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Chaos and the tidy mind

24 September 2011

12:00 AM

24 September 2011

12:00 AM

The Genius in My Basement Alexander Masters

4th Estate, pp.360, 16.99

In this book, Alexander Masters, the unusual biographer, is living in Cambridge, having written Stuart: A Life Backwards, the story of a homeless man with a disordered mind. Masters lives on the ground floor of a house on Jesus Green; below him, in the basement flat, is Simon Norton, who owns the building. Norton’s flat is so incredibly untidy, so absolutely revoltingly messy, that I can’t go into it now; I’ll spend a couple of paragraphs on it in due course. More importantly, Norton is one of the cleverest mathematicians in the world. Possibly the cleverest. So Masters decides to write his biography.

Stuart, who lived his life backwards, had a messy mind; Simon Norton has a messy flat. This flat, as Masters tells it, looks like a total disaster. Trying to get into it is difficult enough, because there are holes in the stairs, and no light switch to hand. The lavatory has somehow broken through the floor, and sunk, even though it is still, at the start of the book, semi-functional. When Norton needs to use it, he ‘teeters his toes to the edge of the broken woodwork — and waters the blackness’.

Mostly, the basement seems to be a container for layer upon layer of stuff in plastic bags — documents, bits of paper, and lots of bus tickets. Masters calls it ‘the excavation.’ He says:  ‘It’s easier in here to describe where the paper, plastic bags and books are not than where they are: they’re not on the ceiling.’ Next, there’s the kitchen. Norton eats only a few things — takeaway chicken biryani or chicken in black bean sauce, and a dish he cooks himself, using tinned mackerel and some kind of rice that, Masters keeps saying, stinks. Here, where Norton prepares, or at least unpacks, his food, there are livid curry-based stains, and ‘curtains of grease moving down the sides of the sink like textured glass.’

There’s more. Norton is not a fastidious shaver; his shoes are ‘rotten’; he is not in thrall to the normal person’s clothes-changing schedule. ‘He burps.’ And so on. Which is all quite interesting. But then Masters says something that really made me sit up. Norton doesn’t have a messy mind. He has an incredibly tidy mind. The tidiness of his mind is almost superhuman. That’s why the rest of his life is such a mess of curry stains and rotten shoes. ‘Everybody is messy somehow, and there’s no other place for Simon to store his quota,’ says Masters. So he stores it outside his mind.

Now for the challenge — to look inside Simon Norton’s mind. Masters concedes that this is a difficult task. Of course it’s a difficult task — to write about the pathological neatness, the endless shiny surfaces, of the mind of a genius-level mathematician. Unlike the subjects of most biographers, Norton’s mind is not a writhing mass of lust and greed. It’s a silent realm of solved equations — equations, what’s more, which have been solved instinctively, with no visible working. What a mind! It’s a strange, slightly eerie place to visit.

There are facts. Norton, Masters tells us, is Jewish, comes from a family with a jewellery business, and went to Eton, where he took a maths degree on the side, getting a First. Then he went to Cambridge, where he got another First, and joined the maths department, where he was brilliant. Then, after a while, everything seemed to go wrong. Norton’s contract was not renewed. He became obsessed with public transport. He began to spend a lot of time travelling around the country on buses. He has perfect recall of timetables and numbers, going back decades. Now he’s in his late fifties. What happened? Did he stop doing maths?

Masters discovers something really fascinating. Norton did not stop doing maths. It’s just that he’s searching for the answer to a puzzle that’s taking decades to solve. He is trying to understand symmetry — the concept, in maths, that, when one thing happens, another thing will always happen. He’s trying to understand the meaning of ‘always.’ In one sense, this involves lots and lots of numbers piling up, a rubble of numbers that must constantly be tended to, tidied away, and arranged in orderly rows. In another sense, it’s a search for the meaning of reality itself. Or, as Norton puts it, ‘the voice of God’.This is a playful book. It’s also a brilliant book. You won’t forget the sunken loo, the broken stairs or the curry stains. You won’t forget this strange man, with his poor shaving technique and his encyclopaedic knowledge of bus time-tables. And you might think about maths in a way you’ve never thought about maths before.

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