Simon: The Genius in My Basement

Simon: The Genius in My Basement

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by Alexander Masters

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Alexander Masters tripped over his first book subject on a Cambridge sidewalk, and the result was the multi-award-winning bestseller Stuart: A Life Backwards. His second, he’s found under his floorboards.
One of the greatest mathematical prodigies of the twentieth century, Simon Norton stomps around Alexander’s basement in

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Alexander Masters tripped over his first book subject on a Cambridge sidewalk, and the result was the multi-award-winning bestseller Stuart: A Life Backwards. His second, he’s found under his floorboards.
One of the greatest mathematical prodigies of the twentieth century, Simon Norton stomps around Alexander’s basement in semidarkness, dodging between stalagmites of bus timetables and engorged plastic bags, eating tinned kippers stirred into packets of Bombay mix. Simon is exploring a theoretical puzzle so complex and critical to our understanding of the universe that it is known as the Monster. It looks like a sudoku table—except a sudoku table has nine columns of numbers.
The Monster has 808017424794512875886459904961710757005754368000000000 columns.
But that’s not the whole story. What’s inside the decaying sports bag he never lets out of his clutches? Why does he hurtle out of the house in the middle of the night? And—good God!—what is that noxious smell that creeps up the stairwell?
Grumpy, poignant, comical—more intimate than either the author or his quarry intended—Simon: The Genius in My Basement is the story of a friendship and a pursuit.  Part biography, part memoir, and part popular science, it is a study of the frailty of brilliance, the measures of happiness, and Britain’s most uncooperative egghead eccentric.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review
Masters's book is in no way a conventional biography, thanks largely to the presence of Norton himself in all his feisty, mackerelly complexity. Masters hands drafts to his subject as he goes, then records the usually aggrieved reactions. Norton is especially hard on what he considers Masters's oversimplified or meaningless attempts to explain the mathematician's worldview. Norton is correct in all cases, and you have to admire Masters for allowing him the last word. In this way Simon reminded me of Ian Hamilton's In Search of J. D. Salinger, which similarly sets out to be a biography but ends up, under relentless pressure from its subject, an altogether different kind of book, about the challenge of capturing an unwilling living figure in a dead paper medium.
—Jordan Ellenberg
Publishers Weekly
Masters (Stuart: A Life Backwards) adds to his biographical gallery of English eccentrics with this sprightly portrait of a math prodigy matured into squalid serenity. He profiles Simon Norton, his erstwhile Cambridge landlord and a once famous mathematician who made pioneering contributions to group theory, now the picture of uncouth, unworldly genius. Writing in a droll, quirky style festooned with cartoons, diagrams, and candid snapshots, the author wallows in Simon’s splendid oddities: the cave-like basement apartment (or “excavation”) crammed with trash, paperbacks, and expired transit timetables; the grungy clothes, shaggy hair, and revolting fish and rice diet; the articulate grunts and bizarre non sequiturs; the stealthy approach and fixed gaze that make women shriek in startlement; the obsessive traveling on, mapping of, and campaigning for the British bus and rail system. (The book includes engaging chapters on the rudiments of group theory, but Simon’s mathematical theories are too abstruse for laymen and the author merely gestures at them to convey his blinkered brilliance.) Masters mines what is clearly a galloping case of Asperger’s for insights into the nature of genius, with only limited success. Still, his hilarious and supple prose, vivid observations, and exasperated affection for Simon make for a fascinating study of an improbably happy life. Photos. Agent: George Lucas. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
Praise for Simon: The Genius in My Basement
“Exuberant and compelling . . . This is both a happy and a funny book. It is decorated with [Alexander] Masters’s elegant cartoons and his language is lyrical and vernal.”—Financial Times
“An absorbing read, with Masters’s deft pen and idiosyncratic style once again in evidence.”—The Times
“A comically tender portrait.”—The Observer
“Astonishingly good . . . a glorious book: funny, surprising and completely sui generis.”—The Sunday Times
“Masters has managed to convey something of the beauty and mystery not just of mathematics but of the human spirit.”—The Sunday Telegraph
“An affectionate, dynamic tale.”—The List
“Delightful.”—The Guardian
Library Journal
When still in his early twenties, math prodigy Simon Norton published the hugely significant The Atlas of Finite Groups. He's well known to the author, not because Masters studied math and physics but because Norton is Masters's landlord, living in the basement of his building. How Norton got there after his early triumphs is a story Masters can tell; he wrote Stuart: A Life Backwards, a Guardian First Book award winner about a homeless man.
Kirkus Reviews
The breezy biography of a highly eccentric mathematician. Masters (Stuart: A Life Backwards, 2006) does a solid job of portraying Simon Phillips Norton as a peculiar, once-reputable math prodigy with immense intelligence who devolved into a disheveled recluse­--and the author's live-in landlord. With droll undertones, Masters depicts Norton as a brilliant child who amazed educators with a 178 IQ, penned a sonata at age 10 and excelled as a teenager in the development of mathematical group theory at Eton College in the 1960s and then at Trinity College. After co-authoring a seminal text, The Atlas of Finite Groups, Norton botched a mathematical equation in the presence of peers, and a systematic collapse of genius ensued from which he never quite recovered. Years later, the author found himself a tenant sharing physical space in Cambridge with Norton, who shuffled around in a cavernous basement flat cluttered with garbage and transit timetables. This residential arrangement afforded Masters copious face time with the cosseted mathematician and his lifestyle oddities, including a penchant for odorous canned kippers, grunting communication and a scruffy, unkempt appearance--much akin to Russian math genius Grigori Perelman. Writing with uncanny delight and wonder, Masters offers a hectic amalgam of comical drawings, complex numerical calculations, photographs, articles and letters, all contributing, in one quirky way or another, to the elevation of Norton's hyperactive intellect. A rarefied glimpse at bizarre brilliance.

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chapter 1

Simon was one year old, playing in the dining room, getting under his mother's stilettos.

He was unusually thoughtful. His brothers at this age pounded the toy blocks on the glass coffee table and jabbed them into the electric sockets.

Simon picked up a pink block from the pile beside his knee and smoothed it against the carpet. Carefully, he positioned a blue brick alongside. He reached across-his mother, on her way to lay the side plates and forks, had to make a sharp swerve-for two more pink bricks, and slid them against the blue. With precision, he extracted another blue brick.

Shuffling across the room on his bottom, Simon found four more pink bricks, fumbled them back and continued the arrangement.

His mother, halfway through folding napkins into bishops' miters, stopped in astonishment. She saw at last what he was doing.

One blue, one pink.

One blue, two pinks.

One blue, three pinks.

One blue, four pinks.

From the disarray of Nature, her baby son was enforcing regularity.

It took our species from the birth of prehistory to the dawn of Babylonian civilization to learn mathematics.

Simon was bumping about its foothills in just over twelve months.

At three years, eleven months and twenty-six days, he toddled into cake layers of long multiplication:

Simon's brother Francis had barely managed to recite the digits from one to ten by the time he was four years old; his brother Michael, a fraction quicker, had understood that if you gave him three banana- flavor milkshakes, and asked him to "count" them, the correct answer was "one" for the first, "two" for the second and "three" for the sticky splosh dribbling down his ear.

Percentages, square numbers, factors, long division, his 81 and 91 times tables, making numbers dance about to itchy tunes:

Simon mastered these when he was five.

Occasionally, his attention wandered:

2 The reader meets Simon

That's the sound of a once-in-a-generation genius.

Simon Phillips Norton: Phillips, with an "s," as if one Phillip were not enough to contain his brilliance. He lives under my floorboards.

Dhuunk, dhuunk...

When I first moved here, I had no idea what the noises were. Underground rivers? The next-door neighbors dragging a new pot through to their Tuscan garden? Dhuunk, dhuunk...But after eight years of interpretation I know that it's the great man's feet, stomping from one end of his room to the other. Every second stomp is heavier.

"Sssschlissh": that's the swipe of his puffa ski jacket against the stalagmites of paperbacks he keeps piled on the furniture.

"Zwaap": the sound of his duffel, as he rotates at the end of the room. He sometimes flings it wide, hitting papers. Simon carries this bag about with him everywhere he goes, clutched in the crook of his arm, even if it's just to his front door to let in the gas man.

...dhuunk, dhuunk, dhuunk, zwaap, dhuunk, dhuunk...

Simon's bed is ten feet directly beneath mine. My study is on top of his living room. His stomping space extends the full depth of the building, under my floor. My balcony is the roof of his basement extension, which has herded all the pretty garden plants into a six- foot square at the back of our house and stamped them under concrete slabs.

The phone rings. A charge from Simon: Dhuunk! Dhuunk! Dhuunk!

Snorting. The receiver-...rrinng, clank, clumpump, ping, ping...- wrenched from its holster. Attempts at speech, grunts, bangs of talk- noise; a strangulated word.

Clunk. Phone back in its holster.


Dhuunk, dhuunk, dhuunk...

There's another very important sound, which is too difficult to represent typographically: an intermittent, twisted crackle, sharp but thick, with a strong sense of command, resting on a base of plosive disorder. In an exercise book from when he was five there's a squiggle that comes close:

It's the sound of plastic-bag-being-opened-in-a-hurry-and-the- gratification-of-discovering-important-papers-inside. Without understanding this noise, you cannot understand the man.

...ssschliissh, dhuunk, zwaap, zwaap, dhuunk, dhuunk...

Simon has been pacing down there for twenty-seven years, three months, five days, thirteen hours and eight minutes.


Stop breathing!

Did you catch that?

Still another sort of noise?

A sort of sigh?

That was a thought.

Minus N

Your representation of me as interesting is

inaccurate. I feel ashamed by it.


Damn! He's gone!

Simon's refused to enter the book!

He is a Minus Norton.

"Why now?" I demanded, jumping up from the carpet when he stomped into my study from the basement. "The reader has started the story. He's spent the money. He feels conned."

"How do you know it's a he who's reading it? It might be a she, hnn."

"He or she! Who cares?"

"I presume they do," he said cunningly.

Behind him, a bubble of air floated up the stairs and expanded into my rooms of the house, whiffing of damp and sardines.

Then he barged out of the front door, and, the scuff of his sandals becoming rapidly soft and seaside-ish, disappeared toward the Mathematics Faculty.

A book about Simon that doesn't have Simon in it?

I had thought a life of Simon would be tiptoeing on the edge of the shadow of God. Instead, he crashes about my study as though heel joints had never been invented; makes women shriek when they turn on the light in the corridor and find him standing there like an Easter Island statue; his duffel twists him into animal shapes; he hides behind envelopes.

He shocks me awake with his snores.

Writing biographies of living people, the subject is an irritant. Why is he needed? All he does is insist that whatever you've written is wrong.

In fact, when Simon was part of the book, I had to run away from him.

Wouldn't all biographies be better if they gave up trying to fix the person they're writing about, and confined themselves to his glints and reflections-a biography not of Simon but of the perception of Simon? What is a biography, anyway? A platter of gossip and titbits. It's up to the readers to mix these components together in whatever way they find most entertaining and instructive. The subject's out of it. Once word hits page, he's irrelevant.

I'm glad Simon's gone. Good riddance!

In mathematics, you jump onto the subject of numbers through your experience of reality-two flies multiplied by four sudden pulls gives eight wings; three toads, two frogs and one bathtub equals six screams of fury from your father; four bags of crisps and five of your mum's cigarettes make nine orders of stomachache-that's how the newcomer gets introduced to the subject, via the positive, whole numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6...

But mathematicians insist that negative numbers are equally real. It's just a matter of which way you happen to look: going ahead is positive, and going behind is negative.

I'll go behind Simon. Allow me to introduce Biographical Minus N:

Now, let's break into his basement.


November 26, 1922: Carter pierced a small hole in the wall through which he could look into the Pharaoh's chamber with a sliver of torch light. Asked if he could see anything he replied, "yes, wonderful things!"

Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb

But I can't find the light switch.

Which is important when you'restanding at the top of Simon'sstairs with nothing but sardine stenchand book writer's bones to break yourfall. Every other house in our building has a light switch by the stairwell door-why has Simon wrenched his out?

It makes me tense. My nerves clench into a knot. It feels planned.

There are holes in the stair carpet: lips of fabric at the edge of the treads, cut to flop forward, snatch...tap-tap...your toes...

...and plunge you onto the quarry tiles at the bottom.

These stairs are booby-trapped-against biographers.

It's safest to take the rest of the steps spread-eagle fashion, one foot slithering against the wall while the other rat-a-tats along the banister spindles. The palms of my hands catch and release on splodges of stickiness. As I slide down, I pass over two treads that have been blasted away. The wood has been broken in. It's a sheer drop between the thigh-shredding splinters left behind to the floor below. Craftily, Simon has left the carpet in place over the chasm.

The only person who has been caught by this booby trap is the booby who manufactured it in the first place, Dr. Simon MINUS Norton. The other week, I remember, I saw him leaping about the street on one leg, clutching his knee.

At last, here, at the bottom of the steps, we encounter a switch...

The bulb-low-watt, energy-saving-spreads shadow, not light.

It gathers a narrow entrance lobby into view, the floor of which is strewn with wood shavings and brick fragments. Sections of plaster have chipped away from the walls, exposing shoddy Victorian masonry. Along one edge of one side of the carpet is a pile of merry-colored supermarket bags-perhaps forty in total, traffic-light orange, Pacific blue, lime-green stripes-the plastic straining colonicly against the mass of paperwork rammed inside.

If we squeeze over the rubble and past these plastic bags, we can peer through a door frame that appears to have lost its door. Wrinkle your nose. Squint your eyes. This is Simon's basement: long, low and odoriferous.

There are so many words Simon refuses to let me use:

"S-" (seven letters, including a "q.")

"Too scandalous!"

"P-" (six letters, oink, oink.)

"My poor mother!"

"C-" (seven, mild, rhymes with butter.)

"How shaming!"

"M-" (six, obscure, but not to Simon; investigated by archaeologists.)

"Stop writing immediately!"

Simon's Banned List is a page and a half long. Our most violent argument was over the four-letter "f-" word.

"No!" he strangulated.

I am not to use this "f-" . . .

"No!" he wriggled.

. . . to describe Simon's fraction of the house under any circumstance. This word "f-" . . .

"No!" he sank piteously to his knees.

will get him into trouble with the police.

What am I to say?

"Rooms," was Simon's genteel proffering.

"No!" I started from my writing chair. "Too polite. I'm not going to lie to my readers to that extent."

"You've shown no compunction about much greater lies elsewhere."

"But," I relaunched the argument for "f-," "when the house was being assessed for council tax, at one stage the council maintained that it was a separate 'f-.'"

"And it would have meant a lot extra on my council tax bill. Hnnh, I don't want to have to go through that again, hnnh."

"How about 'apar-'?"

"No! No! No!"


"No!" we shrieked together, and fell about laughing.

Simon has lived in this...this...this...excavation since 1981. Once your eyes have adjusted to the gloom, you'll see that it's made up of two rooms: a main one, which extends the full depth of the house, thirty feet from end to end, and the 1970s school-block type of extension at the back that ends with a set of sliding doors opening onto brambles.

Now, slip on, wait. I must say something first about the "Titanic Toilet."

Underneath the booby-trapped stairs we just slid down to get here is a corpse-a dead and rotting lavatory bowl.

Simon was sitting on this toilet when the floor gave way. He and the crapper fell into the abyss so fast that his teeth bit his nose and he would have vanished altogether had the underside of the bowl not banged to a stop against the waste pipe and balanced there, beached, holed, the Titanic of Toilets, teetering over the center of the earth. Simon hasn't been able to go near the place since, except to "stand." Wedging his head against the low, sloped ceiling of the stairs, clutching the washbasin with both hands, he teeters his toes to the edge of the broken woodwork-and waters the blackness.

When Simon wants "to sit" he considers even my bathroom upstairs too close to the scene of trauma; he has to go to the farthest possible alternative accommodation in the house: the toilet on the top floor.

Returning to the Excavation. Now is the correct moment to slip on your steel boots, belt up with climbing robes and G-clips, grab a few plasters and a bottle of antiseptic: we're about to enter the first cave.

It's easier in here to describe where the paper, plastic bags and books are not than where they are: they're not on the ceiling.

I suppose you could say, technically, there are no papers on the top third of the walls.

A lot of it trembles in towers on the arms of chairs, on tables, on cupboards, on top of a dinner lady's cart that Simon's managed to wrench out of some local school and rattle back along the midnight streets.

There are outlines of walls, outcrops suggesting a clothes cupboard, a padded chair, one, two, possibly three chests of drawers; no discernible floor; and-watch out!-an I-beam thrusting across the ceiling, indicating that, at some point in this cave's history, primitive inhabitants have knocked out a wall, possibly during the Cambridge population explosion of the early 1900s.

Finally, here is floor.

We can rest for a moment now and take our bearings. To the right, the front of the house: a bay window, light cut off by blinds (pattern of blinds: colored, wave-like stripes, perhaps reminding cave inhabitants of the sea). To the left: dinge.

Patterns made in the shadows by the stalagmites of plastic bags and books include a galloping cow, a beetle trying to hide under what was once the padded armchair, the face of a grotesque man...

Gullies molded into the floor surface of paper-filled supermarket bags, envelopes, squashed boxes, fallen books, mark the route Simon takes when he stomps from his mattress to the toilet under the stairs; the toilet to the kitchen; kitchen (carrying a plate of sardines) back to mattress; then (plate and cutlery bouncing as he leaps up) mattress to front patio door, where the paper disorder gives way and a solitary rut leads through the leaves and fallen shards of masonry big enough to kill, up to the street outside our house-at which point mechanized sweepers and dustbin men take over and the trail disappears.

Amazingly, there are some good pieces of furniture here. Simon's bed (again, to the right, beside the seascape window blinds) is a nineteenth-century mahogany antique with a Dutch gable headboard and cusped legs. How did this splendid object get in? A gift from ancient gods? It's placed so Simon MINUS Norton can hear the postman coming up the steps to the front door of the main floor above, leap out of bed, race up the booby-trap stairs and be trembling there with his hands held in a scoop below the letterbox before the first envelope hits the floor.

An eighteenth-century twizzle-legged side table is at the other end of this first room, by the kitchen, washed up on a patch of carpet: the sort of thing found in Cotswold cottages with an arrangement of desiccated flowers sliding off the edge. This table is at an end point of Simon's stomping route, and bears the brunt of his swinging bag when he turns. Yet somehow a giraffe-shape of paperbacks with alternating dark and light spines has managed to remain in place.

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Meet the Author

Alexander Masters studied physics and mathematics in London and Cambridge. For five years he worked in hostels for the homeless and ran a street newspaper. He has also worked as a newspaper columnist, a travel writer, an illustrator, and a bedspread salesman.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Simon: The Genius in My Basement 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Did u get locked out on purpose?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago