Not so brillig at maths

<strong>Lewis Carroll in Numberland</strong>

Robin Wilson

<em>Allen Lane, 256pp, £16.99</em>

More than a century after his death, Lewis Carroll is still perhaps the supreme enigma of English literature.

No, I take that back. Carroll himself is not an enigma. Although, as we now know, he was an individual infinitely more mysterious than he appeared to his contemporaries, his life and psychology have been rendered intelligible for us by those methodologies, sociological, psychoanalytical or whatever, which apply themselves to refining our understanding of the past. Rather, it is the two Alice books that constitute the enigma. No one needs to be reminded of their wit and brilliance of characterisation. But why are they so exceptionally unforgettable?

Given the universal acknowledgement of their classic status, that may seem a perversely cranky question. But it is precisely because we are so familiar with them that we no longer realise how unusual such extreme familiarity is. There is, after all, inevitably one section of almost every literary classic that everyone tends to forget: the most obvious example would be the entire second half of Wuthering Heights, as elided in readers' memories as it has been in numerous film versions. Yet the miracle of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is that there is not a single unmemorable character or episode in it. The rabbit hole, the pool of tears, the Mad Hatter's tea party, the Walrus and the Carpenter - few of us are capable of naming all seven of Disney's dwarfs at one go, but we have practically total recall of Alice. Can such a claim be made for any other work of literature in the world?

Another unique aspect of the books is how weirdly affectless they are. In comparison to the raffishly mischievous Peter Pan, who cuts as glamorous a figure as a pre-war matinée idol, Alice, heroically level-headed in the face of her interlocutors' peevishly sophistical bloody-mindedness, remains throughout the frumpy Platonic archetype of a middle-class Victorian darling, a parent's fantasy, not a child's.

None of this, unfortunately, is of any concern to Robin Wilson, whose naffly titled book on Carroll has been saddled with the equally naff subtitle His Fantastical Mathematical Logical Life. The first thing to be said about that subtitle is that the book in question amounts to more of an obituary than a life of Carroll. What paltry biographical matter there is to be extracted from its pages could be gleaned more easily and cheaply from Wikipedia. In any case, the donnish Dodgson led anything but a fantastical life.

Nor does Wilson set store by the critical methodologies I mention above. In reference to the eternal harping on his subject's sexuality - "Sadly, much nonsense has been written about Dodgson's friendships with children" - he harrumphs that "subjecting him to a modern 'analysis' often tells us more about the writer than about Dodgson". Now just what is that supposed to mean? That any biographer who dares to speculate on Dodgson's exquisite, if sometimes faintly lascivious, photographs of Alice Liddell, as well as the queasy-making tenor of certain of his letters and diary entries, must be a bit of a closet paedophile himself?

Probably not. Like Carroll, Wilson is an Oxford mathematician and, at least in the latter half of a short book, his is a near-exclusively mathematical reading of the two Alice tales. Though others may, of course, be more amused than I was by the tiresome whimsy of Dodgson's puzzles and paradoxes, the problem is that, at least by international standards, he was far from being an eminent mathematician and the primary interest of his fey logical syllogisms is the unfailing deftness with which he transmuted them into the dialogues of his twin masterpieces. If Wilson duly shows us where those dialogues came from, he never once attempts to shed light on just why they are so unforgettable.

Even on his pet subject of Carroll and mathematics, Wilson is a timorous exegete. On the Continent, if less so in Britain, the 19th century brought major advances in virtually every branch of maths. Independently of one another, Bolyai and Lobachevsky mapped the "strange new universe", as the former described it in a famous letter, of non-Euclidean geometries, while Cantor, founder of set theory, had begun to construct his vertiginous hierarchy of infinities. Dodgson's Oxford, meanwhile, was an amiably dozy backwater and he himself, still tinkering with the 2,000-year-old proofs of Euclid's Elements, felt no inclination to dip his toes into the future (or even the present).

Yet, one muses, what an astounding third adventure for Alice he could have devised, if only he had been willing to train his metamorphic genius on the truly mind-blowing puzzles and paradoxes of his own contemporaries.

One muses, I say. What I mean is, I muse. Wilson never does.

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’