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Alice Munro, Mathematician

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Alice Munro? A mathematician? Since when? She's a "master of the contemporary short story," her characters live in small Canadian towns, they're "caught on the margins of shifting cultural mores and pulled between conflicting imperatives -- between rootedness and escape, domesticity and freedom, between tending to familial responsibilities or following the urgent promptings of their own hearts." Alice Munro is Canada's Chekov.

Yes, but she's Canada's Calvino too. (Italo Calvino, the scintillating writer, not John Calvin the fearsome preacher.) Nonsense, you mutter. I hear you. But bear with me. For starts, Munro wrote a story about a mathematician. Only one, but she liked it enough to make it the title story of her collection Too Much Happiness.

Munro's mathematician is, or was, real. Sophia Kovalevsky was born in Russia in 1850; she died in Stockholm at the age of 41. Munro tells us she met Sophia in the Encyclopedia Britannica and "the combination of novelist and mathematician immediately caught my interest." Sophia was that and more: a feminist and nihilist too; and wife, lover, sister, daughter, and mother.

Persons who have not studied mathematics confuse it with arithmetic and consider it a dry and arid science. Actually, however, this science requires great fantasy. Munro makes Sophia's words the epigram of her story. I'll rephrase it for this blog. Casual readers may think Munro's story is straightforward history or biography. Actually, however, this fiction requires great art -- art of a mathematical sort.

If you've never heard of Sophia Kovalevsky, Google her now. You'll wonder how you could have missed her. Prizes and lectures are named for her all over the world; stamps bear her likeness. The Association for Women in Mathematics organizes annual "Sonia Kovalevsky days" -- workshops, lectures, competitions for middle and high school girls. The praise-singing goes on, and on. Like Marie Curie, Sophia Kovalevsky is an icon, an historical role model. (Too much happiness? Or too much celebrity?) But Munro dug deep, untangling countries, languages, imperatives and allegiances. Behind the complexity, behind the celebrity, she found a human being.

The 50-page story follows Sophia's last journey, a journey by ferry and train. We get the facts of her life in flashbacks. Sophia is a pioneer; what other woman has studied with the greatest mathematicians of Paris and Berlin? No other woman has won the Bordin Prize. Against staunch tradition and stronger odds, she's a full professor, at Stockholm University. Her sore throat hints at the pneumonia that we know will kill her within weeks, but she feels pain of other kinds: memories of her husband, a suicide, and worries for their much-farmed-out daughter. She glimpses her evanescent lover at a train station -- or does she? They will marry in the spring -- or will they? This Sophia is pulled by conflicting imperatives; she would understand Munro's Canadians. The mathematician-writer affinity -- the author-character affinity -- is a two-way mirror, it's commutative.

The affinity is associative too, from character to content. Munro doesn't teach the math; for Sophia's equations you have to look elsewhere. Yet, like Sophia at the station, you might think you glimpse them. "The non-linear and non-static picture of Sophia's life created by Munro is analogous to the new conception that Sophia helped to introduce in mathematics . . . paving the way to non-linear mathematics, dynamic phenomena and theories of chaos."

And the affinity is transitive: from character to content, from content to style. "Fluent and deceptively artless on the page, [Munroe's] stories are actually amazingly intricate constructions that move back and forth in time, back and forth between reality and memory, opening out, magically, to disclose the long panoramic vistas in these people's lives." Why, they sound like ideal math proofs: short and deceptively simple, moving back and forth between foreground (theorems) and background (lemmas), opening out to resolve a web of questions, revealing vistas of far-flung applications.

"You don't have to believe in God, but you do have to believe in The Book," said Paul Erdös, the non-believer who thought it up. God has a book, he explained, in which is written the best proof of every theorem. Erdös didn't give criteria for getting your proof in The Book because he didn't need to: mathematicians understand that Euclid's proof of the infinitude of primes is in it and proofs that check case after case are not. On the other hand, if you're not a mathematician you might want to know just what those criteria are. And this brings us to Calvino, the spinner of science fantasies, invisible cities and impossible loves. Calvino listed the criteria for The Book, though I doubt he ever heard of it. He called them literary values, the ones closest to his heart; he would explain them in his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. Six lectures, six values: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity, and consistency. Calvino died September 19, 1985, the eve of his journey to Cambridge.

In Alice Munro's short story "Fiction," a woman buys a book by a writer she's just met. It turns out to be "a collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book's authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside." The Nobel Prize has given Munro the courage of her convictions. "I would really hope this would make people see the short story as an important art," she says. Art of a mathematical sort, Q.E.D.

Discussion questions:

1. Identify and compare the lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity, and consistency in Calvino's story "The Distance of the Moon" with a) any of Munro's stories and b) the periodic table of elements.

2. Should fact-fiction boundaries in literary works be curves, fractals, or porous?

3. If the arts and sciences are taught separately, aren't both diminished?

4. Why are novels getting longer?