“Mathematics is not as pure as you assume”: Sylvia Nasar and Masha Gessen at Auckland Writers and Readers Festival

Sylvia Nasar  - Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2013
Sylvia Nasar

Ah, the sweet satisfaction of getting that first Festival session under one’s belt. It was non-fiction, scientific, and fascinating: Tragic Brilliance. American professor Sylvia Nasar wrote A Beautiful Mind about the mathematician John Forbes Nash. Russian journalist Masha Gessen wrote Perfect Rigour on another mathematical eccentric, Grigori Perelman, drawing partly on an interview Nasar once conducted with him. Not so tragic mathematician Steven Galbraith ably chaired the session, allowing each woman to tell their stories with plenty of breathing room.

Grigori Perelman was discussed in some detail. Here’s a snippet from Wikipedia for those who don’t know anything about him:

In 1994, Perelman proved the soul conjecture. In 2003, he proved Thurston’s geometrization conjecture. This consequently solved in the affirmative the Poincaré conjecture, posed in 1904, which before its solution was viewed as one of the most important and difficult open problems in topology.

Sylvia Nasar went looking for this enigma, believing his story had all the elements of “an academic bodice ripper”. Perelman had refused numerous awards and accolades for his work, and his proof had also been dramatically refuted as flawed by a Chinese mathematician. The New Yorker article Manifold destiny by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber gives a description of this.

After traipsing all over St Petersburg without success, she saw Perelman in an address where he had spent his college years. The hermit’s first words to her (knowing she had writter A beautiful mind): “You’re a writer, I didn’t read the book but I saw the movie with Russell Crowe”.

Masha Gessen  - Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2013
Masha Gessen

Masha Gessen explored Perelman more, and gave details of a man separating himself from society, from his friends, and becoming a hermit. His work is astonishing. It took two groups of mathematicians 3 years to explicate his work (taking it from 8 pages to 800) – and Gessen said to explain it to the general population it would need to be expanded by another factor of ten.

After solving the Poincaré conjecture, Perelman was insulted by being offered jobs in the United States. He had wanted tenure years earlier, but now he felt “they were trying to buy his accomplishment”. Masha explained how he had refused various awards for reasons that were “extremely consistent logically”.

Sylvia Nasar gave us a compelling portrait of Grigori Perelman – emphasising how cultured he is, an amazing reader informed by English and Russian literature, a total history buff, and passionate about opera.

She spoke more about John Nash, and how his Nobel Prize almost didn’t happen, and that “Game theory was John Nash’s juvenalia”. Her book is:

A drama about the human mind, and the mystery of the human mind … There are so many stories in literature and theatre about a meteoric rise and a catastrophic fall.

Nash went from maths rock star, producing “one amazing deep piece of pure mathematics after another” to 30 years of losing everything, even teeth. His wife was his supporter through this decline, and sadly Sylvia observed that one of John’s sons is also schizophrenic – “as sick now as his father ever was”.

Masha Gessen immersed herself in topology for a year to understand the dramaturgy of Perelman’s proof  to understand”the light that the proof shone on mathematical structures”.

The discussion turned to the subject’s cooperation with books. Sylvia said John Nash was uncooperative, and Masha observed of her subjects Perelman and Putin:

I like writing about people I can’t talk to.

The session ended with two thoughts – Sylvia on the movie about John Nash A Beautiful Mind  – “people loved it all around the world … it put the audience in his shoes”. And Marsha on the sad decline of Grigori Perelman – winding down his relationships, a cultured man saying “I’m not reading anything at all”.

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Boys at War: Jane Tolerton AWRF 2013

It’s a terrible thing to talk about what I’m talking about, you know. But I saw it. I was there.

So said one of the 84 veterans of the First World War interviewed for the World War One Oral History Archive, which Jane Tolerton helped to set up in 1987.

Cover: An awfully big adventureIn An Awfully Big Adventure Tolerton revisits these recordings and puts the reminiscences into a chronology for the present-day reader.  When the words “we will remember them” were intoned on Anzac Days after the First World War, it was the fallen rather than the survivors who were being remembered.

The convention was that the New Zealand division was  ‘the silent division’. However, when researching her book on Ettie Rout, Tolerton discovered that those who had returned were willing to talk, but they had to be asked.

Just as well somebody did ask, as the World War One recordings are the most used part of the Oral History Archive. There were 84 interviews over three years and most of the men had never talked about the war.  Tolerton played some of the recordings and the voices came down all the years; vivid, candid and humble (the worst sin was to be a ‘skite’).

For an idea of what those at home were being fed about the war, Tolerton recommends looking at Papers Past. Small wonder civilians asked returned soldiers “did you have a good time?”  and no-one ever said “you must have had a crook time”.

Word of the session: tough.

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Remarkable Women AWRF 2013

Cover: Who Was That Woman Anyway?Jolisa Gracewood had an unenviable task wrangling, in the nicest possible way, three strong, singular women who ended up running over her in the nicest possible way.  Or actually two of them did.

Aorewa McLeod is one of those simultaneously inspiring and daunting people who has a long and distinguished career and then on retiring starts another, equally successful enterprise. In McLeod’s case a Masters in Creative Writing led to a well-reviewed ‘autobiographical fiction’ or ‘fictional autobiography’, Who was that woman anyway? The book ended up at the top of the biography best-seller lists, then moved to fiction.

All the reviewers who met Meme Churton when her extraordinary memoir Meme: the three worlds of an Italian-Chinese New Zealander came out noted her chic, so, irredeemably trivial as I am, I was very keen to see her. And she did not disappoint. Churton has Chinese and Italian ancestry; she ran some of Auckland’s earliest dealer galleries and cafes; she knew everybody and had an extensive art collection, but she did not have a happy marriage. Meme claimed to have brought the first espresso machine to Auckland; Jacqueline claimed to have ruined one of the first in Wellington.

Cover: Before I ForgetJacqueline Fahey has written two volumes of memoirs that are not only insightful descriptions of of an artist’s thought and practice, but are also vivid snapshots of what life was like at a time when clever women were expected to help their husbands in their careers, look after the children and never ever show any signs of doing anything for themselves. Fahey’s voice came through the books so strongly I expected her to dominate proceedings totally.

And she pretty much did. Meme gave her a good run for her money, but Aorewa could barely get a word in, despite valiant attempts at talking about sex and destiny.  She did a bit better with fashion, but on the subject of hating her mother Fahey topped her again – “It’s the most natural thing in the world”.

What they all did agree on was telling the truth about one’s life can only ever be one version of the truth.  One woman’s truth is another woman’s lie, all memories are true but within families they can be hopelessly at odds.

Word of the session? Barbarous.

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An open book: New Zealand Listener Gala Night

Carol Hirschfeld is the perfect host for the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival Gala evening. She has a great turn of phrase, looks wonderful and has a passion for books, what more could you need? In her introduction she mentioned that there are over 12,000 people attending this years festival, up on last year and if you combine that with the 3000 school children that have been entertained over the last few days, then that is a lot of people enjoying books!

Each writer was given the task of telling a story around the theme of An Open Book. As you can well imagine everyone took a different angle, some very literal, others had a more tenuous link to the theme, but all were moving as well as entertaining.

I was impressed by these writers, solitary people at times I imagine, thrown into the limelight, alone on the stage recounting some really quite personal stories.They didn’t falter, they made us laugh – usually at their expense, and kept our attention. To be told a story as an adult is very powerful.  When do we ever have the opportunity to just sit and listen with no input, no nodding of heads or vague encouraging comments needed, no need to offer feedback or praise? What an indulgent pleasure.

Novelist Shehan Karunatilaka could well be a hit at this festival. He was born in Sri Lanka, but spent his teenage years at the prestigious Wanganui Collegiate. His story revolved around finding an adult magazine (of the sort we don’t have at the library) and although the pictures held some allure, he also found a story about Sting and the band the Police. This started him on a journey of reading, the library became a place of refuge from some of the bigotry he experienced at school but also a place where he could learn – everything!  Sadly I found his book Chinaman not to my liking,  (a book based around cricket was always going to have an uphill battle to win my favour), but I don’t think this will be a deterrent for festival goers. Jackie Kay was also very engaging so look out for Rachel’s interview of her tomorrow.

So, we have had a tantalising taste of things to come, and a free copy of the Listener which was a bit of a bonus so let it begin!

First day in Auckland

IMG_0707Finding  our way from the hotel to the Aotea Centre,  I am struck like probably all Christchurch people are by the amount of pedestrians, cars and general business of a city. I am almost pining for a few road cones!

We collect our tickets from the box office and sit down to work out the plan of attack , only to witness the arrival of a posse of quadbikes and to be deafened by the sound of chainsaws!  Yes, in the middle of Aotea Square we so-called literary festival goers were witnessing the true heartland of New Zealand –  The Ultimate Rural Challenge for the young farmer of the year, quite a contrast you could say!

They certainly were beating us on the noise scale as the Aotea Centre was pretty quiet today with just a few late stragglers looking for tickets, but tonight that should all change with the New Zealand Listener Gala Night where the glamorous and maybe the famous will come out to hear eight writers present a seven minute story inspired by the theme of An Open Book. I am expecting an entertaining if slightly less physically daunting night than the young farmers, who might be out ploughing Mt Smart stadium for all I know.

Tomorrow is a busy day with Rachel interviewing Jackie Kay and Fleur Adcock and Robyn and I doing a tag team interview with Wayne McCauley in between attending Everlasting feasts, Monied worlds, Remarkable Women and Boys at War. Phew.

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