Posted by: cochinblogger | October 2, 2012

Tolstoy the Novelist, My Father the Mathematician

I’ve been immersed in a fascinating book, The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy (The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy), the past couple of weeks. Yes, Sofia Tolstoy was the wife of the one and only Tolstoy, one of the greatest novelists ever. This is not a book I’d have normally picked up from the neighborhood library, but ever since I got my Nook, I’ve been dipping into the classics of fiction, and came away deeply impressed by Anna Karenina. The psychological acuity Tolstoy displays in that novel, especially the way he is able to look into the soul of a woman and enter her mind, probing her innermost thoughts and desires, is remarkable.

I shall keep posting little snippets from Sofia Tolstoy’s diaries (which have been lovingly translated and edited by Cathy Porter) until I’ve finished the book, and will present just one little anecdote now:

Lyovochka [Tolstoy] went hunting and brought back two hares. He is fretful because he cannot write; this evening, while he was reading Dickens’s Dombey and Son, he suddenly announced to me, “Aha! I’ve got it!” When I asked what he meant, he wouldn’t tell me at first, but eventually he said: “Well, I’ve been imagining this old woman — her appearance, her manner, her thoughts — but I haven’t been able to find the right feelings for her. And I suddenly realized: it’s the constant awareness that her husband, old Gerasimovich, is languishing in prison with his head shaven for a crime he didn’t commit.” Then he sat down at the piano and and started improvising.

This is how painstakingly Tolstoy strove to recreate the inner life of his characters, so no wonder Anna Karenina is such an intense work. And what struck me is that I’ve seen a similar process of complete absorption in a problem, frustration over a bottleneck, followed by sudden illumination at work in my father, who is an active research mathematician even at the ripe age of 84. The other day we were chatting over a drink when he suddenly said “Aha!” and rose from his chair, saying he needed to write down a sudden mathematical insight that had occurred to him. He was away for the few minutes it took him to jot down the idea.

This similarity in thought processes between novelist and mathematician dramatically underscores that at the highest level, the artist and scientist are manipulating the same bits, the same zeros and ones, of creativity.



  1. But would your father regard himself as an artist, a scientist or perhaps primarily as “just” a thinker?

    • He regards himself as a mathematician, pure and simple.

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