An intimate portrait of an everyday genius. As Aristotle understood it, 'there is no great genius without a mixture of madness' and he may well have had a point: Einstein routinely forgot his way home when out walking the streets of Vienna, Nietzsche wound up in an insane asylum, and Bobby Fischer, the chess prodigy, now scrambles around the world, seeking residency in any country reckless enough to let him through immigration.
Simon Philips Norton, the subject of The Genius in my Basement, is not mad - not by a long shot - but he is certainly mixed up. At one time he was considered one of the greatest prodigies of contemporary mathematics, his breakthrough work on a group of numbers nicknamed the 'Monster' inspired, and was acclaimed by, the international maths community for many years. These days he spends most of his time colouring in road atlases, tracing the paths of bus routes he has travelled upon all over the country, sheltering amongst a tower of unwashed pans and eating smoked kippers straight from a tin in his 'messy' (as Simon calls it) basement flat in Cambridge.
In The Genius in my Basement, Alexander Masters, the award-winning and best-selling author of Stuart: A Life Backwards, offers a tender, humorous and intimate portrait of genius at its most ordinary and at its most blurred. He enters us into the extraordinary life of one of the would-be contenders - an everyday mastermind - and in doing so, reveals the cruel burdens, as well as the glorious rewards, of a life marked by brilliance.
©2011 Alexander Masters (P)2011 HarperCollins
The title is Marmite, because my guess is that you will either love this book or hate it. Actually, it has had a great many positive reviews, which is why I bought it. The book is 8 hours long. I gave up after 2 hours, but they seemed like 8.
This review is based on just the first quarter of the book. If asked to sum up my thoughts, I would say that the book is irritating and pretentious. And the author is an unprincipled, possibly jealous, wannabee celebrity. The subject of the book is a socially inept mathematics genius called Simon Norton. In fact, it seems that he is virtually a social outcast, who lives in a squalid basement flat and communicates verbally using a variety of tonal grunts. So, what happens when a biographer discovers he is living above a genius? Answer, he enters his subjects life and writes a biography. So far, so good. This could have led to a really interesting insight into Norton’s academic achievements and the areas where he has pushed back the boundaries of mathematical knowledge. Along the way, his foibles would have emerged and the reader could have been suitable impressed that a person, so incapable of negotiating life’s normal social environment, could be a mathematical genius. The biography of Nobel prize winner John Nash falls into this category and it spawned the well-received film, A beautiful Mind. What we get from Masters is a painfully detailed description of the cluttered and dilapidated nature of Norton’s living area, his eating habits, and his petty obsessions. Having looked up Masters other works, it appears that he is taking the genre of predatory biographer to a new low and my main gripe is about how badly the author seems to have bullied his subject. Finally, I want to say that I was underwhelmed by the prose, which seemed like an amalgam of styles, sometimes bordering on pastiche. My views are clearly not typical and I should also point out that I hated the last year’s best seller called The Hare with Amber Eyes.
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