns and hospital wards.

They cut

and kept on cutting,

also the peasant’s

hair

as tough

as a plant that clings to rock,

and flags

soon stained and scorched

by blood and flame,

and vine

stalks in winter,

and the cord

of

voices

on the telephone.

 

A long-lost pair of scissors

cut your mother’s

thread

from your navel

and handed you for all time

your separate existence.

Another pair, not necessarily

somber,

will one day cut

the suit you wear to your grave.

 

Scissors

have gone

everywhere,

they’ve explored

the world

snipping off piece of

happiness

and sadness

indifferently.

Everything has been material

for scissors to shape :

the tailor’s

giant scissors,

as lovely as schooners,

and very small ones

for trimming nails

in the shape of the waning moon,

and the surgeon’s

slender

submarine scissors

that cut complications

and the know that should not have grown inside you.

 

Now, I’ll cut this ode short

with the scissors

of good sense,

so tht it won’t be too long or too short,

so that it

will

fit in your pocket

smoothed and folded

like

a pair

of scissors.

 

Did you like the above poems? Have you read Neruda’s book? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘Perfect Rigour’ by Masha Gessen during one of my random book browsing sessions at the bookstore recently. It was about the Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman and how he solved the Poincare Conjecture. I had read in the news sometime back that a nearly century-old mathematical problem which was first proposed by the French Mathematician Poincare in 1904 was recently solved by the Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman. It made me look at the news in more detail because this was one of the few times that mathematics was in the news in recent times. The last time something like this happened was when Andrew Wiles proved Fermat’s Last Theorem in 1995. I read a little bit more about Perelman and the Poincare Conjecture. I even got a book on the Poincare Conjecture by mathematician Donal O’Shea, which was written for general readers and kept it on my book pile for reading later. When I browsed Masha Gessen’s book, it looked like the focus here was more on Perelman and less on the Poincare Conjecture and so it didn’t look like a demanding read. So I got tempted and got it and read it in a few days. Here is the review.

 

Description of the book

 

I am giving below a description of the book as given in the inside flap.

 

In 2006, an eccentric Russian mathematician named Grigori Perelman was confirmed to have solved one of the world’s greatest intellectual puzzles.

 

The Poincare conjecture is an extremely complex topological problem that had eluded the best minds for over a century. In 2000, the Clay Institute in Boston named it one of seven great unsolved mathematical problems, and promised a million dollars to anyone who could find a solution.

 

Perelman posted his answer online in 2002. Once it was proved correct in 2006 he was awarded the Fields Medal, the mathematical world’s greatest honour, and he received lucrative job offers from the world’s finest universities. The Clay Institute’s million-dollar prize followed in 2010. He declined them all.

 

Masha Gessen was determined to find out why.

 

Drawing on interviews with Perelman’s teachers, classmates, coaches, teammates and colleagues in Russia and the US – and informed by her own background as a maths whiz raised in Russia – she set out to uncover the nature of Perelman’s astonishing abilities.

 

In telling his story, Masha Gessen has constructed a gripping and tragic tale that sheds rare light on the unique burden of genius.

 

 

What I think

 

Masha Gessen’s book, in the initial chapters, provides the setting by giving a fascinating overview of Soviet Mathematics during the twentieth century. It talks about the main figures who developed Soviet mathematics and kept it alive and world-class during the days of the Iron Curtain like Luzin, Kolmogorov, the evolution of maths clubs, the Mathematics Olympiads and the discrimination against Jewish students and Jewish mathematicians. Then it introduces Grigory Perelman into the story and describes his evolution from a talented child to an Olympiad winner to one of the world’s best mathematicians. It also shows glimpses of how the mathematical world works – the profound ideas, the personalities, the rivalries, the jealousies, the secretiveness, the backstabbings. It also gives a reasonably detailed background into the mathematical branch called topology and the Poincare Conjecture – that is reasonably detailed for a general reader and a layperson. Gessen doesn’t attempt to give much information about Perelman’s solution, which I am sure is quite technical and beyond the scope of the book. She also talks about the Clay Mathematics Institute’s announcement of the seven millennium problems and how the institute decided to give one million dollars to anyone who solved any of these problems. Gessen also goes into reasonable detail into why Perelman rejected all the awards and recognition that came his way – the Fields Medal, which is the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel prize, the Clay Institute’s prize of one million dollars and job offers from leading American universities, Stanford, MIT, Princeton, Columbia – you name it. From reading the book, it is quite apparent that Gessen has talked to many of the people involved in Perelman’s life – his fellow students, his teachers, his colleagues, his friends. Unfortunately Perelman himself had stopped speaking to the press after the news of his declining the Clay Institute’s prize came out and so the main character’s voice is missing from the book.

 

One of the things I liked about the book was that it was written in a journalistic style and so it was easy to read. It is easy for a writer of a book on a mathematical or a scientific topic to slip into technical language about the field, but because Masha Gessen is a journalist and not a scientist, her journalistic style makes this book highly accessible to the general reader. Also because Masha Gessen is Russian-born, she is able to interview the right kinds of people and provide inside information about Soviet mathematics and about Grigory Perelman – information which would be inaccessible otherwise.

 

I had a few issues about the book too. The first one is really minor – I am really nitpicking here 🙂 Gessen is careful to mention in most places in the book that solving the Poincare Conjecture is really the mathematical breakthrough of this century. She seemed to imply that ‘century’ here meant the 21st century. But being the kind of ‘nit-picking’ reader I am, I was waiting for her to slip 🙂 And slip she did 🙂 In page 154 while describing the audience who had come to a seminar in MIT to hear Perelman lecture about his proof in 2003, she says this – “a majority were curious mathematicians who had come to look at the man who might have made the biggest mathematical breakthrough in a century”. Here ‘century’ clearly implies a hundred years and so I get an opportunity to write on what I think about this topic 🙂 In my opinion, I think that distinction – ‘the biggest mathematical breakthrough in a century’ – belongs to Fermat’s Last Theorem, which was proved by Andrew Wiles in 1995. There are two reasons I feel this way. The first is because Fermat’s Last Theorem is easy to understand for a layperson (one needs to just know what the Pythagoras theorem is, which most of us do, to appreciate Fermat’s Last Theorem). The second reason is that Fermat’s Last Theorem defied mathematicians for nearly 360 years. It was proposed in 1637 and was only proved in 1995 (it probably lends support to the point that simple questions are the most difficult to answer). In comparison, the Poincare Conjecture is complex. (The simplified version that Masha Gessen states goes like this – “if a three-dimensional manifold is smooth and simply connected, then is it diffeomorphic to a three-dimensional sphere?” Here ‘three-dimensional’, ‘smooth’, ‘simply connected’ and ‘sphere’ don’t have their regular meanings. They are loaded terms. For example, ‘three-dimensional manifold’ really means the surface of a four-dimensional object which has certain mathematical properties. ‘Manifold’ and ‘diffeomorphic’ are topological terms). Also, the Poincare Conjecture was proposed in 1904 and didn’t survive even a century. But these are all subjective judgements and one can’t say absolutely which theorem / conjecture is really the more important one. The Poincare Conjecture’s solution will help in answering questions on what is the shape of space and the universe that we inhabit and so it definitely is a significant breakthrough. There are two more problems in the Clay Institute’s Millennium problems list which are legendary. One is the Riemann Hypothesis which has defied solution for nearly 150 years (it was proposed in 1859) and which is mentioned in Yoko Ogawa’s beautiful novel ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ (just trying to inspire you to read it :)) The second one is the P=NP? problem. It is related to cryptography, prime numbers and computer passwords and online security and if this is proven it will probably sound the death knell for computer and online security. The novel ‘PopCo’ by Scarlett Thomas touches on this 🙂

 

The other issue I had with Masha Gessen’s book is that the mathematics part, though written for the layperson and general reader, is extremely simplified. So for readers who want to get into it a bit more, it is not really satisfying.

 

The third issue I had with the book was that in one of the later chapters, Gessen starts describing autism and Asperger’s Syndrome and speculates on whether Perelman could be autistic or could have Asperger’s Syndrome and whether this made him reject all the awards that came his way and whether this is why he has cut off contact with everyone and pursues a solitary life. My own take on this is that wanting to be left alone or wanting to live in solitude or being an introvert doesn’t mean that one is autistic. Or one has Asperger’s Syndrome. Some people are just introverts and like being left alone and love solitude. Author Emily Maguire (author of ‘Taming the Beast’) wrote an article in the Sydney Morning Herald called ‘Solitude is Bliss’ which describes this point of view quite beautifully. British scientist Henry Cavendish who discovered hydrogen was so shy that when a lady admirer came to his home to meet him, he ran away and came back only after she had left. Of course, modern commentators are speculating now that Cavendish probably had Asperger’s Syndrome! There is also a story about Greek philosopher Diogenes, which goes like this (taken from Wikipedia) – “while Diogenes was relaxing in the sunlight in the morning, Alexander, thrilled to meet the famous philosopher, asked if there was any favour he might do for him. Diogenes replied, “Yes, stand out of my sunlight”. Alexander then declared, “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.”” Diogenes never cared about money or riches. It doesn’t mean that Diogenes had Asperger’s!

 

In one place, Perelman’s former teacher and friend Rukshin says this when he explains the reason for Perelman’s refusal to accept awards and his disappointment with the establishment :

 

      “It took him eight or nine years to solve the Poincare,” Rukshin told me, recalling that conversation. “Now imagine that for eight years you did not know whether your child, who was born ill, would survive. You have spent eight years caring for him day and night. And now he has grown strong. From an ugly duckling, he has tured to a fine swan. And now someone says to you, ‘Why don’t you sell your baby to me? Here is some grant money, for half a year, or perhaps a year, we could publish the work together, we’d make this a joint result.'”

 

In another place the author describes her own interpretation of the situation as she has understood.

 

Great mathematical achievement should be rewarded with professional recognition, which can take only one form : the form of studying and understanding the work that teh person has done. Money is no substitute for work. In fact, money is insulting. If you think it is natural for a university to offer money to someone who has solved a huge problem even though no one at this university understands the solution, imagine the following parallel : a publisher approaches a writer, saying, “I have not read any of your books; in fact, no one has gotten to the end of one, but they say you are a genius, so we want to sign you to a contract.” This is a caricature. There was no place for caricatures in Perelman’s script.

 

All of us, atleast once during our lives, would have thumbed our nose at the establishment. Or would have done something that we didn’t tell anyone about and when what we did brought some ‘glory’ or resulted in something good, we would have shared it with others, which would have made people around us surprised. I have done both a few times. And so when Perelman and his friends give the reasons on why he acted the way he did and why he refused all the rewards and recognition that he got, one can understand his point of view. I feel though, that it would have been good for him, if Perelman had taken up one of those job offers. Not because of the money, but because it would have helped him do what he liked to do, for the rest of his life – do research in mathematics and solve problems. But who knows what went inside the mind of this tortured soul, when he made all those big decisions?

 

The book also talks about the shameful episode involving Harvard mathematician Shing-Tung Yau who tried to project his two students as the ones who solved the Poincare Conjecture and mentioned this in press conferences and hurried the publication of their paper in a journal without following a proper peer-review process. Yau was also quoted as saying that though Perelman made important contributions, his students were the ones who developed the important part of the proof and hence deserve major credit for the achievement. It turned out that his students had really plagiarised important parts of their paper from the notes prepared by Bruce Kleiner and John Lott who were studying Perelman’s proof. It also came out that Yau has been involved in other controversies in the past. The interesting thing which happened during this controversy was that ‘The New Yorker’ magazine published an article on it called ‘Manifold Destiny : A legendary problem and a battle over who solved it’ by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber. It showed Yau in poor light. Yau got furious at it that he sent a letter through his attorneys asking ‘The New Yorker’ to apologize for this article. ‘The New Yorker’ stood its ground and Yau blinked. The matter ended there.

 

‘Perfect Rigour’is an interesting book and I liked it. It makes me want to read more about the Poincare Conjecture and other mathematical topics. I also found the life of Grigory Perelman as described in the book, quite fascinating. I also really liked the way Masha Gessen had written the book in a racy style which appeals to the general reader. If you like reading books on maths and science for the general reader, you will like this.

 

On a parting note, one of the discoveries for me after I read this book is that Masha Gessen has written and translated other books 🙂 The most interesting of them, for me, is ‘Half a Revolution : Contemporary Fiction by Russian Women’. I want to get that now 🙂

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