Farewell to a pen-friend

A few days ago I learnt from the Guardian of the death of the novelist and critic Gilbert Adair. I was saddened by this, partly because I have hugely enjoyed his writing (though I’m glad to say that I haven’t read his entire oeuvre, so there are still treats in store) and partly because I knew him. The title of this post is a pun of a kind I hope he would have approved of: our interactions were mostly by email, but one can also take the “pen” to mean “almost” (as in “peninsula”), which is why I used a hyphen. We met a couple of times, and might have become proper friends if I had been less socially lazy. It turns out that he had a stroke a year ago, but I didn’t hear about it, so his death just over a week ago came as a surprise and leaves me regretting that I didn’t see more of him while I had the chance.

Since there’s nothing I can do about that, I thought that I’d try to use this blog as an outlet for the resulting feeling of loss, which is out of proportion to the amount that I actually had to do with him. Or perhaps it isn’t, since the very fact that I didn’t see him much is part of what now bothers me. It is also why I had no idea that my last contact with him might be my last, and why his death now seems a bit unreal.

A maths blog is not a completely inappropriate place to write about him, because I met him through mathematics and it was because of mathematics, which fascinated him, that that initial meeting led to a couple of further meetings. A secondary purpose of this post is to recommend his books, which are extremely clever in a way that many mathematicians would like. I’ll describe some of them as I go along.

If you have a long memory, then perhaps you will remember an event called The Faber Challenge, which accompanied the publication of Apostolos Doxiadis’s novel Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture. The challenge was to prove Goldbach’s conjecture within two years, for which they offered a prize of a million pounds. This challenge was issued at around the same time as the announcement of the Clay Millennium Problems, which was a little irritating to the Clay people since their prizes were “only” a million dollars. Of course, the time limit rendered the Faber prize more or less meaningless, which is why people do not talk about it now. Indeed, they didn’t expect to have to pay up, so instead of setting aside a fund of a million pounds, they simply took out insurance against the highly unlikely event of somebody solving the problem. I never found out what the premium was.

I was contacted by Toby Faber, who worked for Faber at the time (no it wasn’t a coincidence) and who had been at school with me, because they needed a small team of mathematicians to look at any serious attempts that there might be. I was assured that they would have a rigorous initial filtering process that would mean that I would not need to look through hundreds of documents written by cranks, so I agreed to do it. As a result, I was invited to the launch party in London, where I met Apostolos Doxiadis for the first time. After the party, Toby asked whether I wanted to join a few people, including Apostolos, to go and eat at a nearby restaurant. That felt like a good addition to life’s rich tapestry, so I said yes. It was one of those situations where the others knew each other better than they knew me, but that meant that I got asked quite a lot of questions.

One of the people there was an amusing man in David Hockney style glasses (I read now that he was in fact a friend of David Hockney) who was sitting at the end of the table over to my left. I can’t remember much else about him from that occasion, but afterwards Toby Faber and I shared a taxi and for some reason it came up in our conversation that that man had been Gilbert Adair. Damn, I thought, and said, because I was a fan of his film reviews in the Independent on Sunday (which at the time was a good paper) and would have liked to say so. But the opportunity was not gone for ever, because he wanted to say something to me too.

It turned out that he had developed a theory of infinitesimals and wanted to know whether I found it interesting. I more or less knew before looking at it that I wouldn’t, since whatever he had to say would almost certainly be either wrong or correct but well known. We had a brief email exchange about it, and then he sent me some speculations about numbers such as $0.000\dots 1$, where there are infinitely many zeros before the 1. My response to his basic ideas was that adding to the number system becomes interesting only if you can extend the basic arithmetical operations to the new numbers. (The kind of question I asked was what happened to his number if he multiplied it by 10.) A slightly subtler response for a non-mathematician to grasp was that even if you manage that, which is possible (as is well known), you still need to explain why the extended system is worth bothering with. He thought that Cantor’s higher infinities were just an amusing game that mathematicians could do without, and that he was doing something similar for infinitesimals.

Despite my attempts to pour cold water on his ideas, he suggested more than once that if I was ever in London, then we should get together for lunch. My parents live in London, and the idea of properly meeting Gilbert Adair appealed to me so I took him up on it.

I can’t remember at what point I put two and two together and realized that he was the person I had read about a few years earlier who had successfully taken on the crazy project of translating Georges Perec’s famous book La Disparition, a novel (in French) that does not use the letter E. It goes without saying that Gilbert Adair’s translation, A Void, also does without the letter E. I remember being furious with myself when I got through an entire review of the book without noticing that it too avoided the letter E. I’ll resist the temptation to play that kind of game in this post. (If you want to see a recent example of somebody who didn’t resist it, try this.)

More generally, I find it hard to disentangle my memories of getting to know Gilbert Adair the man and getting to know his books, which is partly because he put quite a lot of himself in his books. However, I do know that we met for lunch in a restaurant in Notting Hill (not far from where he lived), about which I don’t remember too much apart from the general atmosphere: the restaurant was fairly empty, and the conversation slightly awkward — it was hard to imagine that anything non-mathematical I had to say would be of interest to such a witty and cultured man, and there was only so much to be said about mathematics.

Fairly soon after that I went to Princeton for two years, during which time I finished writing Mathematics, A Very Short Introduction. He used to devour popular mathematics books, so I had told him I was writing one myself. Since he was exactly the kind of reader I had in mind — someone who wasn’t satisfied with gee-whizzery and preferred to understand what he was reading — I asked him if he would be prepared to read a draft of it for me and let me know if there was anything he didn’t like about it.

In the process of checking back through my emails, I see that I’ve actually misremembered how things happened. What actually happened was that we had a correspondence about infinitesimals in 2000 and the lunch was in the summer of 2001 when I was back from Princeton for the summer. I sent him a copy of Mathematics, A Very Short Introduction late that autumn. He wrote back with a list of comments, some minor and some less so. Every so often, someone makes a comment that actually changes my writing style, and one of his came into that category. Let me quote him exactly:

As I recall, you asked me, in one of your emails, to raise any problems I might have with the book’s literary style. I have none… except that, for my taste, you’re a little too fond of commas, especially those followed by ‘and’, and also without a change of subject, two factors which I would say obviate the need for them. For just one example, the very first sentence on page 1.

I now think much harder about commas before the word “and”. The one time I feel they are needed is in sentences with another lower-level “and”, such as, “I went for a walk with Peter and Jane, and the weather was glorious.” Without the comma, there’s a danger that the reader will think for a split second that the weather came along for the walk too. (This is not meant as a counterexample to Gilbert Adair’s advice.)

Another of his remarks was the following.

Finally, the last chapter. It still feels to me slightly tacked on, probably for no other reason than that there are too few issues discussed. I would propose that you need at least ten for the chapter to feel like an integral part of the book. A trio of suggestions: a) Why do many people so actively detest mathematics?’; b) What is the point of pure mathematics?; and c) Is there any likelihood today of an amateur solving an important mathematical problem?

I didn’t fancy b), since the whole book was meant to be about that, but I added sections on his topics a) and c) and I think they enhanced the book. There was one other connection between him and the book, which was that when Oxford University Press told me they needed an “endorsement” on the cover, he was a natural choice to provide it. It’s a bit embarrassing to ask somebody if they will please write a sentence or two praising one’s book, and I don’t know whether he actually wrote the sentence that now appears on it or just put his name to a suggestion of OUP’s. What it says is, “A marvellously lucid guide to the beauty and mystery of numbers,” which wasn’t quite the intention of the book (which was about more than just numbers and was trying to demystify) but which did the job. [Edit: I’ve found an email that suggests that he planned to write something rather different, so I suspect OUP here.]

When I arrived in Princeton with a young family, we left almost all our books behind in England, so one of the first things we did was go to sales of second-hand and remaindered books so that we could stock up our shelves. Amongst the many books that we acquired, two were by Gilbert Adair. One was Alice Through the Needle’s Eye, a third volume of the famous Alice books that is so well done (I read it to my children) that it might as well have been written by Lewis Carroll himself. That’s a very strong claim, I realize, and may make you suspect that I was just too insensitive to notice the inevitable false notes. If that’s what you think, I suggest you try to get hold of the book (which unfortunately isn’t easy).

The other book was Surfing the Zeitgeist, a collection of short essays that originated as a weekly column in the Sunday Times, each one called “On X” for some X. To give you a flavour of these, here’s a paragraph from “On the theatre”, in which he argues that the theatre should not be regarded as somehow more elevated an art form than cinema.

Nor is it just a question of how they [=people who go to the theatre] talk, but of how they laugh. This is a fiendishly elusive notion, not easy to communicate in print, but let me try anyway. Think of the last time you were in a theatre. Think of the sense of occasion that you experienced, the sense that, for once in your life, you were doing something exceptional. You bought a programme, you took your seat, you removed your overcoat, you positively rustled with expectation. Then the lights dimmed . . . Now it is unimportant whether the play was a comedy or not, whether it was by Shakespeare or David Hare or someone you had never heard of, when one of the characters on that stage said something that was even mildly amusing, you laughed. At Shakespeare’s feeblest puns, puns a thousand times overtaken by the three centuries which separate him from us, you actually found yourself laughing aloud — as loudly as you would laugh at the boss’s jokes during an after-dinner speech or the best man’s at a wedding reception. You laughed, in short, because it would have been rude not to, because the person making the joke was standing in front of you. In the cinema, by contrast, where there is seldom a sense of occasion, where the public just hunkers down and patiently or impassively bides its time through the supporting programme, and where there is nothing in front of you but images on a screen, you laugh when, and only when, the film strikes you as genuinely funny. Is it not so?

If you are an ardent theatre fan, then don’t let that excerpt put you off, as there is plenty else in the book. One thing you should know, however, is that Gilbert Adair was an ardent cinema fan. He was also a Francophile, spending several years of his life in Paris and frequenting the cinemas there. (One of my biggest regrets about his death is that he never got to meet my Parisian wife, who has also spent many hours in Parisian cinemas.)

Another of his books, The Holy Innocents, opens with a description of La Cinémathèque Française as it was in 1968. Even if you haven’t heard of Gilbert Adair, you may well have heard of the film, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, that this book was turned into. I first heard about that in an email message in 2002, but he told me more when we had lunch again in the summer of 2003 — which, I can hardly believe now, was the last time I saw him in person. He said that he hated the novel (which was his first) and that if he ever came across a copy in a second-hand bookshop he would buy it to make sure it didn’t get read. I may have got the details slightly wrong, but he had a funny conversation with his agent that went something like this.

“Gilbert, there’s someone who wants to film The Holy Innocents.”

“But you know perfectly well I would never allow that to be filmed.”

“It’s Bernardo Bertolucci.”

He wrote the screenplay for the film and was closely involved with the filming itself. He also rewrote the book: it now exists as The Dreamers. I’m glad to say that there was one second-hand bookshop that I got to before he did, so I’ve got a copy of The Holy Innocents, and I don’t understand what he fails to see in it. His reaction to hearing that I had found it: “I hate to hear (as I do more often than you would imagine) of friends coming across copies of my hated first novel in quaint second-hand bookshops, but I accept there’s nothing I can do about it. Oh well.” It is a reworking of Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles. Here’s what Anthony Burgess had to say about it (this comes from the back cover).

Manifestly in the tradition of Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles, considered a masterpiece, this is a far better book.

So far, I’ve mentioned a translation of La Disparition and reworkings of Lewis Carroll and Jean Cocteau. Maybe now is the time to say that almost all his books were based on existing works in one way or another. Here is a footnote from “On transtextuality”, one of the essays in Surfing the Zeitgeist.

I should perhaps declare an interest here. As it happens, most of my own published fiction is (neatly rhyming with “incestuous”) “palimpsestuous” in inspiration; and, in even the most laudatory reviews I have received, there has been detectable an implicit reproach that I have yet to embark on what might be called a “solo flight”. “When, oh, when,” is what I keep reading, “will Adair become his own man . . .?”

Another book that I acquired in Princeton (but this one I ordered from Amazon) was Love and Death on Long Island, which is inspired by Death in Venice. In it, an elderly man accidentally goes to see the wrong film in a cinema and becomes obsessed by the young male star of that film, tracking him down to where he lives in Long Island. The book was made into a critically acclaimed film of the same name, but I can’t bear to see the film because the book has a kind of perfection about it that I don’t want to spoil.

At around this time he consulted me about a mathematical subplot that he wanted to incorporate into a novel. He was looking for an example of a plausible contemporary mathematical controversy. It was a difficult challenge, since there is such a widely shared notion of what constitutes an acceptable proof that true controversy in mathematics is very rare. One idea I had was that perhaps somebody could prove by indirect means that a proof of some famous conjecture existed but be unable to provide that proof. I wasn’t sure that that was possible — wouldn’t the proof that a proof existed somehow constitute a proof? — but it did feel as though it might be and that if it was then then it would be the kind of situation that could lead to quite a bit of discussion. Another thought I had was that perhaps somebody could solve a famous problem but use large cardinals in an essential way. In the end, however, he gave up on the idea, saying, “I found it simply impossible to reconcile the comprehension of ‘the non-professional reader’ with my own aversion to gross over-simplification.”

Going back to our lunch later that year, which was in a street parallel to and not far from the Tottenham Court Road (although I invited him this time, I had no idea where a suitable place might be, so rather ineptly I got him to suggest somewhere, which turned out to be closed, so we went to another place nearby and sat outside), he told me a story that I find so extraordinary that I’ve never forgotten it. For reasons he didn’t go into, he was estranged from his family. The last time he had seen any of them was when he was living in Paris. He was walking down the Boulevard Saint Michel towards the Boulevard Saint Germain when he saw, walking towards him, his brother, whom he had not seen for many years, and the two of them simply pretended not to know each other.

There was a lot else that he alluded to but never talked about in detail. Over the years since 2003 a pattern developed, or rather continued, where we would have a brief flurry of emails, usually prompted by his wanting to explore another mathematical idea, followed by a couple of years of silence. Each time the silence was broken, he would say things like, “I’m glad to hear things have been going well for you. I would be lying if I said they had for me.” But he wouldn’t say what he meant by that, except that at least some of it was a matter of poor health.

Also at the lunch in 2003 he gave me a copy of his (I think latest) book The Real Tadzio, about the boy who inspired Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, later of course to become Visconti’s famous film of the same name. I’m not going to say much about the book except that it is short and I finished it on the same day, as a result of which I remember very little about it. (One thing I’m realizing as I write this is that I can enjoy not just the books of Gilbert Adair that I have not yet read, but also, for a second time, several of the ones I have read.) Glancing at it quickly, I see that it is not just about the boy, who was called Wladyslaw Moes, but about Thomas Mann, Visconti, the film, Bjorn Andresen (the actor who played the boy in the film), Benjamin Britten, and much else besides.

One of Gilbert Adair’s last projects was a pastiche of Agatha Christie, which, slightly to his surprise since he didn’t like repeating himself, turned into a trilogy. The first book was called The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, which, had I been more of an Agatha Christie fan, I would have recognised as a reference to her book The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The other two are A Mysterious Affair of Style, and And Then There Was No One. In these books he has about as much fun with the genre as it is possible to have.

As for our correspondence, the last exchange we had was in 2009. As ever, it started with his wanting to know what I thought about a piece of mathematics he had come up with: in this case the observation that the sums of certain arithmetic progressions were always composite — not too surprising when you think about the formula for the sum of an AP, and also how that formula is derived. He understood perfectly well that what he had noticed was likely to be either easy or not always true, so took it perfectly well when I told him it was the former.

Long-term readers of this blog may remember a post about swine flu from a couple of years ago. When I wrote my first reply, I was more or less confined to the house because a son of mine had had it (and gained fifteen minutes of fame for shutting down Eton), so I mentioned that. I also mentioned that I had remarried and had another son, Octave, then 18 months. His response contained a rather Adairish surprise:

Thank you for your prompt and really rather unusually interesting email. Only the other day, for example, I was reading a newspaper article about swine flu at Eton and suddenly here it is in my own correspondence. Also, I have been working on a film script (treatment, rather, for the moment) set in Scotland in the nineteenth century but featuring a Frenchman as the protagonist’s best friend and confidant. What name did I give him? Octave! Well, I never, as my mother never tired of saying.

I never found out anything further about the film treatment, so I don’t know whether it ever came to fruition.

I’ll close by drawing attention to an article in the Guardian about his treatment by the National Health Service after his stroke. Apparently he was extremely impressed by it and wanted that fact to be publicized.

11 Responses to “Farewell to a pen-friend”

1. George Says:

I haven’t read any of Adair’s books, still less met him, but I’ve been aware of his work for a while and was sorry to hear that he had died. Thank you for your recollections of the man and his books. I hope this will now spur me on to actually reading the things!

2. Toby Says:

Thanks for this – I had no idea about his interest in mathematics. I never met Adair, although we had some friendly acquaintances in common, but I did enjoy his work a great deal. I think I first came across him by finding a copy of Surfing the Zeitgeist in the library as a teenager, and I was a fan of his movie reviews in the IoS when I was in college. I don’t think that I’ve read many of his novels, although I liked A Closed Book.

3. Danny Calegari Says:

I thought “A Void” was quite brilliant; it has quite a distinct ‘voice’ from translations of other Perec novels by other translators (e.g. “Life, a User’s Manual”, trans. David Bellos). It’s probably very hard to tell how much of that voice comes from Perec, how much from Adair, and how much from the strong constraint itself. Different translations of the same work can differ vastly in quality and effect; eg compare Derek Hockridge and Anthea Bell’s translations of “Asterix” with those of Robert Steven Caron. In Hofstadter’s book on translation (“Le Ton Beau de Marot”) he contrasts the low status of translators in literature with the high status of ‘translators’ (i.e. performers) in music (eg think Glenn Gould). This seems like the sort of thing you might have some insights into – any comment?

• gowers Says:

I’ve thought a bit about this, but the only comment I have is the obvious one that translators don’t actually “perform” the works that they have translated. An indication that this might be relevant is that theatre directors seem to have the kind of high status that musical performers have: they can “interpret” plays, sometimes changing them quite radically.

Actually, as I write I’ve thought of another difference, which is that in both the theatre and music it is common for audiences to be familiar with other interpretations, which makes it easier to appreciate the artistry of a new interpretation. It’s much rarer for a work of literature to be translated more than once, and rarer still for a large body of readers to read new translations after familiarizing themselves with old ones. But when it does happen, I think translators do get a visibility that they normally lack: I’m thinking of the splash a few years ago when a new translation of Proust came out.

Another remark that’s worth making is that sometimes what one wants from a musical performance is a certain “invisibility” of the performer. For example, for me an ideal performance of a Bach fugue will be one where the various lines are crystal clear but not over-emphasized, and the rhythm is very steady. I.e., I’m not looking for an interpretation — rather, I want to be able to hear exactly what is going on and make of it what I choose. Similarly, the best translations are sometimes ones where nothing stands out and makes you aware of the thought processes that must have gone into the choice of words. But that kind of self-effacement probably doesn’t go with a high status. Having said that, some of the best Bach performances of the kind I’m talking about are by very high-status musicians, but maybe giving very straight performances of Bach preludes and fugues isn’t how they initially get their status.

• Alex Bartel Says:

This is a very interesting observation, the more so, since translators enjoy a much higher status in some other literary traditions. In the Russian speaking world for example, Самуил Яковлевич Маршак was an excellent writer (especially of childrens’ stories and poems), but was at least as famous, or possibly more so for his translations of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Milne and many more. He was extremely highly regarded as translator, and when school children read his translations of Shakespeare, there was always the sense that they were reading fruits of as much Маршак’s as Shakespeare’s creation. Scotland even proclaimed him their honorary citizen for his translations of Robert Burns.

So it might well be that the status of translators is simply a function of the respective tradition in the culture in question. Of course, this doesn’t explain how such a tradition comes about.

• Ben Golub Says:

Just wanted to add my agreement with the point that Russian literary culture seems to regard translation much more highly than we do in the English-speaking world. In addition to Marshak, the work of Pasternak and Akhmatova as translators is very well-known; some translators, like Viktor Golyshev, are well-known exclusively for their translations. This (at least in the twentieth century) may have something to do with the fact that literary creativity expressed through original writing was dangerous in Soviet times, so many of the most talented Russian writers worked on translation and poured their gifts into that, instead. This led to a feedback effect where translation became more prestigious generally. Often, translations into English seem to have something of the quality of courtroom sketches — appealing and professionally executed but not much more.

4. Peter Gerdes Says:

Good examples of things which can be mathematically contentious:

1) The acceptability of computerized analysis of a large number of cases as in the original proof of the four color theorem. Since the actual proof would be far too long to check by hand one would have to rely on the accuracy of the particular computer run of the source. Something I see no problem with but many people do.

2) Something proved from an alternate system of foundations. Say a proof in New Foundations of some number theoretic claim.

3) Anything proved in book length form or any construction that spans over 30 pages without any apparent guiding intuition or nice places to rest along the way.

5. Kieran Haynes Says:

Just to say many thanks for linking to my post about ‘A Void’. I noticed the increased traffic earlier this week and duly traced it back to its source.

While I was sorry to find a post occasioned by the death of a friend, it’s been fascinating to read so much about a man who, I must admit, I previously knew very little about beyond the hundred word biography in the front of my Vintage edition.

Like George above, I’ll now be sure to investigate more of his work.

Best wishes, Kieran

• gowers Says:

I was full of admiration for your lipogrammatic post. Thank you for providing it and making that link an option — I’m glad about your additional traffic. I would find it hard to match what you did with a similar paragraph or two in my own blog post but thanks to you I can do without.

6. Rahul Says:

I agree completely about the Alice sequel. I’m surprised it’s not better known.

7. Mark Robinson Says:

I like how, in complaining about your fondness for commas, Adair uses them excessively, and even includes one followed by ‘and’, but without a change of subject.