Mozart," said Isabel Dalhousie. And then she added, "Srinivasa Ramanujan."
From his side of the kitchen table, Jamie, her husband of one year, lover of more than four, looked up quizzically. "Mozart, of course, but Srini . . ." He attempted the name, but decided he could not manage it and trailed off into a liquid melt of vees and sibilants. Indian names, mellifluous sounding though so many of them may be, can defeat even those with a musical ear. Jamie was accustomed to the stocky sound of Scottish names, redolent as they were of an altogether more forbidding and windswept landscape--those Macdonalds and Macgregors, Macleans and Mackays.
"Srinivasa Ramanujan," Isabel repeated. "He was, like Mozart, a child prodigy. A genius."
"I used to be so discouraged by Mozart," said Jamie. "I suspect he has that effect on any child who's interested in music. You hear about how he was composing complicated pieces at the age of five, or whatever, and you think, I'm already twelve--which is ancient by comparison--and I haven't written anything. And it makes you ask yourself whether there's much point in making all that effort." He paused. "But what about this Srinivasa?"
"He was a brilliant mathematician back in his day," said Isabel. She made a gesture that indicated the earlier part of the twentieth century--or at least did so to her; to Jamie it was no more than a vague movement of the hand. "He died when he was barely into his forties."
"Like Mozart. What age was he when he died? Thirty-five, wasn't he?"
Isabel nodded. "Which prompts the usual thoughts of what might have been."
"Of music lost," said Jamie. He had noticed that people invariably said something like that when the shortness of Mozart's life was mentioned. What he could have done if he had lived another ten years, another twenty . . . the symphonies, the operas . . .
Isabel reached for her teacup. "Yes. And in the case of Ramanujan, of problems unsolved. But that's not what interests me. I've been thinking of the parents and of their role in their children's lives. Mozart's father spent a very large part of his time on his children's musical education. Teaching him to compose, taking him on those long tours. A pushy father, if ever there was one."
"And Srinivasa . . . what about his parents?"
Isabel smiled. "He had a mother to contend with. She doted on him. She said that he was the special gift of the household's private god. She was a mathematician too."
"So the best chance of being a prodigy is to have an obsessive parent?"
Isabel agreed, but only to an extent. She believed in nurture, but she gave more weight to nature. "You have to have the right genes in the first place. Mozart's sister had the same upbringing as he did, with the same musical attention. She became a very competent performer but she was not a musical genius."
Jamie looked up at the ceiling. "Imagine being Mozart's sister . . ."
"Yes, imagine. That bit--the genius bit--has to be there somewhere in the brain. It's probably a matter of brain design, of neuro-anatomy. Mozart had it; his sister clearly didn't."
Jamie called that the wiring. Badness, he thought, was usually a question of faulty wiring; Isabel was not so sure. "I read about a rather interesting case of mathematical genius," she said. "Nabokov."
"The author? The one who wrote Lolita?"
"Yes," said Isabel. "Nabokov was a mathematical prodigy as a child. He could do elaborate calculations in his head, within seconds."
Jamie was interested. Musicians were often competent or even more than competent mathematicians--the wiring, perhaps, was similar. At school his best...