The Prodigy, 1938
A tram was coming, squealing metal against metal, throwing blue-white sparks into the winter dark. Without thinking about it, Leonid Vitalevich lent his increment of shove to the jostling crowd, and was lifted with the rest of the collectivity over the rear step and into the cram of human flesh behind the concertina door. 'C'mon citizens, push up!' said a short woman next to him, as if they had a choice about it, as if they could decide to move or not, when everyone inside a Leningrad tram was locked in the struggle to get from the entry door at the back to the exit at the front by the time their stop came around. Yet the social miracle took place: somewhere at the far end a small mob of passengers burped out onto the roadway, and a squeezing ripple travelled down the car, a tram-peristalsis propelled by shoulders and elbows, creating just enough space to press into before the door closed. The yellow bulbs overhead flickered, and the tram rocked away with a rising hum. Leonid Vitalevich was wedged against a metal post on one side, on the other against the short woman. She was wedged against a tall fellow with a big chin and blond hair standing on end. Beyond him was a clerk with a glazed eye, like a herring on ice, and three young soldiers who had already started their evening spree judging by their breath. But the smell of vodka merged with the sweaty sourness of the workers a little further forward, whose factory had plainly lodged them in a barracks without a bathroom, and the fierce rosewater scent the short woman had on, into one, hot, composite human smell, just as all the corners and pieces of sleeve and collar he could see fused into one tight kaleidoscope of darned hand-me-downs, and worn leather, and too-big khaki.
He was wearing what he thought of as his 'professor outfit', the old suit cobbled together by his mother and sister which had been supposed to make him look like a plausible Professor L. V. Kantorovich when he first started teaching at the university six years ago, aged twenty. He'd been standing at the blackboard in the lecture theatre, taking a deep breath, chalk in hand, about to launch into the basics of set theory, when a helpful voice from the front row said, 'I'd stop messing about if I was you. They take things seriously here. You'll only get in trouble when the professor arrives.' He'd had to learn to be sharp, to make his presence felt. Even now, when the world was filling up with surprisingly young scientists and army officers and plant managers the older ones having taken to disappearing by night, leaving silence behind them, and gaps in every hierarchy to be plugged by anxious twentysomethings working all hours to learn their new jobs even now, pinched and tired as he was, dull-skinned like everyone else on the tram, he still had the occasional difficulty with someone misled by his big adam's apple, and his big eyes, and his sticking-out ears. This was the problem with being what people called a prodigy. You always had to be saying something or doing something to persuade people that you weren't what they thought they saw. He couldn't remember it ever being any different, though he presumed that before he learned to talk, and then almost immediately to count, and to do algebra, and to play chess, there'd been a milky time when he was only Dr and Mrs Kantorovich's ordinary baby. But at seven, when he worked out from his big brother's radiology textbook that you ought to be able to tell how old a rock was from the amount of undecayed carbon in it, he'd had to get past Nikolai's indulgent medical-student smile before he would pay attention, and start talking about the idea seriously, the way he needed. 'you must have read this somewhere. You must have done. Or been talking to someone ...' At fourteen, he had to persuade the other students at the Physico-Mathematical Institute that he wasn't just an annoying shrimp who'd wandered in by mistake; that he belonged in their company, even though he was a head shorter than any of them, and had to bounce as he walked along the corridor with them to keep his face in the general domain of the conversation. At eighteen, presenting original work at the All-Union Mathematical Congress, he measured his success by his ability to get the yellow-fingered, chainsmoking geniuses to stop being kind. When they gave up being encouraging, when they made their first sarcastic remark, when they started to sneer and to try to shred his theorems, he knew they had ceased seeing a kid and started to see a mathematician.
Excerpted from Red Plenty by Francis Spufford. Copyright © 2012 by Francis Spufford. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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