New Finds

One Is the Loneliest Number

Love and all that stuff--Paolo Giordono writes about two damaged misfits trying to make a life.

Book Cover As I write this, the honorable literary organization PEN is holding its Sixth Annual World Voices Festival of International Literature, which is a thing of wonder and joy if you are proximal to the universal center of ambition (or are inclined to transport yourself there) and you are a devotee of literature of all stripes. Alas I am the latter and am pathologically determined to demur on the former.

However, as an act of solidarity with the festival’s intention to pay tribute to literature worldwide, I have taken up Italian best seller The Solitude of Prime Numbers (Pamela Dorman/Viking) by Paolo Giordano (translated from Italian by Shaun Whitside) whose popularity has led to significant sales in 38 countries (how many languages does that represent?). Part of the buzz around the book is about the author’s youth—being the youngest-ever winner of Italy’s equivalent to the National Book Award, the Premio Strega, and the fact that he is a PhD in particle physics, which allows for the tired subject of science and literature to arise:
TMO: Philip Roth interviewing Primo Levi pointed out that we have some generally accepted ideas of where writers come from—ex-journalists and humanities graduates for the most part. Scientists (like Levi) have rarely figured in that list. Science and Literature seem to often stand at opposite poles, with very different ideas of what constitutes “truth.” As a successful physicist and novelist, where do you think these two branches of knowledge meet (if at all)?

Paolo Giordano: It is true that such a severe distinction is often assumed. I think, to put it simply, it’s a distinction that isn’t true. Writing is the only job where everybody can fit in. There’s no need for a specific background, apart from the ability to write properly.

Moreover, I’m convinced that a very specific background far away from the strictly literary one—it can be scientific, economic, or whatever—can help in giving new perspectives in the telling of reality and in defining a particular style. Science is particularly suited to this, as it’s probably the most pertinent language to describe the world of today, as we are totally and constantly embedded into science and technology.

Before the book was released, I never thought carefully about physics and writing meeting or splitting at some point. To me, they were simply two things that I worked with, two separate ways of organizing and analyzing the outside world. Then I figured out that there are some small common regions where they overlap. In particular, these have to do for me with an idea of “precision” and with the sense that both give me of “putting disordered things back in order.”
By the way, let’s not forget C.P. Snow and Alan Lightman, and acknowledge Cormac McCarthy’s avid interest in String Theory and contemporary physics.

All right then, Giordano’s debut novel is a love story of two psychologically damaged misfits whose separation and eventual reunion exposes deep concealed emotion and trauma. Novelist John Boyne nails it:
Surprising, intimate, and deeply moving, The Solitude of Prime Numbers takes the readers on a hypnotic journey through an unexpected love affair. Paolo Giordano writes with grace and elegance of gentle but damaged characters, using inventive language to create a story unlike anything in recent fiction. This is everything a debut novel should be and leaves one longing for the books that will follow.
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