Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, is guest-blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.
At the heart of my new novel, thereâ€™s a child. His name is Azarya Sheiner, and heâ€™s the son of the rebbe of a small Hasidic sect living in an enclave a few miles up the Hudson from Manhattan. Azarya is six years old, and he is a mathematical prodigy of a rare and wonderful sort. I knew that once the story about him began to unfold, heâ€™d be in danger of a tragic fate, and so I resisted bringing him into existence.
Azarya was born for me a long time ago, spawned out of a story by Aldous Huxley called â€œThe Young Archimedes.â€ Iâ€™d read the story when I was an adolescent, and I never forgot it. An Englishman, who has rented a villa in the Italian countryside, discovers that a sweet peasant boy, Guido, is an untutored mathematical genius. The Englishman gives the boy some instruction from Euclid but then leaves, and the woman who owns the land that the boyâ€™s family works takes Guido away. Sheâ€™s seen the Englishmanâ€™s interest in the boy, and she thinks thereâ€™s money to be made. The boy has some musical talent, not unusual for the mathematically gifted, and her plan is to make a performing musician out of him, believing that this must have been the Englishmanâ€™s design The boy, dreadfully alone, missing his Euclid and his family, ends up leaping from a hotel window to his death.
An unbearably sad story, and for me it proved haunting. The thought of children in danger is an obsession, and mathematical genius is an abiding fascination. My imagination couldnâ€™t let go of Huxleyâ€™s story, and at some point it began to transpose it into a Jewish story. I began to imagine another child of prodigious genius, born into circumstances inhospitable to its flowering. Azarya Sheiner, heir to the Valdener Hasidic dynasty, with his cherubic face and his uncertain fate, became painfully real to me.