Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Housekeeper and the Professor

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The Housekeeper and the Professor

A Novel

by Yoko Ogawa

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
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    Feb 2009, 192 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Diane La Rue

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Beyond the Book

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The Story Behind the Book

Hakase no aishi ta sushiki was originally published in Japan in 2003, selling more than 2.5 million copies and garnering the prestigious Yomiuri Prize. The title is more literally translated as The Professor and His Beloved Equation, and is often referred to as such prior to the American publication of The Housekeeper and the Professor. Yoko Ogawa has published more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, many translated into French, German, and other languages, but The Housekeeper and the Professor is her first full-length novel to be translated into English. The translator, Stephen Snyder, has also translated Ogawa's collection of three novellas, entitled The Diving Pool, published by Picador in 2008, and a short story, The Cafeteria in the Evening and a Pool in the Rain, for The New Yorker (September, 2004).

Hakase no aishi ta sushiki was made into a successful Japanese film in 2006, garnering many awards, including Best Feature at the 2007 Syracuse International Film Festival. While the novel is narrated by the Housekeeper, the film is told from the point of view of the adult math professor Root, as he recounts the story of his childhood to his students.


Paul Erdos (1913-1996)

A biography of the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos (The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, by Paul Hoffman) is cited as a source in the bibliography of Hakase no aishi ta sushiki, and it's easy to see how Ogawa's Professor might have been inspired by Erdos's notoriously eccentric personality.

Erdos was singularly focused, lived on coffee and often amphetamines, and did little else besides think about math, yet he was also known for a quirky sense of humor and joie de vivre. Although he won cash prizes for his work, he frequently gave the money away to other mathematicians. Paul Hoffman describes Erdos as a "mathematical monk", whose belongings could fit in two suitcases. He never married, and had no children.

Ogawa gave many of these ascetic characteristics to the Professor. He also worked on difficult math problems, entering many contests and winning large sums of money, leaving prize checks uncashed and crumpled up in a box in the closet. Erdos was called "uncouth and unconventional" during his fellowship at Princeton, and was described by friends as "a nervous and agitated person," all descriptions befitting Ogawa's Professor.

Erdos was known more for solving problems than developing theories, and he published nearly 1500 papers during his lifetime, working with over 500 collaborators. This unparalleled collaboration gave rise to the Erdos Number, a kind of degrees-of-separation rating well-known among mathematicians. As in the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, the lower a person's Erdos number, the closer he or she is to Erdos.

Article by Diane La Rue

This article is from the February 5, 2009 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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