Touched by genius

<strong>A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines</strong>

Janna Levin, <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 240pp

Levin’s tale brings together the entirely separate lives of two men destroyed by their own genius: Alan Turing, pioneer of computer science, and Kurt Gödel, the brilliant Viennese mathematician.

Levin exploits these men’s weaknesses to create a powerful portrait of self-destruction fuelled by outstanding achievement. The stories are divided with a precision that can only be described as scientific, yet they also manage to complement each other well. The ethereal brilliance of these men seeps into the very form of the novel; when Gödel states that man can never really trust the reality of the world, Levin questions her imaginative rendering of this story.

Readers unfamiliar with the work of Turing and Gödel may occasionally feel isolated by the content. That is a shame, because the emotional struggles endured by both men are here given a universal resonance. Crucial relationships are evoked with a convincing and potent tenderness; the tragedies that ensue are genuinely heartbreaking.

These are the moments that dominate the novel. For Levin, and for the reader, it is the fact of their genius, rather than the development of it, that makes Gödel and Turing such fascinating and ultimately broken individuals.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism