The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

This Tournament of Books longlist selection seduced me with its allusions to math and its connections to physics, two subjects I find fascinating. The author is, according to the book jacket, “a professional physicist” who is currently working on his doctorate in particle physics. The novel won the Premio Strega, Italy’s most prestigious literary prize, so promised to be worthwhile even if it did not make the ToB cut. It has kept its promise to me.

Knowing next to nothing of Italian, I read the novel in English. This places me one additional step removed from the author. The book has some clunky phrasing and relies too heavily on “then” to assure the reader that chronology matches sentence order. At one point, Mattia looks “out the opaque windows of the atrium”. (And he does actually see the landscape when he looks out, so this is not a metaphorical “looking out”.) I do not know whether these missteps are the fault of Giordano or his translator, but they are of only slight consequence. These occasional discordant notes are, happily, interspersed with some nice attention to the details of growing up and relationships.

The novel opens with Alice Della Rocca preparing for ski school on a morning in 1983. She is six years old and hates ski school. Her father is anxious to get her to the slopes, so Alice gulps her breakfast milk to please him. The milk will be her undoing. She joins her ski school class, says ciao to her father, and starts up the mountain. About halfway up, she has to use the restroom. Rather than alerting the instructor, she separates herself from the group to relieve herself surreptitiously. This decision, made in a moment to avoid embarrassment, leads to tragedy.

From Alice’s life, we move to Mattia Balossino who has a twin. Where Mattia is intellectually gifted, his sister Michela is significant mental impairments. Mattia has never been to any child’s birthday party but his own and Michela’s. In his third year of primary school, a classmate finally invites him to a birthday party. The classmate invites his sister too. Mattia, who has suffered considerable isolation because of his always present but oblivious sister, is crestfallen that the invitation is not his alone. At home, he broaches the possibility of going to the birthday party without Michela. His mother is disappointed in him. Mattia wants only to spend some time at the party without Michela, being a normal boy. His chosen method of obtaining his freedom chains him to that moment for the remainder of his life.

Both of these early scenes are written with an uncluttered poignancy. The characters are set on trajectories that, the reader knows, will eventually intersect. Giordano takes his time, developing the characters and their existence as misfits. High school is quite difficult for both of them, at least until they find each other. I expected a fairly conventional love story once they had met. I believe my expectations were somewhat justified by this passage:

The others were the first to notice what Alice and Mattia would come to understand only many years later. They walked into the room holding hands. They weren’t smiling and were looking in opposite directions, but it was as if their bodies flowed smoothly into each other’s, through their arms and fingers.

The marked contrast between Alice’s light-colored hair, which framed the excessively pale skin of her face, and Mattia’s dark hair, tousled forward to hide his black eyes, was erased by the slender arc that linked them. There was a shared space between their bodies, the confines of which were not well-delineated, from which nothing seemed to be missing and in which the air seemed motionless, undisturbed.

Giordano subverts expectations for this high school romance. Alice and Mattia are broken people and Giordano does not shy from showing their frailties in a realistic light. While they balance each other, they do not “complete” one another or erase the mistakes from each other’s past. Mattia and Alice are not pieces to a puzzle that snap into place and live happily ever after. I applaud Giordano for this realism which helps to raise The Solitude of Prime Numbers above the triteness of Nicholas Sparks (at whom I somehow feel free to take shots though I have never opened one of his vacuous romances).

But, the best part of the book is, frankly, the central conceit of the novel and the passage around which, I believe, the novel must have been written. I will tease you with only a portion of Giordano’s excellent discussion of prime numbers:

You encounter increasingly isolated primes [as you search the set of whole numbers for primes], lost in that silent, measured space made only of ciphers, and you develop a distressing presentiment that the pairs [(e.g., 11, 13; 41,43)] encountered up until that point were accidental, that solitude is the true destiny. Then, just when you’re about to surrender, when you no longer have the desire to go on counting, you come across another pair of twins, clutching each other tightly.

The concept is evocatively beautiful. This is math for romantics. Or maybe just romance for nerds. Giordano’s novel fits nicely around this idea and its bleak but not hopeless consequences. By tying Mattia’s mathematical abilities to the less logical realm of love, Giordano elevates both number theory and romance. It is a nice accomplishment and one worthy of an audience. I have my doubts that it will be enough to survive the ToB brackets, but the novel would make a worthy contender.

I do have one final complaint. This is not a novel that gets chess right, though it does get romance right. A friend of Mattia’s compares the initiation of a kiss and sexual intimacy.

Once Denis, talking about himself, had told him that all opening moves were the same, like in chess. You don’t have to come up with anything new, there’s no point, because you’re both after the same thing anyway. The game soon finds its own way and it’s only at that point that you need a strategy.

While it is true that only very good chess players are likely to come up with anything newly valuable to chess in the opening, this does not mean lesser players need not worry until later about strategy. The strategy for all players begins at least by the opening (and for top level players before the game even starts). While there are thousands of named openings (or variations on named openings), it is a strategic choice for white to pick the solid d4 rather than the more dynamic e4. Likewise, whether black responds to white’s e4 with the c5 of the Sicilian Defense, the e6 of the French Defense, or the e5 of the Ruy Lopez Defense (The Spanish Game) is a crucial strategic decision. Denis’s analogy does work better for poor players who know nothing about openings, but only because they will likewise know little about chess strategy. Everything, then, is tactics.

So, of all the things that The Solititude of Prime Numbers gets right, chess is not one of them. The mathematics, however, more than makes up for this failure. And I find consolation in the fact that Giordano did not demonstrate Mattia’s genius by his winning every chess game he ever played.

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20 Responses to The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

  1. anokatony says:

    Haven’t heard of any other authors who were professional physicists before. There have been quite a few authors who have written fiction relating to chess before such as Nabokov’s ‘The Defense” and Stefan Zweig.

    • Kerry says:

      I cannot think of any other professional physicist authors either.

      The one reference to chess is the only one in the book, so it is quite a small thing. It’s just that chess seems to appear in a large number of novels and usually it is handled poorly or used in a terribly cliched way. This one actually was not so bad, particularly because the mistakes could be Denis’s and not the author’s.

      I have been saving The Defense and Zweig’s The Royal Game, but I should get to them soon. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Hi Kerry, very interesting. No clue you were a chess player. A surprise. I couldn’t tell from your review whether or not Giordano uses prime numbers as a metaphor for love, i.e., a number or a that’s divisible by 1 “self” and 1 “other” number, etc.? Many cheers, K

    • Kerry says:

      My reading is not that he used prime numbers as a metaphor for love, but that he used prime numbers as a metaphor for individuals and twin primes (11 and 13, 41 an 43, etc.) as a metaphor for love. The farther you go down the number line (through life) the farther apart and less often those twin primes appear, but they do seem to spring up just when you’ve given up hope, somewhat like love striking when you have given up (or almost given up) on it.

      I have not done the metaphor justice. He used primes in a way I had neither heard of nor thought of before and I found his metaphor unexpectedly poignant (though primes as a metaphor for love is not a bad either).

  3. “or a” snuck in there!

  4. Clever stuff. I’m not sure I’m quite tempted to it, but it is interesting and original.

    I have come across physicist authors before. They’re relatively common in sf (perhaps unsurprisingly). Mostly they’re dreadful though. Good science and bad writing tends to be the rule. It’s nice to see an exception to that (Gregory Benford, for those into sf, I would also exonerate from that lousy writing charge but I can’t think of anyone else I would and he’s not literary fiction by any means).

    • Kerry says:

      The idea was definitely original and, for that, I am glad I read it. This is not a book I would be pressing on anyone. There are enough defects in the writing to be annoying.

      I was hoping you were going to list some awesome physicist authors, but I guess Coetzee and his computer science is as close as we can get to a competent scientist(-like) who can write well.

      Thanks, as always, for the comment.

  5. Biblibio says:

    I thought The Solitude of Prime Numbers was nice but not much more than that. I don’t know. As much as I’m into science, math and broken characters, I felt like there was something pretty major missing from the book and months later, I still haven’t quite placed my finger on it… You’re right that there’s a lot to like in the book (especially the quality of balancing, but not completing each other, as you so wonderfully put it), I just found that it left me a little cold.

    I think the writing might just be the writing, not the translation. I read the book in a different translation and while it was often smooth, there were a few moments of uncomfortable, slightly awkward sentences.

    • Kerry says:

      Biblibio,

      I certainly cannot argue with merely “nice” as a descriptor for the overall work. I liked it, but it won’t be showing up on my best of 2011 list.

      Thanks for the insight into the writing/translation. I was willing to blame the translator, but, if a different translation was disappointing too, the author appears a culprit.

  6. It is not physics, but it is prime numbers, so here is another one for you to consider:

    http://kevinfromcanada.wordpress.com/category/author/leavitt-david/

    My review is grumpy so I will add that I remember it much more fondly than the review indicates. And, like you, I appreciate when authors wander down non-typical paths like physics and math.

    • Kerry says:

      I recall that review. Having just re-read it, I believe that is probably why I never read this one though I always enjoy some mathematics. I think it was the bad sex that turned the tide for me.

      Given your experience with The Indian Clerk, I wouldn’t recommend this one for you, Kevin. It is an interesting book and the prime numbers provide a nice central conceit, but there is really very little mathematics (and no equations, so it should reach its full audience). I have my doubts I will remember much more about the book than the nice idea about prime numbers. Read those couple pages and you’ve probably gotten at least 75% of the value of the book.

      They are a nice two pages, though.

  7. Sarah says:

    Hm. Your review had caught at my imagination (I’m a sucker for maths and physics in a novel: David Foster Wallace makes beautiful use of the concepts in a variety of startling ways, and there is some fun stuff in Cryptonomicon) but then I read the comments!

    Perhaps I will not, after all, go out of my way, but if a copy should come my way…

    • Kerry says:

      Well, I hate to discourage anyone from reading this one, but there is very little math other than the section I quoted (and a couple more paragraphs of similar stuff). I did like it, I am not in love with it. In other words, it does not compare favorably with Crytonomicon nor, I suspect, with anything by David Foster Wallace.

  8. Sasha says:

    I’m rather late to this, but while I was scrolling through my bursting Google Reader, I had to come over and comment. I loved this book, though I can’t dismiss the flaws with the prose I found in it–perhaps I’m nitpicking! I found it so earnest and tender and it took me hours to reconcile with its ending.

    Like you, although I loved this book, I doubt it’ll appear in my Best of 2011 reads–something’s missing, there’s something Giordano refused to commit to. Perhaps he got stunted by the high school-ness of his characters? Perhaps the solitude-business got in the way? Oh, who knows?

    Alan Lightman is a physicist. I think. Oh my. Have you read his Einstein’s Dreams? Very short book–its chapters about, well, Albert Einstein’s dreams.

    • Kerry says:

      Sasha,

      It does sound like we had a similar reaction to the book. The Solitude of Prime Numbers suffers from some flaws and introduces you to a couple characters who you want to be happy. I cannot identify precisely where Giordano went “wrong” any more than you’ve been able to (here or in your own post), however, I remember these characters a month later and suspect I will in several years.

      Thanks for the Alan Lightman tip. I assume your recommend Einstein’s Dreams. I have not read it. Should I? (Given I enjoy physics, Einstein, and literary writing.)

      • Sasha says:

        There you go, then, Einstein’s Dreams. Every chapter a different dream, all related to time and space — thirty separate dreams, thirty different ways of examining time. For example, one dream, time moves slower and slower when you reach the center of town, where time then stops — all the while, we see children clutching on to mothers, a kiss about to meet but never meeting. It’s not a novel, not a collection of short stories. Just, well, dreams.

        It sounds hokey, haha, but I found it really beautiful. It’s heady reading, I almost had to limit myself to one chapter a day, to let the words and the images sink in, before I could emotionally prepare myself for the next dream.

        PS – Alan Lightman is a scientist / professor of physics at MIT!

  9. Kerry says:

    PS I’m falling for Lightman and I haven’t read a word. Does he have a number one fan yet? Heh. Thanks. It goes on the TBR.

  10. Emma says:

    Max linked me to your post. I read this book recently. I totally missed the stuff about chess as I can’t play, so thanks.

    Like Biblibio, I liked it but something was missing and I can’t tell what.

    I didn’t notice anything about the translation but it’s probably easier to translate from Italian to French than to English.

    • Kerry says:

      Max is awesome.

      The chess is an incredibly minor matter, but I have a habit of noticing and considering chess references in fiction. Sort of like checking in movies if the board is set up correctly.

      I agree with you that something was missing. I also can’t say exactly what. It seemed somehow less than fully formed to me. There were some great nuggets of writing, some great ideas, but it didn’t all come together.

      Oh, and I liked your review and agree with what you’ve said.

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