a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Mefisto: A Novel (1986)
John Banville
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)
Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for literati.

Although the mathematics is only discussed in this novel in the vaguest terms, it is of the greatest importance to the book. Gabriel Swan, the main character/narrator is so focused on numbers and equations that even his descriptions of non-mathematical situations are described in mathematical terms. He attributes his fascination with numbers to his knowledge of his twin who died at birth:

(quoted from Mefisto: A Novel)

It seems out of all this somehow that my gift for numbers grew. From the beginning, I suppose, I was obsessed with the mystery of the unit, and everything else followed. Even yet I cannot see a one and a zero juxtaposed without feeling deep within me the vibration of a dark, answering note. Before I could talk I had been able to count, laying out my building blocks in ranked squares, screaming if anyone dared to disturb them...My party piece was to add up large numbers instantly in my head, frowning, a hand to my brow, my eyes downcast. It was not the manipulation of things that pleased me, the mere facility, but the sense of order I felt, of harmony, of symmetry and completeness.

We follow Gabriel through a very messy childhood and adolescence, encountering the unpleasant side of life far too often. His mother's unexpected death in a car accident, his own tragic accident leaving him burned and scarred over his entire body, his first girlfriend's deafness and his first lover who was a drug addict. Throughout all of this, Gabriel seeks order in his mathematics and hopes to apply it to the real world around him.

(quoted from Mefisto: A Novel)

Oh, I worked. Ashburn, Jack Kay, my mother, the black dog, the crash, all this, it was not like numbers, yet it too must have rules, order, some sort of pattern. Always I had thought of number falling on the chaos of things like frost falling on water, the seething particles tamed and sorted, the crystals locking, the frozen lattice spreading outwards in all directions. I could feel it in my mind, the crunch of things coming to a stop, the creaking stillness, the stunned white air. But marshal the factors how I might, they would not equate now.

This is what the author is trying to show us: the chaos of the real world cannot be tamed by numbers. Of course, the chaos he refers to has nothing to do with the mathematical definition of chaos. This is not sensitive dependence, nor transitivity. It is just the unpleasantness of reality which Swan cannot tame with numbers. Nevertheless, one of his mathematical mentors, Professor Kosok, is working on research which precisely demonstrates this lack of usefulness of numbers. Wnen a representative of the representative of the government comes to complain about his use of the grant money they have given him (to perform calculations on an old, teletype main frame computer) the following conversation ensues:

(quoted from Mefisto: A Novel)

-We're only asking, she said, the minister is only aksing, for some sort of statement of your precise aims in this programme? Everything you show us seems so...well, so hazy, so...uncertain?

At this the professor made a violent whooshing noise, like a breathless swimmer breaking the surface, and turned on her in a fury.

- There is no certainty! he cried. That is the result! Why don't you understand that, you you you ...! Ach, I am surrounded by fools and children. Where do you think you are living, eh? This is the world, look around you, look at it! You want certainty, order, all that? Then invent it.


- There! he said. Him [Swan]! He is the one you need, he thinks that numbers are exact, and rigourous, tell your minister about him!

You won't learn any mathematics from this book, but I still recommend it as a well written piece of literature in which math plays a fundamental role.

Contributed by andy

: "Mathematics aside Banville creates a world within which the reader breathes a different air. It is the work that introduced me to Banvilles brilliance with words and his newest book Eclipse is no disappointment. For those of you of a more scientific bent than myself I recommend Banvilles Dr Copernicus. Cheers"

Contributed by Anonymous

wonderful piece of literature!

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(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to Mefisto: A Novel
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Singularities by John Banville
  2. The Solitude of Prime Numbers [La Solitudine dei Numeri Primi] by Paolo Giordano
  3. Cliff Walk by Margaret Dickson
  4. The One Plus One by Jojo Moyes
  5. The Fall of a Sparrow by Robert Hellenga
  6. A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin
  7. Divide Me By Zero by Lara Vapnyar
  8. Rough Strife by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
  9. Watt by Samuel Beckett
  10. The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks
Ratings for Mefisto: A Novel:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
2.24/5 (8 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.25/5 (8 votes)

MotifProdigies, Math as Cold/Dry/Useless,
TopicComputers/Cryptography, Logic/Set Theory,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)