Alexander Masters’s first book Stuart: A Life Backwards, a highly idiosyncratic account of the brutal and often farcical life of a homeless man living rough in Cambridge was a bit of a miracle: from a truly bleak, hopeless and eventually tragic situation Masters somehow managed to conjure up something funny and life-affirming, but at the same time always unflinchingly honest and never sentimental. The author seemed to throw most of the conventional rules of biography out of the window, including the one about presenting events in chronological order, and made himself and the writing of the book unashamedly part of the narrative. He developed a close personal relationship with his subject but at the same time maintained a critical distance and never stood in judgement over him, even when several instances of violence and abuse perpetrated by the luckless Stuart came to light. It’s a book like no other I’ve come across, and if you haven’t read it yet you should really make an effort to.
Masters’s new book The Genius In My Basement by contrast concerns itself with a much gentler and less troubled soul, to wit the author’s landlord Simon Phillips Norton, who occupies the basement rooms of the house Masters lived in in Cambridge. Norton, like Stuart, has what might be seen as an unconventional life story: a fantastically talented mathematician, he contributed massively to groundbreaking research in group theory in his youth before becoming somewhat estranged from the Cambridge mathematical establishment. He’s spent the last twenty-five years or so as an independent researcher and committed campaigner for public transport who has been able to support himself via the rents he collects on the two houses he owns via inheritance. His living quarters are badly maintained and are ceiling deep with decades of accumulated clutter (bus timetables feature prominently), he subsists mainly on tinned mackerel and packet rice, he has no partner and seems entirely asexual, and has little grasp of standard conversational technique and codes. He is however, as the subtitle of the book suggests, entirely contented with his life and both his sanity and his mathematical powers seem entirely unimpaired by his lifestyle.
Here I should add a personal note, as I’m possibly not the most unbiased of reviewers for this particular tome: like Norton, I studied Maths at Trinity College, Cambridge (though on a much more pedestrian level) and still live and work in the city, and while much of the unique selling point of Masters’s book is its presentation of an eccentric and socially-challenged mathematical prodigy I’ve got to say that a lot of the unusual behaviour that’s described seems pretty much par for the course for Cambridge mathematicians. I used to encounter distracted wild-haired brainboxes who communicated chiefly in non-sequitors and abstract analytical insights on a daily basis and I still run across them fairly frequently. If anything, Norton seems more engaged with the outside world than most, given his penchant for day trips on buses and attending meetings put on by anti-car pressure groups. And here are another couple of personal resonances while I’m here: I was startled to read that Norton at one time lived at a house that I once had a room in, and I was fascinated to find out that he favours Batchelor’s Chinese packet rice, which I’m also quite partial too and have been unable to find for the last few years. What supermarket does he shop at?
Nevertheless, even if you’re over-familiar with the milieu this is a cheerful and breezy portrait of an undeniably fascinating character. Masters really goes all out on the quirkiness – the text is littered with typographical games, photographs, hand-drawn diagrams attempting to explain group theory in terms of knicker-bockered triangles and reproductions from Norton’s childhood exercise books, and as in Stuart the chronology is deliberately disrupted with the present-day Norton often interrupting the flow to offer niggling criticisms and corrections and general disparagement of Masters’s efforts. The style does settle down after a while and a life story starts to emerge which describes but doesn’t explain Norton’s singular talents and behavioural anomalies. Norton himself seems pretty indifferent to his history and exists entirely in the present tense – he can’t understand why anyone, least of all himself, would be interested in his biography. What tension there is in the book arises from the conflict between Masters’s journalistic urge to unearth some hidden source of Norton’s eccentricity and his realisation that there probably isn’t one – it’s not much of a plot engine, but it’s enough to keep you turning the pages, along with the author’s always engaging and often very funny writing style. The Genius In My Basement is recommended as an accessible description of an extreme but hardly atypical example of a Cambridge mathematician, and you might even learn something about groups too.