|In this novel, Bea Paradiso is an art student during World War II who makes portraits of wounded soldiers. (Not coincidentally, the author's mother-in-law did the same, and the book is enhanced by the inclusion of some of her sketches.) There is not much math here, but during the middle of the book Bea has a romance with Henry Vanden Akker, a brilliant young man who recently graduated summa cum laude in mathematics. Not only does he profess his dedication to pursuing mathematics, but he has a personality that does reflect the culture of mathematicians as I have experienced it. He is brutally honest, not only speaking frankly about others but also in his descriptions and criticism of himself. Also, though passionately interested in all things intellectual (including theology, philosophy and science as well as math), he strives to think about them in a dispassionate and logical way.
The most explicitly mathematical discussion occurs when he tries to explain to Bea the way mathematics is a rare thing that gets more rather than less interesting to him the closer he looks at it:
|(quoted from The Art Student's War)|
"I'd always loved the way you can translate some little string of symbols -- something as simple as x=y, say -- into a figure on a plane. And you know what? The closer I looked, the more miraculous it became. Generally, you lose something in translations, but here nothing was lost. In all the universe, there isn't one x that doesn't fall on the line; then you make what appears to be a minor adjustement -- you adjust a plus sign to a minus sign, say, or you rase an exponent by one -- and the form doesn't merely alter: it transforms, it blossoms, it leaps into another dimension. Your finite ellipse becomes an infinite hyperbola, your circle becomes a sphere. With every step, there's a new sort of bossoming. And I saw -- you know what I saw?"
"No, Henry. Tell me what you saw."
"Well, its like the opening, the very opening verses of the Book of John," Henry said. "You have only the Word, and yet you could say the Word begets everything. You could say the Word is the world itself. And here was the Word again, this time as a little string of mathematical letters, and you know what? All of Creation happens anew. Do you see what I'm saying, Bea? Every time somebody writes an equation, all Creation is created. I truly believe that. If I write x=y on your napkin, the world is born anew. Yes, math may be true in this world, but it also makes the world..."
I really like that quote, because I feel rather similar. I was therefore disappointed that things did not work out well for Henry and Bea (or for Henry alone, for that matter) in the end.
"The Art Student's War" ('TASW') is Leithauser's best Novel to-date. And, math is central to many of Leithauser's works, most particularly "Hence". However, this thematic quality mustn't be discounted for lack of volume in TASW. The odd, spectral Part II of the novel (Chapter 25, pps. 275 - 286) is a prose/poetic interlude in which TASW turns on itself; the book and its main character (who is almost feverish to death and departure from the novel) seemingly hallucinate through a "Land of Colors Without Objects", and emerge the other side party to a pedestrian marriage and a life unpopulated by Viconian ideals of a comprehensive science of human society and mathematics. Vico aside, Part II is stunningly crafted and should serve to enhance our appreciation of the writer's, of Leithauser's, talents as a prose-poet. TASW is readable on a variety of levels, and the baked-in philosophy of Vico and Bruno may be disregarded in favor of the story's unique plot, unique insofar as Detroit - since the War - has suffered as much if not greater damage than Dresden, as Kurt Vonnegut has so successfully limned.