Three mathematicians, three novels, only one movie, part 1


Grothendieck’s “life story begs for fictional treatment,” it says on p. 26 of MWA.  Jim Holt quotes and justifies this sentence in his New  York Review of Books review, so it may come to pass; and we can even start casting the movie version.  My brain has been screening scenes from an imaginary film about Grothendieck ever since I read Allyn Jackson’s two-part article about him in the AMS Notices in 2004.  The scenes are pretty bleak, but somehow they manage simultaneously to dramatize the tragic history of the 20th century and to express the lonely dependency of a representable functor.  They take place in the Néant, the void, of Jackson’s title, and I think Andrei Tarkovsky would be the perfect director, but the script has to be strong enough to make him want to come back from the dead.

Carlos Fonseca — not the Nicaraguan revolutionary but rather the author of the “fine, subtle, elegant, extravagant, strange” novel Coronel Lágrimas — at one point wanted to be a mathematician, and claims in a recent interview that his novel is “a free recreation” of Grothendieck’s life.

The intellectual picaresque [picaresca intellectual] [of the novel] takes as its starting point the life of the French mathematician Alexander Grothendieck.  Nevertheless, it doesn’t claim to be a historical novel, much less a biographical novel.  The story here is merely the starting point of a fictional delirium, a hallucinated world that I hope would have pleased Grothendieck himself.

To say that Coronel Lágrimas is inspired by Grothendieck’s life is mainly to say that the main character is a stateless former mathematician who is living as a recluse in the Pyrenees, whose father was a Russian anarchist, who appeared in a photo very much like this one, whose work was somehow bound up with this “equation [which, as Fonseca seems not to realize, is not an equation but rather a definition] of his joy, of his guilt, and of his forgetfulness”:


and who toward the end of his life showed signs of locura; but who also was born in Mexico, is an obsessive eater of sweets and designer of puppets, an author of imaginary lives of 16th century “Alchemical Divas,”  who suffers from prosopagnosia and believes that “categories are the curse of the modern world.”

A film adaptation would be bleak enough but I don’t see it as likely; the “most important philosophical work attributed to the Colonel,” the Grothendieck character in the book, is entitled Diatribe against Useful Forces:  A Thesis against Work in the Practical Era, and contains the following sentence:

It is merely a matter of not really doing anything, of concentrating energy for a future movement in which being will express itself in plenitude.

The characters in Fonseca’s book, especially the Colonel, don’t really do anything, or perhaps I should write they really don’t do anything, and they don’t do it in a way that seems to me impossible to bring to the screen (and even more impossible to watch).

It always seemed to the Colonel that the true miracle was that something happened rather than nothing:  nothing extraordinary, just merely something.

Fonseca’s interviewer compares his novel’s structure to hypertext, and the author agrees:

Quería … hacer una especie de crítica de esa especie de decadentismo informático actual… [I wanted to make a kind of critique of this sort of contemporary information decadentism.]

“In the 21st century we can no longer believe in geniuses,” continues Fonseca, “but we can believe in Don Quijotes.”   Grothendieck has much in common with Don Quijote, to be sure, but he also gives 21st century mathematicians reasons to believe in geniuses, and that aspect of his persona didn’t survive his recreation as the Colonel.

The coronel’s life requires a new genre, a sort of tragic farce that annuls the distinctions between comic and tragic.

What Grothendieck shares with Quijote is not the latter’s comic side, I believe.  Fonseca’s book has quite a few memorable lines; for instance:

Take your naps; the times for creation are different from those for work

Passion exists and is hiding in the brief beauty of sentences like this:  [there follows the formula copied above]

To see how we arrive, narratively speaking, from a scribble to an equation

the past was escaping him like helium balloons

And it does have its own quixotic sort of pathos.  But Grothendieck’s pathos still begs for a fictional treatment of its own.






4 thoughts on “Three mathematicians, three novels, only one movie, part 1


    The blog ‘s format is a very dangerous thing.
    It makes great things ,ideas and people ,trivial as in Grothendieck in the hands of Fonseca or Leibniz – luckily enough he did not have blogs – avatarized the post post modern way :
    It always seemed to the Colonel that the true miracle was that something happened rather than nothing: nothing extraordinary, just merely something.
    But there ARE extraordinary things .
    Let’s go back to work,or writing books !


  2. Pingback: Three mathematicians, three novels, only one movie, part 2 | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

  3. Pingback: Three mathematicians, three novels, only one movie, part 2 | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

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