Henry James didn’t mean it as a compliment when he described certain nineteenth-century novels as ‘large, loose, baggy monsters,’ but I like the novel’s monster-nature. For me part of the allure of the form is its capaciousness – it seems as though it could contain just about anything. With every book I attempt, I have to learn all over again that this isn’t true. A novel might begin with just about anything, any one character or conceit or idea, but you can’t keep impulsively stuffing more of them into a book like T-shirts into a suitcase.
A few years ago I relearned this in the course of trying to write a novel about three friends who meet as math graduate students. It began with a handful of mathematician characters and then kept accumulating more of them, some invented and some historical, until, awash in mathematicians, the novel ground to a halt. I knew that it was time to jettison some of the characters, and moreover it was obvious which of them should go first: André Weil, who was an important twentieth-century mathematician, but had no business appearing in the novel draft.
It was a cinch to cut him but not so easy to let him go. Why had I been writing about Weil in the first place? Why had I been writing about mathematicians at all?
I started making notes to myself, following threads, and held on to certain scenes from Weil’s life that I’d imagined in the course of the draft. Conjectures, I labeled these fragments, because they were speculative, and because among Weil’s significant contributions to mathematics were a group of proposals known as the Weil Conjectures. And so, rather than return to the novel from which André Weil had been excised, I began to build a new book around him, though I didn’t think of it as a book at the outset. I was throwing things against the wall without expecting any of it to stick.
One reason I’d been interested in Weil was because I’d known of his sister, Simone Weil, first. An ascetic and a philosopher in the fundamental sense – a lover of wisdom – she died in 1943, at the age of thirty-four, as a result of illness and an inability to eat, leaving behind a body of compressed, often mystical writings. While André, like the majority of mathematicians, was never much known outside his field, Simone was widely admired by postwar intellectuals as a kind of spiritual figure, a quasi-saint of thinking. Both were unusually brilliant, and I wondered about the family that had formed them and how they had formed each other.
And then there was math, which I studied intensively in college. When I tell that to friends who know me as a writer, they seem confused and even at times a little fearful, like I might at any moment spring a trigonometry problem on them. Why? they ask, and I haven’t really given good answers. They see math and writing as opposite poles, while to me there is absolutely a kinship between the two, but a kinship I could never quite articulate. With the Weil siblings, the writer sister and the mathematician brother, the kinship was literal, and in writing about them, I could begin to describe it.
My own memories became a part of the book, as I tried to reconstruct what mathematics had meant to me as a young person. And out of these disconnected sections I constructed a hybrid of nonfiction and memoir and fiction, in which juxtaposition itself became one of the themes. In math as in writing, the connecting of disparate ideas is central, as it is a crucial part of any creative endeavor.
On my mind as I wrote were the essays of Anne Carson and This is Not a Novel by David Markson, with its litany of facts about the deaths of famous artists and thinkers which become, in the reciting and juxtaposing of them, more than mere information – at once lyrical and absurd, they populate an elegy for artistic work that is itself a work of art. ‘Meditation’ is one label that people stick onto books that don’t fit easily into a traditional category, ‘lyric essay’ is another term that has cropped up lately to describe work like Carson’s, but I wish I could come up with a better name for this emerging category of narratives that make collages of unlikely elements while pursuing, or seeming to pursue, an oblique, nonlinear argument. It’s a form that reflects the internet era, in that so much of our reading is in bits and pieces associatively connected to other bits and pieces, while imposing a shape and a meaning on its disparate parts (or so one hopes) that the clicking of links can’t offer us.
As for the novel full of mathematicians, I don’t know whether I’ll ever go back – I’m still fond of the characters but currently writing a different novel, intractable in its own way. In the end every book is an unsolvable problem, and yet every time I convince myself I’m just on the verge of cracking it.
Karen Olsson’s The Weil Conjectures: On Maths and the Pursuit of the Unknown is available now from Bloomsbury.
Image © enki22