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The Wild Numbers
by
Philibert Schogt
general information  our review  links  about the author
 First published in Dutch (as De wilde getallen) in 1998
 Schogt himself prepared the English version
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Our Assessment:
B : decent small entertainment of a mathematician's life
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
Philibert Schogt's The Wild Numbers is the story of a professor of mathematics, Isaac Swift, who believes he has solved one of the great problems of mathematics  'Beauregard's Wild Number Problem'.
(This is not, in fact, a real mathematical problem, but it suffices for the purposes of the novel.)
It is a novel about the life of mathematicians, and their passions, and it is also a story about life and love (and madness).
Isaac narrates the story.
Life looks like it might be turning around when the book opens: the doyen of the maths faculty has given his seal of approval to Isaac's paper, "A Solution to Beauregard's Wild Number Problem".
Now renown will be his !
He will be interviewed and fêted !
Until recently things had not been going so well for Isaac, as he turns back the clock and relates his situation and what led up to the great discovery.
Thirtyfive years old, he was worried about being over the hill: he had not yet published in the leading mathematical journal, Number, or made any groundbreaking discoveries.
He is divorced and not particularly close to his family.
And there's this nutty pupil auditing his class, a former maths teacher, Mr. Vale, who annoys most of the faculty.
Vale, in fact, proposed a solution to the Wild Number problem to Isaac, but Isaac did not take him seriously.
Vale (who, as the university faculty learns, is practically certifiable) constantly asked irrelevant questions and offered ridiculous solutions to all kinds of maths problems, and the faculty tried to humour him as best they could.
Isaac took Vale's manuscript but put it away without so much as looking at it  and then Isaac got the inspiration he needed to tackle the problem himself.
Working madly, with little rest, he apparently solved it  a major breakthrough in mathematics !
Dimitri Arkanov, the leading at the university, was impressed by the paper Isaac wrote, and off it went to Number, certain to make a huge splash in the world of mathematics the next month.
Vale, however, believes Isaac plagiarized his work and it comes to a confrontation.
The end comes as it must, and it is not Isaac who is triumphant (or poor Vale, who deservedly gets decidedly the worst of it).
And yet the ending is quite a happy one.
Largely set in academia, The Wild Numbers also makes some amusing and vaguely realistic points about that warped world.
And the novel even offers suspense of sorts with Vale's accusation of plagiarism and the question of whether Isaac has truly got it right.
Isaac mentions several times how people are instantly bored when he mentions being a mathematician.
The numbers scare them off, not to speak of the theory.
A novelist who writes about mathematics has to walk a fine line to avoid scaring readers off as well  but fear not, Schogt's mathematics are harmless and hardly intimidating.
A pagelong simple equations is reproduced simply for the visual effects (it is a banal (but big !) equation), and the bit of mathematical mumbojumbo can safely be skimmed over.
The novel centers around mathematics, but it could equally well be about any other obsession, intellectual or otherwise.
Isaac could be a writer or poet, or any sort of academic and Schogt could have managed to tell much the same story.
The passion and obsessiveness of the mathematician is wellconveyed  but it is a passion and obsessiveness that is shared by countless scientists working in other fields, or artists who spend similar sleepless nights working on their great creations.
The thrill of discovery and the willingness to lose oneself completely in art or number or theory  to the extent of practically losing touch with reality  is similarly shared by artist, mathematician, and scientist alike, at least in the common romantic view (i.e. the novelized version) of these endeavours.
Schogt's novel is, however, more concerned with life in general, and Isaac only finds the happiness or satisfaction he seeks when he steps back from his obsession and does not let it control and dominate his life.
Vale allowed maths to get the better of him, and it drove him to madness; Isaac sees the light before it is too late and finds instead happiness and even love.
Unfortunately (for readers), his is also the boring choice, and far less satisfying (as presented) than Schogt probably intended.
The whole thing  from the mathematics to Isaac resolving his midlife/midcareer crisis  is a bit simplistic.
Schogt does not help matters with his anodyne descriptions and simply drawn characters.
Only the mathematical parts  the frenzy of obsession, the love of the abstraction of numbers  are really well done, but it is these that are discarded as Isaac turns away from them to embrace what promises to be a dreary suburban life.
By the end even the cartoonish madman Vale sounds like a more interesting character.
The uncertain geography of the book is also somewhat bothersome.
Apparently the university is located in the United States (Isaac follows baseball), but it is not identified.
It could be in Anytown, U.S.A.
(Perhaps this is because the book was written both in English and Dutch, and thus meant to be seen as possibly being set anywhere.)
A novel so short and vague would certainly be helped by being fixed more securely in some reality.
The Wild Numbers is fairly ambitious, and it is short enough to breeze through.
In fact, Schogt's ambition would have been better served if it had been longer: it needs more detail and more description.
A harmless, decent little entertainment, it could almost pass for a sketch or outline of the book Schogt had meant to write.
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Links:
The Wild Numbers:
Reviews:
Philibert Schogt:
Other books of interest under review:
 See Index of books dealing with Mathematics
 See the Index of Dutch literature at the complete review
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About the Author:
Dutch author Philibert Schogt was born in 1960.
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