The French Mathematician

/, Literature, Blesok no. 52/The French Mathematician

The French Mathematician

– excerpt from the novel–


I must appear a pathetic figure to that person looking down from that fourth-story window beyond the schoolyard wall. It looks like an artist’s studio. Who knows, perhaps I am being sketched with a scrap of charcoal at this very instant—a slight youth with untidy black hair, strong eyebrows, mouth like a sparrow. I have been standing in this corner of the schoolyard since the beginning of morning recess, huddled under an elm, caught in the crisp shadow of its branches. The smell of burning paper fills the yard. Smoke twisting up from a nearby incinerator spreads in a cursive script across the clear winter sky. Arms crossed, fists clenched, fingernails cutting into my palms, I feel sorry for my short, thin shadow which has hardly changed since I came to Louis-le-Grand three years ago. Fifteen last October, I could be mistaken for a twelve-year-old. The boys who started with me have grown noticeably during the past year: Pimples bud from their faces, the down on their cheeks has darkened, their thighs and voices have thickened. I grit my teeth. My recent demotion was due more to lack of physical development than poor performance in a few subjects.
Let them have the present—the future belongs to me. When their idiotic games turn to stone and their laughter vanishes in the wind, my thoughts will live on, not only in this language, but in those which today still lack alphabets. From the time I learned to read under Mother’s prodding eyes, I have been intrigued by the magic of ink and sensed that my name would be preserved in print. Is this why my inner voice is so pronounced? Am I projecting myself into the future by means of this inner voice? A message put in a bottle and thrown into the ocean. If I am destined to be written about, my conscious effort here and now might influence how my life will be represented.
– Galois the girl! Galois the girl!
A burst of warm vapor blasts my ear. Before I am able to retaliate the name-caller is sprinting across the yard, laughing wildly, shoes crackling over small pools laced with ice. I hate them all —the students, the teachers, the Director. This school is no better than a prison. Why did Father insist I study in Paris? I was happy at home in Bourg-la-Reine. Mother could have seen to my education. After all, she taught me to read and write, introduced me to Greek and Latin, and later made a point of reading from the Bible. Yes, she was demanding, harsh at times, especially when it came to the Bible, but there was always Father’s company to make up for this. My happiest memories are with him: times when we would sing together, recite his own poems, entertain guests with short plays based on the Iliad, Racine, even Shakespeare, who was such a favorite of Father’s that he claimed the name was a corruption of the French Jacques-Pierre. We often performed the ghost scene from Hamlet: He was the dead King, and I, the Prince. I became so worked up over the scene that I trembled and tears blurred my vision as I listened to Father. The guests would break out in good-natured laughter and applause. Those were bright days, a world away from this gloomy place.
Four boys are playing a game that involves throwing fingers, adding the number each has thrown, and counting clockwise. The player on whom the counting stops is then slapped on the back of the hand by the others. If they counted in the other direction would the same player be slapped? I see at once, accompanied by a sense of certainty, that if the sum is even and the count begins with the same person in both cases, then the direction affects the outcome; if the sum is odd there is no difference.
Mother’s voice suddenly comes to me, harsh and high-pitched. I remember how the sinews in her neck would twitch as she read to me from the Iliad. My favorite was the story of Ajax. How I felt for the poor tragic hero! I understood his dejection and that desperate last act. Often, when refused something, or when I did not get my own way, I would take my wooden sword and run off to the back of the house, where I pretended to be Ajax. On one occasion, buried in the maple’s red leaves, I imagined myself hovering over my prostrate body, looking down sadly on the victim of a cruel fate, deriving a strange pleasure in feeling sorry for myself. There is no time for such games in this prison, no opportunity for make-believe, no place for privacy. I sleep with forty others in the dormitory, “wait in a line to wash each morning, eat in the refectory and attend classes from six in the morning until nine at night. Continually in the presence of those I despise, my only respite is the liberating dark when the dormitory lamps are extinguished, and I can follow memory and imagination without interruption.
And now, after a term in the third and final year, this demotion to the second! Confinement in this prison extended by another six months!
Rhetoric! I could have easily passed that useless subject. They call me dunce. I will show them! I played the fool in class to make fools of them. I did poorly in Rhetoric in order to spite the teacher, whose smugness I could not bear. Effective use of language! I refused to follow his rules of grammar and construction. To defy him, I often submitted work written with the rules of my own grammar, constructed sentences that expressed the movement of my own mind, not that of others. I enjoyed these games whose meaning was perfectly clear to me, but which confused him.
Sometimes I would daydream of a private language; magic sounds and symbols that transported me to another world. But the teacher’s growl would tear me from such reveries, and he would read my nonsense to the others. The students howled, the teacher grinned. I would bite my lower lip, suppressing my delight, feeling superior to them all because I had set out to reduce them to laughter, to make them look ridiculous. The more they laughed, the stronger my heart pounded in the knowledge of my superiority. Only the foolish and small-minded gaped like that. And then I would imagine the exiled Napoleon, arms crossed, brooding on a rocky beach, waiting for his moment, while the Royalists spent their evenings in frivolous laughter.
Gleaming on the chapel’s cross, a crow complains raucously, then flaps to a bough above my head, where it preens its wings. A large feather twirls through the branches and falls at my feet. I admire its shape and point. It would make a fine quill. The ancient Greeks augured the future from birds. What would they have made of this feather?
Over the past year dark feelings have been stirring within me, not only hatred of those around me, but a frustrated desire for something I cannot define, an ambition without a goal, a sense of leaving childhood and moving toward a distant, barely audible calling, which sometimes sounds like nothing more than a faint echo of my own voice, and other times a voice I have never heard before, calling compellingly in a language I do not fully understand. I know I am destined for something, though I do not know exactly what.

AuthorTom Petsinis
2018-08-21T17:23:10+00:00 February 20th, 2007|Categories: Prose, Literature, Blesok no. 52|0 Comments