The book titled The French Mathematician by Tom Petsinis is one of the best of its genre. It is not often that biographies are written in the form of fiction. The author, having adopted the form of novel for this work, captures the essence of the character of Evariste Galois, the brilliant young French Mathematician whose life was cut short at the tender age of 21. The author carries the extra burden of using a first person narrative in the novel, whereby his imagination tries to capture the psyche and style of Galois.
Though literary license would smudge some of the facts about the subject, it succeeds in showcasing the essential qualities of Galois’ personality and achievements. For a project such as this, the lack of abundant primary resources can be an advantage. Contrary to confining the author with established facts about the subject and the backdrop, it releases the author to fill up the blanks using creative imagination. And Persinis uses his creative talent to not just construct a plot or story, but to draw the reader further into the consciousness of the subject.
As one reads through the novel, an impression of Galois as a revolutionary youth who had problems accepting the mores of his time becomes clear. That is why he got involved in student politics in his early teens. The same revolutionary zeal seen in his short political life was also seen in his mathematical life, where his papers have advanced the cause of mathematics greatly. The mathematical achievements of Evariste Galois can be summed up this way: He was the the inventor of the notion of a finite group.
More importantly, he applied his new group theory to an unsolved problem of his time by giving “a necessary and sufficient group-theoretic condition for a polynomial to be solvable by radicals”. Evariste Galois lived between 1811 and 1832, a period when French society was under rapid transformation. The post-Napoleonic France was in political ferment and young students like Galois were its chief participants. Unfortunately, Galois’ political stances would antagonize the King and the educational establishment. As a result, he would be denied enrollment in the leading institutions of the day. We also learn from the novel that the outstanding genius of Galois was accompanied by his tendency to be arrogant. Describing the final days of Galois’ life, the author suggests that the fatal duel he gets involved in could have been avoided had he exercised prudence. In what is a case of tragic irony, only when Galois becomes aware of his impending death does his creative output reach its highest expression. For example, in the final days before his fatal duel with his friend-turned-foe, Galois writes down his most significant mathematical discoveries in his letters to friends and other well wishers.
Students of history, culture and mathematics can all find this book of interest. This book will also be a valuable resource for students of French history and culture. When compared to details pertaining to Galois’ personal life and personal thoughts, Petsinis has not fictionalized aspects of the social and political milieu. As a result, the description of social and political life in early nineteenth century France is accurately documented. The emphasis on mathematics is not very strong for reasons discussed earlier. Still, Petsinis manages to convey the key discoveries of Galois to the extent that a novel form would allow. The fact that Petsinis is a trained mathematician himself has helped the project greatly.
If one has to pick flaws in the novel, it would be the liberties taken by the author in presenting the protagonist’s thought processes. There is no claim made by Petsinis about adherence to fact and hence the reader should not take them to be authentic. At different passages in the book, when Petsinis quotes Galois, one can see that the latter speaks a lyrical, florid style of prose. Passages like these look inauthentic and artificial for their style, substance and richness seem too grand for the character of Galois. So it is fair to say that the author has let his personal vision of life and his ways of thinking to get into the character of Evariste Galois. To this extent, the characterization of Galois comes across as artificial and trumped up. Furthermore, the fashion in which the character of Galois articulates his thoughts and ideas comes across as odd for a teenage boy, however brilliant he might have been. For one thing, the maturity and worldly wisdom shown by Galois simply does not fit his image as a brash but gifted teenager. For reasons like this, it is fair to say that at places in the novel the biographer overpowers his subject. The following monologue illustrates this point:
“My heart was now beating faster than usual. No longer Evariste Galois, I am impersonal, at one with the eternal mind responsible for mathematics, impelled forward to discover the mystery at the center of the labyrinth. But just as the solution is within reach, I am distracted by the scent of chamomile.” (The French Mathematician, 1997)
Beside the flaw pointed above, the novel is quite unique in that it mixes the two distant concepts of mathematics and politics through the life of Evariste Galois. And similarly, the mixing of biography and fiction forms is also quite rare. For example, plenty of biographies have been written about eminent mathematicians, which elaborately account their mathematical accomplishments and their personal struggles. Indeed, barring individual quirks and idiosyncrasies, most mathematicians fall within the stereotype of living regimented, organized and aloof lives by normal standards. But Tom Petsinis employs the facts surrounding the colorful but brief life of Evariste Galois in sculpting out a novel that is one of a kind. And it is only a matter of time before The French Mathematician is adapted to the celluloid form. Indeed, the period in which the novel is set, the eccentricity of the characters, the political circumstances of the time, etc, make it a perfect material for cinema.
While one would think that a third person narrative would be appropriate for a biography of this kind, the first person view employed by the author is also understandable. For example, the mind of any teenager, especially one gifted with prodigious talent and arrogance is bound to be in a constant state of flux and contradiction. In this context, the first person narrative is the best option to capture these ambiguities, as the following passage shows:
“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.” (The French Mathematician, 1997)
Also, by the time the book was first published in 1997, the stature of Galois and the implications of his theories have already established themselves in the annals of modern science. But these subsequent events cannot be accommodated into the narrative, for they were written in first person and set in early nineteenth century. If anything, during Galois’ time there was uncertainty as to the validity and significance of his theories. So the aura surrounding Galois that was earned posthumously cannot be fully articulated by the author. But Petsinis overcomes this challenge by stating Galois’ vision of politics and mathematics in the future. This is done in such a way that the growing legacy of Galois is contained within his express vision, which is neatly captured by the author in the novel. Even discounting for the factual digressions indulged by Petsinis, the final outcome is still satisfactory so as to classify the book a biography.
Finally, while Galois is obviously the hero of the novel, it doesn’t follow that the author has abandoned a critical treatment of his subject. Indeed, the vices as much as the virtues of the young hero are dwelled upon, showing that the young French mathematician is all too human, if not being ordinary in certain respects. Given that Galois’ contribution to mathematics has been so profound and that his creative life was nipped in the bud, one wonders how mathematics would have been transformed had he lived till old age. In this sense, the book manages to showcase both the heroic and the tragic aspects of the life of Evariste Galois. The political and creative heroism of the young genius might appear to be the focal point of the book but what is poignant are the glories that weren’t to be. The further theories that Galois could have developed, the inspirational political leader that he promised to be, etc are the thoughts with which the book ends.