I always thought I had the measure of symmetry. Don’t get me wrong - I’ve never been a fan of algebra, and I’m regularly stumped by long division, but symmetry? Shapes and mirrors, right? I think I even know what tessellate means.
And yet part way through his enthralling lecture on the history (and future) of symmetry, mathmetician and author Marcus de Sautoy asks how many symmetries a Rubik’s cube has - and not only do I not have an answer, I don’t even understand the question. It’s 2.1×1024, by the way, and I couldn’t have been more confused if he’d told me the answer was brown.
Clearly there’s much to learn - and Marcus is an excellent guide. De Sautoy’s fascinating lecture, and his book, Finding Moonshine begins with the intriguing story of Evariste Galois. Rejected by the mathematical community, and aged just twenty years old, Galois met his death in a duel in Paris - the cause of which remains unknown - leaving behind a stunning and prodigious body of work in the field of symmetry, and a theory that now bears his name.
It ends, two hundred years later, with The Monster - the latest, most alarmingly named development of Galois theory. The Monster is the most complex symmetrical object yet discovered - an object which can only exists in 196,883 dimensions - and which boasts more symmetries than there are atoms in the sun.
No, I don’t understand either - but De Sautoy’s passion for the subject is abundant, and incredibly infectious. His lecture conveys brilliantly the excitement of working at the very forefront of modern mathematics - and introduces us to some of the very quirky characters who’ve been similiarly drawn the to the ‘moonshine’ surrounding the many remaining enigmas of The Monster.
Literature and symmetry make unusual companions - never fully forgiven for its part in the worst rhyme in English literary history, Thomas Mann bizarrely claimed to find in symmetry ‘the very marrow of death’. Marcus de Sautoy might just be the man to put the record straight.
It’s been around for ninety years, it’s still in print and they’ve just made the film. So if you’ve not heard of Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, there are only two reasons for it – and both are in this sentence.
Le Grand Meaulnes might be France’s answer to To Kill A Mockingbird – a crossover classic that’s been studied in French schools for more than half a century. Across the channel most middle class homes have a dog-eared copy somewhere between the TinTin and the Asterix; most are lavishly illustrated with dirty schoolboy doodles. Meaulnes is a country teenager at the turn of the century whose single, strange encounter with an anonymous girl shapes, and warps, his adult life. It’s a prototype Great Gatsby; it’s High Fidelity for the Lost Generation. But the real fascination of the book lies in the author’s own story - the strange story of a man who spent several years of a very short life searching for a woman he once met in the street.
So can a book that’s loved by millions still be a ‘secret weapon’? Perhaps not – but then Le Grand Meaulnes is probably the most secret famous book ever. In translation it’s had more titles than Prince Charles – The Wanderer, The Lost Domain – but on the whole British publishers have retained the French title; an unpleasant mouthful of vowels that goes down like a lead balloon in a country still allergic to books from abroad. “Le Grand what?” friends mumble, politely. And you end up writing it on a beer mat and thrusting it into their reluctant hands and realising you’ve just become that scruffy kid at college who kept telling people they had, just had to read Nabakov, or Ionesco, or Houellebecq.
Where I drink, discussing French novels is about as cool as throwing up at the bar. “It’s MEAULNES,” you say. “Don’t pronounce the S. Or the E or the A, I reckon. Just say Muln and you’re pretty much there. And you will have to ask for it, because ‘Alain-Fournier’ is a weirdly hyphenated pseudonym, not a surname, which means it confuses booksellers, so if you can’t find it under A make sure you look under F. No, the author’s real name is Henry. No, I read it in English. No, it’s not difficult – Nick Hornby likes it. Shall I get another drink?”
Truth be told, I’ve learnt to keep my mouth shut. So I’m incredibly pleased – and not in the least surprised – that this little classic is finally getting a proper English title and a proper author’s name. The Lost Estate comes out in May, now under the authorship of Henri Alain-Fournier: a curious blend of the writer’s real and false identities which should at least mean the book will no longer rock up under F. No cross track billboards, no half price store promotion; the publishers are just giving a wonderful novel an author you can recognise and a title you can say. It’s great marketing, that.