The Genius in My Basement: The Biography of a Happy Man. Alexander Masters

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9780007243396: The Genius in My Basement: The Biography of a Happy Man. Alexander Masters

From the author of 'Stuart: A Life Backwards'; a warm and witty portrait of a harmless, eccentric, bona fide genius. Alexander Master's landlord, Simon, lives in the basement of their Cambridge house. Between teetering towers of outdated maps and slagheaps of plastic bags, Simon eats endless meals of tinned kippers and plans trips on the Cambridge public transport system. But Simon was one of the greatest mathematical prodigies of the twentieth century. He spends his time between train journeys working on a theoretical puzzle so complex and critical to our understanding of the universe that it is known as the Monster. Poignant and comical, 'Simon: The Genius in my Basement' is about the frailty of brilliance and how genius matters very little in the search for happiness.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Alexander Masters lives in London. His first book, 'Stuart: A Life Backwards', was a Sunday Times bestseller and the winner of the Guardian First Book Award.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

chapter 1

Simon was one year old, playing in the dining room, getting under his mother's stilettos.

He was unusually thoughtful. His brothers at this age pounded the toy blocks on the glass coffee table and jabbed them into the electric sockets.

Simon picked up a pink block from the pile beside his knee and smoothed it against the carpet. Carefully, he positioned a blue brick alongside. He reached across-his mother, on her way to lay the side plates and forks, had to make a sharp swerve-for two more pink bricks, and slid them against the blue. With precision, he extracted another blue brick.

Shuffling across the room on his bottom, Simon found four more pink bricks, fumbled them back and continued the arrangement.

His mother, halfway through folding napkins into bishops' miters, stopped in astonishment. She saw at last what he was doing.

One blue, one pink.

One blue, two pinks.

One blue, three pinks.

One blue, four pinks.

From the disarray of Nature, her baby son was enforcing regularity.

It took our species from the birth of prehistory to the dawn of Babylonian civilization to learn mathematics.

Simon was bumping about its foothills in just over twelve months.

At three years, eleven months and twenty-six days, he toddled into cake layers of long multiplication:

Simon's brother Francis had barely managed to recite the digits from one to ten by the time he was four years old; his brother Michael, a fraction quicker, had understood that if you gave him three banana- flavor milkshakes, and asked him to "count" them, the correct answer was "one" for the first, "two" for the second and "three" for the sticky splosh dribbling down his ear.

Percentages, square numbers, factors, long division, his 81 and 91 times tables, making numbers dance about to itchy tunes:

Simon mastered these when he was five.

Occasionally, his attention wandered:

2 The reader meets Simon

That's the sound of a once-in-a-generation genius.

Simon Phillips Norton: Phillips, with an "s," as if one Phillip were not enough to contain his brilliance. He lives under my floorboards.

Dhuunk, dhuunk...

When I first moved here, I had no idea what the noises were. Underground rivers? The next-door neighbors dragging a new pot through to their Tuscan garden? Dhuunk, dhuunk...But after eight years of interpretation I know that it's the great man's feet, stomping from one end of his room to the other. Every second stomp is heavier.

"Sssschlissh": that's the swipe of his puffa ski jacket against the stalagmites of paperbacks he keeps piled on the furniture.

"Zwaap": the sound of his duffel, as he rotates at the end of the room. He sometimes flings it wide, hitting papers. Simon carries this bag about with him everywhere he goes, clutched in the crook of his arm, even if it's just to his front door to let in the gas man.

...dhuunk, dhuunk, dhuunk, zwaap, dhuunk, dhuunk...

Simon's bed is ten feet directly beneath mine. My study is on top of his living room. His stomping space extends the full depth of the building, under my floor. My balcony is the roof of his basement extension, which has herded all the pretty garden plants into a six- foot square at the back of our house and stamped them under concrete slabs.

The phone rings. A charge from Simon: Dhuunk! Dhuunk! Dhuunk!

Snorting. The receiver-...rrinng, clank, clumpump, ping, ping...- wrenched from its holster. Attempts at speech, grunts, bangs of talk- noise; a strangulated word.

Clunk. Phone back in its holster.

Silence.

Dhuunk, dhuunk, dhuunk...

There's another very important sound, which is too difficult to represent typographically: an intermittent, twisted crackle, sharp but thick, with a strong sense of command, resting on a base of plosive disorder. In an exercise book from when he was five there's a squiggle that comes close:

It's the sound of plastic-bag-being-opened-in-a-hurry-and-the- gratification-of-discovering-important-papers-inside. Without understanding this noise, you cannot understand the man.

...ssschliissh, dhuunk, zwaap, zwaap, dhuunk, dhuunk...

Simon has been pacing down there for twenty-seven years, three months, five days, thirteen hours and eight minutes.

Ssssh!

Stop breathing!

Did you catch that?

Still another sort of noise?

A sort of sigh?

That was a thought.

Minus N

Your representation of me as interesting is

inaccurate. I feel ashamed by it.

Simon

Damn! He's gone!



Simon's refused to enter the book!

He is a Minus Norton.

"Why now?" I demanded, jumping up from the carpet when he stomped into my study from the basement. "The reader has started the story. He's spent the money. He feels conned."

"How do you know it's a he who's reading it? It might be a she, hnnn."

"He or she! Who cares?"

"I presume they do," he said cunningly.

Behind him, a bubble of air floated up the stairs and expanded into my rooms of the house, whiffing of damp and sardines.

Then he barged out of the front door, and, the scuff of his sandals becoming rapidly soft and seaside-ish, disappeared toward the Mathematics Faculty.

A book about Simon that doesn't have Simon in it?

I had thought a life of Simon would be tiptoeing on the edge of the shadow of God. Instead, he crashes about my study as though heel joints had never been invented; makes women shriek when they turn on the light in the corridor and find him standing there like an Easter Island statue; his duffel twists him into animal shapes; he hides behind envelopes.

He shocks me awake with his snores.

Writing biographies of living people, the subject is an irritant. Why is he needed? All he does is insist that whatever you've written is wrong.

In fact, when Simon was part of the book, I had to run away from him.

Wouldn't all biographies be better if they gave up trying to fix the person they're writing about, and confined themselves to his glints and reflections-a biography not of Simon but of the perception of Simon? What is a biography, anyway? A platter of gossip and titbits. It's up to the readers to mix these components together in whatever way they find most entertaining and instructive. The subject's out of it. Once word hits page, he's irrelevant.

I'm glad Simon's gone. Good riddance!

In mathematics, you jump onto the subject of numbers through your experience of reality-two flies multiplied by four sudden pulls gives eight wings; three toads, two frogs and one bathtub equals six screams of fury from your father; four bags of crisps and five of your mum's cigarettes make nine orders of stomachache-that's how the newcomer gets introduced to the subject, via the positive, whole numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6...

But mathematicians insist that negative numbers are equally real. It's just a matter of which way you happen to look: going ahead is positive, and going behind is negative.

I'll go behind Simon. Allow me to introduce Biographical Minus N:

Now, let's break into his basement.

4

November 26, 1922: Carter pierced a small hole in the wall through which he could look into the Pharaoh's chamber with a sliver of torch light. Asked if he could see anything he replied, "yes, wonderful things!"

Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb

But I can't find the light switch.

Which is important when you'restanding at the top of Simon'sstairs with nothing but sardine stenchand book writer's bones to break yourfall. Every other house in our building has a light switch by the stairwell door-why has Simon wrenched his out?

It makes me tense. My nerves clench into a knot. It feels planned.

There are holes in the stair carpet: lips of fabric at the edge of the treads, cut to flop forward, snatch...tap-tap...your toes...

...and plunge you onto the quarry tiles at the bottom.

These stairs are booby-trapped-against biographers.

It's safest to take the rest of the steps spread-eagle fashion, one foot slithering against the wall while the other rat-a-tats along the banister spindles. The palms of my hands catch and release on splodges of stickiness. As I slide down, I pass over two treads that have been blasted away. The wood has been broken in. It's a sheer drop between the thigh-shredding splinters left behind to the floor below. Craftily, Simon has left the carpet in place over the chasm.

The only person who has been caught by this booby trap is the booby who manufactured it in the first place, Dr. Simon MINUS Norton. The other week, I remember, I saw him leaping about the street on one leg, clutching his knee.

At last, here, at the bottom of the steps, we encounter a switch...

The bulb-low-watt, energy-saving-spreads shadow, not light.

It gathers a narrow entrance lobby into view, the floor of which is strewn with wood shavings and brick fragments. Sections of plaster have chipped away from the walls, exposing shoddy Victorian masonry. Along one edge of one side of the carpet is a pile of merry-colored supermarket bags-perhaps forty in total, traffic-light orange, Pacific blue, lime-green stripes-the plastic straining colonicly against the mass of paperwork rammed inside.

If we squeeze over the rubble and past these plastic bags, we can peer through a door frame that appears to have lost its door. Wrinkle your nose. Squint your eyes. This is Simon's basement: long, low and odoriferous.

There are so many words Simon refuses to let me use:

"S-" (seven letters, including a "q.")

"Too scandalous!"

"P-" (six letters, oink, oink.)

"My poor mother!"

"C-" (seven, mild, rhymes with butter.)

"How shaming!"

"M-" (six, obscure, but not to Simon; investigated by archaeologists.)

"Stop writing immediately!"

Simon's Banned List is a page and a half long. Our most violent argument was over th...

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Book Description HarperCollins Publishers, United Kingdom, 2012. Paperback. Book Condition: New. 197 x 130 mm. Language: English . Brand New Book. From the author of Stuart: A Life Backwards ; a warm and witty portrait of a harmless, eccentric, bona fide genius. Alexander Master s landlord, Simon, lives in the basement of their Cambridge house. Between teetering towers of outdated maps and slagheaps of plastic bags, Simon eats endless meals of tinned kippers and plans trips on the Cambridge public transport system. But Simon was one of the greatest mathematical prodigies of the twentieth century. He spends his time between train journeys working on a theoretical puzzle so complex and critical to our understanding of the universe that it is known as the Monster. Poignant and comical, Simon: The Genius in my Basement is about the frailty of brilliance and how genius matters very little in the search for happiness. Bookseller Inventory # AA89780007243396

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Book Description HarperCollins Publishers, United Kingdom, 2012. Paperback. Book Condition: New. 197 x 130 mm. Language: English . Brand New Book. From the author of Stuart: A Life Backwards ; a warm and witty portrait of a harmless, eccentric, bona fide genius. Alexander Master s landlord, Simon, lives in the basement of their Cambridge house. Between teetering towers of outdated maps and slagheaps of plastic bags, Simon eats endless meals of tinned kippers and plans trips on the Cambridge public transport system. But Simon was one of the greatest mathematical prodigies of the twentieth century. He spends his time between train journeys working on a theoretical puzzle so complex and critical to our understanding of the universe that it is known as the Monster. Poignant and comical, Simon: The Genius in my Basement is about the frailty of brilliance and how genius matters very little in the search for happiness. Bookseller Inventory # AA89780007243396

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Book Description HarperCollins Publishers. Paperback. Book Condition: new. BRAND NEW, Simon: The Genius in My Basement, Alexander Masters, From the author of 'Stuart: A Life Backwards'; a warm and witty portrait of a harmless, eccentric, bona fide genius. Alexander Master's landlord, Simon, lives in the basement of their Cambridge house. Between teetering towers of outdated maps and slagheaps of plastic bags, Simon eats endless meals of tinned kippers and plans trips on the Cambridge public transport system. But Simon was one of the greatest mathematical prodigies of the twentieth century. He spends his time between train journeys working on a theoretical puzzle so complex and critical to our understanding of the universe that it is known as the Monster. Poignant and comical, 'Simon: The Genius in my Basement' is about the frailty of brilliance and how genius matters very little in the search for happiness. Bookseller Inventory # B9780007243396

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