“Her craziness was happily wed to her intellect. There are no reasonable geniuses in this world, I am convinced.” So writes middle-aged fictional geophysicist Alexander “Sasha” Karnokovitch of his mother, within the pages of actual geophysicist Stuart Rojstaczer‘s debut novel The Mathematician’s Shiva. A brilliant mathematician, Rachela is rumored to be taking the secret proof to the Navier-Stokes equation to her grave. But first, and trust me, somehow this all works, Rojstaczer gives us alternating scenes of heartbreak and humor, introducing Rachela on her deathbed along with her fantastically weird family. As the story continues, a parade of mathematicians will arrive to poke around her house in search of her last work, but there is so much more than the ongoing narrative at work: Rojstaczer employs chapters recalling Sasha’s youth, learning mathematics at his father’s hand, complete with diagrams and historical context — “Leo” in one of his father’s instructional stories turns out to be Leonhardt Euler — as well as excerpts from Rachela’s memoir A Lifetime in Mathematics, chronicling her Jewish family’s flight from the rise of Hitler. If this is beginning to sound too heady or heavy, a brief remark: even the chapter titles contain bits of humor. And if you pause to take a sip of vodka as often as Rachela’s younger brother Shlomo…
Rojstaczer, a long-time professor at Duke University now living in California, will be at Durham’s The Regulator Bookshop this Thursday, September 11, at 7 pm for a reading and signing event. Via email, he answered some questions about his book and his background in reading and writing.
Q: You and “Sasha” are both Wisconsin-born geophysicists, the son of Polish-Jewish post-WW2 immigrants. Do the similarities end there, or is there any shared familial or other background of yours which you were able to use to inform the character and his family?
Sasha is older I am, has a bit stronger Eastern European roots, is more arrogant, is a better mathematician, and is a lifelong skirt-chaser. He’s an amalgam of people I know and love and sure, there’s more than a little of me in Sasha. You can only act so much in creating a character. There’s at least a little of me in all of the characters in this novel. Originally, the family in this novel was going to be Hungarian. But I quickly realized I knew nothing about Hungarian culture. In contrast, I know about Polish and Russian Jewish culture intimately. It’s a bitter fit. Grounding this novel in a culture I know emotionally and intellectually gives it necessary and vital authenticity, I think.
Q: A novel with (even sparse!) mathematical formulae and graphs seems that it could be a hard sell, particularly for a debut novelist. Was this the case at all?
It was a definite hurdle. I’m very grateful that Penguin took the risk of publishing a novel full of math and four other “foreign” languages. Plus The Mathematician’s Shiva is a comedy. Nowadays, telling a publisher you have a comedy – with or without math in it – is like telling a publisher you have ebola.
Q: I did like that you directly referenced this early on in the novel, with Sasha addressing his readers, “I know you are probably sweating almost instantly at the sight of such a thing.” and reassuring them: “Dear reader, don’t panic.” The chapters take such a meta-fictional turn at times, alternating between 4th-wall pushing from a “present day” timeline, excerpts from Rachela’s memoir, mathematics-bearing backstory from Sasha’s childhood, and (of course) the narrative thrust of the novel, of Rachela’s death and ensuing shiva in 2001. While not truly an experimental form (Dos Passos, Kim Stanley Robinson, etc.) it can be a risky approach — again especially for a debut novelist! Were there books that inspired you to use this approach, or did the experience of writing your memoir Gone for Good give you all the confidence you’d need?
I’ve been an avid reader since my teens when I discovered 19th century Russian novels. That’s over 40 years of reading! I’ve certainly learned a great deal from reading modern and contemporary masters like Nabokov and Doctorow. I also wrote two bad (so bad that I didn’t even try to publish them) novels before The Mathematician’s Shiva. Read from the best. Practice until you get good. Voila! Eventually, I got to where I was writing something that I thought could find an audience.
Q: How many other novels reference mathematics, the Holocaust, academia, familial love and duty, vodka, and Frank Zappa? (And that’s just the opening chapters!) Not nearly enough, after reading your book. I’d love to hear a bit about what we might expect in Better Than New York.
The Holocaust and familial love and duty are important in Better Than New York. Mathematics and academia take a vacation. Instead, civil engineering and city politics reign supreme. Vodka is replaced by plum brandy and whisky. Frank Zappa exits stage left and Artur Rubinstein and Peggy Lee take his place.
Q: PhD geophysicists are not typically where we’d look for our literary novels. Has narrative fiction always been of interest to you?
When I was a kid, I only read sports biographies, but that was because I didn’t understand American culture very well beyond sports. American novels seemed to dwell on what I thought were trivial matters involving spoiled, weak people. They held no appeal. Then my father and brother shoved some Russian books into my hands, and I realized that narrative fiction and poetry were essential to understanding life. Later on, I started to understand and appreciate American culture and American novels.
Q: You’re also a musician. Is it more surreal to hear your songs in a British KFC or to see your novel in an airport bookstore?
I’ve never heard my music in a British KFC, but I do get royalty checks from those plays. Once in a blue moon, I’ll hear a tune of mine on a college radio station. It feels great. If I ever see a novel of mine in an airport bookstore, I’ll be over the moon.
Q: As you mentioned on Facebook, your tour stop at The Regulator means that you’re coming “back” to Durham. Other than spending time with friends and family in the area, are there any particular sights or events you’re looking forward to taking in while you’re here?
There used to be a great tchotchke shop on 9th Street that had good house warming presents. I hope it’s still there. I always loved the state fair, but I’m coming in a little too early for that this year. Nowadays, people I love and know are the most important thing by far. Seeing people really is number one on my list.