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Review: The Genius In My Basement

A brilliant account of brilliance

    Simon Norton offers a culinary concoction of an unusual appearance
    Simon Norton offers a culinary concoction of an unusual appearance

    By Alexander Masters
    Fourth Estate, £16.99

    Alexander Masters' book is the most original biography I have read in a long time. It is relentlessly amusing, deeply complex, and far superior to its acclaimed precursor, Stuart, a Life Backwards. I am still delving into the pages, randomly selecting chuckle-worthy snatches of prose.

    The material is, however, intensely serious. The subject, Masters's subterranean landlord, Simon Norton, was widely regarded as the mathematical genius of his generation. While still at Eton, he scooped up a record- breaking London University degree and three times won the Mathematics Olympiad, once with a 100-per-cent score, "one of the first boys in the world ever to achieve this mind-frazzling triumph," Masters comments appreciatively.

    But Norton is not an easy subject. Especially after his observations on his brief appearance in Stuart.

    Masters is contrite: "In just half a page of a biography about someone else, I have managed to misrepresent Simon in four ways."

    Last year, he funded a £10,000 award to Dan Glass, the man who superglued himself to Gordon Brown

    And his new subject is in revolt: "Four errors in a half a page is, hmm, eight errors in a full page, which in a full-length publication such as you are threatening to make this one, comes to, aah, 2,000 or 3,000 instances of disregard for fact. Oh Dear!' he sighs."

    And when he is shown an early manuscript of this book - "'What do you mean?' he says, submerging his arms into his holdall, for a moment looking puzzled and then following after with his head, as if his bag is eating him…'that women have a habit of shrieking when they come across me?'

    "'Unexpectedly, when you're hovering next to my bathroom door. They do.'

    "'It may have happened once' he permits…"

    "It's not his looks. It's the way he hovers outside the door, waxen and quiet. He's not there with any wicked purpose. He's been pacing up and down the front hall, tearing at his post or contemplating points of infinity in hyperbolic space and just happens to have reached that end of the corridor when the bathroom door opens."

    This perplexing scion of a patrician Jewish family, is a challenging subject. In his "rampantly chaotic" living quarters in the house he part-lets to Masters and other tenants, he keeps a rolled-up poster ("two along and one up from the television-that–might-have-broken-twenty-years-ago–but-possibly-it's-only-a-fuse") the legend on which is a kind of carving on the trunk of his family tree - Aslan Manasseh, b Bombay 1884, m Kitty Meyer, b Calcutta, 1891.

    The Manassehs were the leading family among the Jews of Iraq. A century down the line, Simon's cousin David was given the middle name, "Battleaxe", after a family-owned racehorse. Masters offers some colourful information on Norton's privileged background revealing, for example, that "the company founded by Simon's great-grandfather is the oldest family-run jewellery business in the world, patronised by the Queen, pop stars, fringe aristocrats, footballers (if they know what they're about) and all London people with 100-acre second homes in Wiltshire."

    Norton's decidedly non-aristocratic basement is home to mountains of mess, mainly of memorabilia and bus timetables. When he is not travelling the world to address international mathematics conferences on the subject of his specialism - Number Theory - Simon rides the public transport system, campaigning for fair access for all. Every year, he donates £10,000 to a transport activist. Last
    Year, this was awarded to Dan Glass
    , of Plane Stupid, who superglued himself to Gordon Brown in protest over a third runway for Heathrow.

    Masters is impatient with this calling. It's the Great Work that interests him and he tries, through entertaining anecdotes and intriguing cartoon illustrations, to convey to us the wonder of mathematics (he holds an M Phil in an allied discipline) and the sheer immensity of Simon's brilliant insight into the mystery of the universe contained therein.

    Between the only partially suppressed hilarity of the two men's combative dialogue and the frustration of the author, emerges a book of compelling brilliance.

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