»  National Review Online

July 2nd, 2002

  Post-Authorial Tristesse


You are going to have to cut me a little slack today. I am somewhat light-headed, and finding it difficult to fix my mind on anything. I watched a lot of TV over the weekend — but don't ask me what, I can't remember a thing. I have been sleeping in 12-hour stretches, with naps in between. Let me explain.

Last fall I signed a contract to write a nonfiction book for a respectable publisher. The contract specified delivery of manuscript at the end of January 2003. I was happy, looking forward to a year of living off my advance, carefully gathering my facts and laying them out in deathless prose. A nice leisurely year of playing The Writer — I contemplated buying myself a corduroy jacket and a bow tie, perhaps even learning to smoke a pipe. Ha! As if old McFate ever gives us that kind of a break! My publisher discovered, right after we had closed on the deal, that two other people, with two other publishers, were writing books on the same topic. Now, the economics of book marketing, to the very limited degree that I understand them, go like this: If you put out a book in the spring, and then I put out a book in the fall on the same topic, we are basically selling into the same market. If things work right, in fact, your book may even stimulate interest in mine. However, if you come out in the spring, and I come out the following spring, that's bad. The market has dried up, or gone elsewhere, or something. Anyway, the publisher insisted we re-negotiate the contract, with delivery of manuscript due on June 30, 2002. Which is to say, yesterday, as I write this.

Seven months is no time at all to put together a full-sized book on a demanding subject, but I did my best with it. I have been chained to the computer these seven months, when I haven't been flying around the country interviewing people or attending conferences on my subject matter. When I got back from the last conference, at the beginning of June, I had a huge mountain of material that somehow had to be beaten down into 200 pages of smooth narrative. By last Monday, with a week to go, deep panic had set in and I basically stopped sleeping and eating. Somehow, though, it all got done, was even done a day early. The manuscripts — one for my agent, one for the publisher — went to the FedEx window late Friday evening, and I drove home feeling … What?

I can't describe it. If you've ever sweated away for months on some project and finally brought it to completion, you'll know how I feel. It's an odd thing — a mix of elation (I did it!) and despondency (What do I do now?) Buzz Aldrin, after walking on the Moon, came home and took to liquor. I can easily understand that. For some reason, the not entirely pertinent old Latin tag keeps coming to mind: Omne animal post coitum triste est ….

It isn't altogether over, of course. A manuscript done in a rush like that, on a complicated theme, is going to need a lot of editing. Then there will be some arm-wrestling with the printers about diagrams ("We'll need much better resolution than this!") and with the art people about jacket design. And then, the endless hunt to find out who owns the rights to photographs we want to use. That's mechanical stuff, though; the creative work is all done.

You learn a lot about your subject, being at intimate quarters with it for months on end like that. Here are some of the things I know now, that I didn't know seven months ago; or that I kind of knew, but now now much better.

•  Western culture is a deep and wonderful thing. My book is about a famous unsolved mathematical problem, the Riemann Hypothesis. The problem was first stated by Bernhard Riemann, a German mathematician, in 1859, but to give the full background to it I had to start all the way back in 14th-century France. To get the story up to the present day, I therefore had to cover over 650 years of developments in France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Russia, England and the United States, with side trips to places like Finland, Hungary and Holland. Working over this material gave me a powerful impression of continuity: of slow, cumulative enlightenment, of researchers painstakingly building on the work of those who went before them, of the laborious inching forward (with some occasional slippage backward) of human understanding. Seen up close, it is a tremendous, inspiring spectacle, full of drama. And entirely Western: not until the later 20th century do any contributions come in from beyond the Euro-American sphere, and those very sparse (and mostly from India).

•  Most especially, my Germanophilia was fortified. I studied German in my secondary school with a teacher who had served as a junior officer in the British Army during WW2. For some reason his duties had required him to learn German. By the peculiar chemistry of war, the experience of spending five years trying to kill Germans — he had combat decorations — had planted in this man a deep love of German culture. He spent the postwar years filling himself up with German literature, German philosophy, German music, German science, German history. He even, incredibly, admired German food. I was never much of a linguist, but I caught some of his enthusiasm, and left school fairly convinced that, in spite of having blotted their copybook from 1933 to 1945, the Germans have probably done more to advance human knowledge than any other nation.

Writing this book added mightily to that impression. Germany, as I have pointed out elsewhere, did not have a good 20th century. The near future doesn't look so bright, either, with the great mid-century Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) now stalled, the grand Euro-project ever more obviously a horrible mistake, and ugly social problems raising their heads. (For more on which, see Andrew Gimson's excellent piece in the June 8 Spectator.) Modern Germany has some serious stress tests up ahead. Germany's problems are usually presented in the trivial and demeaning terms of: "Will Nazism make a comeback?" No, of course it won't. Germany's real problem is the one pin-pointed by Gimson: "The German political class's inability to present an honorable and sober patriotism." He recommends a constitutional monarchy. I'm not sure that's the right solution; but I am sure that if there is a solution, a nation as rich in accumulated wisdom — and terrible cautionary lessons — as the Germans, will not fail to find it.

•  I learned a thing about books that I don't think I can quite put into precise words yet, but which goes approximately like this. Any book written with loving care — anything above the level of hired hack work — has a presiding spirit. By that I mean that it is about some one human being, whose personality colors it and gives it its life force. (In the case of fiction, I am afraid that all too often that human being is the author.)

My book is supposed to be about the Riemann Hypothesis; but in a lot of ways, it turned out to be about Bernhard Riemann, the man. You can read about Riemann for yourself if you feel inclined, here, for example. I got to know him well, and stand in dumbstruck awe at the powers of his mind: powers exercised behind the screen of a chronically shy, diffident personality, and in the midst of wellnigh continuous poverty, sickness, and grief. If human beings were commemorated according to their deserts, there would be 30-foot bronze statues of Bernhard Riemann all over Germany — all over the civilized world, in fact. The son of a Lutheran pastor, Riemann was sustained by a deep religious faith — not faith of the proud or proselytizing kind, but one which, according to his friend Richard Dedekind, saw the main duty of the devout life as: "Daily self-checking before the face of God." (Tägliche Selbstprüfung vor dem Angesichte Gottes.)

I have done with Bernhard Riemann now. I won't soon forget him, though, and if my book brings him to the attention of a few hundred others, I shall feel the last few months' work were not a waste of time. You can call me an intellectual snob if you like (you do, actually, quite frequently, in your e-mails), but I look in cold scorn at those who take for their hero some puffed-up politician or sneering gangster, some fool who can catch a ball or pose for a camera. When, once in every few decades, the human species brings forth one of its truly great productions, the rest of us should have sufficient sense to acknowledge him, and sufficient humility to honor him. Those of us reckless enough to think we are up to the task should then write books about him. That's true, creative hero-worship; that's civilization; the rest is dross.

Few as were the years of work allotted to him, and few as are the printed pages covered by the record of his researches, his name is, and will remain, a household word among mathematicians. Most of his memoirs are masterpieces — full of original methods, profound ideas and far-reaching imagination.
            — George Chrystal, from the article headed "Riemann"
               in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica