Absolute Truth, For Beginners | KATARINA WEST

Absolute Truth, For Beginners

Absolute Truth, For Beginners


Elisa Mancini is a Nobody. Painfully insecure, more at ease with books than with people, at twenty-three she’s a university dropout living at her aunt’s, drifting from one day to another, and waiting for something big to happen.

Judith Shapiro is a Somebody. Arrogant and eccentric, she’s a superstar of mathematics, the subject of scientific articles, and the undisputed ruler of the world around her.

In a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, Elisa falls madly in love with Judith Shapiro. For sixty-eight days she is the mistress of an internationally acclaimed mathematician.

But loving Judith Shapiro is like running a marathon in a war zone. As days pass, Elisa’s wild infatuation takes on a suicidal bent, and the world around her starts to go to pieces. Just as everything is about to blow up, the moment of truth comes.

Absolute Truth, for Beginners is a story about truth, time and love. Or about identity, positive nursing, degrees of happiness, Baroque art, scientific theories, homosexual lovemaking, arrogant television producers, and becoming who you really are.

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 1. Everybody is a Nobody


Nobody n.

No person, no one, the lowest of the low.


Here’s my first truth for you. You’re a Nobody. I’m a Nobody. She’s a Nobody, he’s a Nobody, and they are Nobodies. At the end of the day we are all Nobodies, and just as insignificant as empty Coke cans on a never-ending beach.

In order to prove that you’re a Nobody, let’s imagine that you will live to be a hundred years old. For the sake of argument let’s also assume, as traditional African religions do, that you’ll exist not as long as you live, but as long as your kinsmen will remember you. This will give you, say, an additional fifty years. I’m being generous here: even a day is a long time in the age of Twitter and smartphones.

But this thought experiment will also give Aristotle, who died at sixty-two and is still alive in history books, two thousand, three hundred and ninety-nine years, which means that he’ll remain around sixteen times older than you. Some might argue that this shows that Aristotle is a Somebody, whereas you’re a Nobody. But nothing could be further from the truth.


Because if we set side by side your one hundred and fifty years and his two thousand, three hundred and ninety-nine years with the thirteen-point-seven billion years of the universe, we’ll realise that the universe is nearly six million times older than Aristotle and some ninety-one million times older than you. As you can see, the relative difference between you and Aristotle is small, so infinitesimally small, that in calculations of, say, the life of stars, such differences fall into the margin of error. It makes no difference whether we’re remembered for centuries or forgotten immediately. In both cases our age pales into insignificance in comparison with the history of time.

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Want to know more about Absolute Truth, For Beginners?

Your novel is about a twenty-something woman who falls in love with a famous mathematician. What inspired you to write a love story between two so different women?
Actually, what led me to write this novel wasn’t Elisa and Judith’s affair, but Judith’s work – you know, the theory of absolute time. Years ago I became interested in time and I started to collect all kinds of material. Already then I had a story in mind, but it was completely different from Absolute Truth, For Beginners.

How was it?
It was about magical realism and fantasy rather than contemporary fiction, and instead of a science institute you had a really weird school for talented children, which was closer to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts than any real-world school. Judith Shapiro and Elisa were just two of the many characters in the novel. Not to mention that the plot was different, and nauseatingly labyrinthine.

For Elisa, the world of science was abstruse and enigmatic.

So you abandoned that story.
Yes, I couldn’t handle it. I eliminated everything except Elisa, Judith and Judith’s theory of time. That’s when I decided that Judith and Elisa would have an affair, and that the theory of absolute time should be a scientific theory rather than a fantasy-novel philosophy.

You started to write a new story altogether.
That’s right. I became hooked on scientists’ biographies and books on science. I loved to read physics and mathematics dictionaries, even if I didn’t understand much. It was both bewitching and bewildering, and it determined how Absolute Truth, For Beginners looks today.

What were your favourite biographies?
Paul Erdös, Wittgenstein and Ramanujan lived incredible lives – they were a must-read. Also, Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind was simply great.

Did these real-life scientists have any impact on Judith’s character?
Oh, they were crucial, even more so because back then Judith was a difficult character. I just couldn’t get into her head. That was one of the reasons why I put Absolute Truth aside for many years and wrote Witchcraft Couture instead.

Inside an old Italian villa.

Oscar, the protagonist of Witchcraft Couture, is similar to Judith Shapiro.
In a sense he is her successor. They are both immensely talented yet struggling with their work. They are eccentric, arrogant and egocentric to the point of being autistic, and have extremely fragile personalities that break as the story moves on. All in all, when I came back to Judith after spending years with Oscar, she didn’t intimidate me any more.

You published Witchcraft Couture in November 2014. Afterwards you started to work on Absolute Truth, For Beginners.
That’s right. Last autumn the manuscript was almost two hundred thousand words long, so I cut the text in half. The story was more philosophical – there were long excerpts from John W. Heilbroner’s truth manual, for example. I decided to eliminate all the philosophical stuff.

Can we then wait a sequel to this novel? Like, the unpublished chapters from Heilbroner’s truth manual?
Ha! Who knows?

An old villa in Tuscany, just like the one where Elisa lived.

Let’s talk about Elisa, the heroine. She has such a bubbly narrative voice.
I wanted her to be that way, a contrast to Judith and her rarefied world. I read chick lit and romantic comedies, trying to tell Elisa’s story in a similar fashion.

She falls in love with a woman thirty-two years her senior. How important is the homosexuality aspect of this novel?
I think it’s essential, because Elisa’s story is all about identity, of becoming who you really are, and not being afraid of what other people might think about you. In this sense the novel is a classic coming-of-age story.

It’s also a story of survival.
It is, isn’t it? Elisa’s love for Judith Shapiro is a peculiar form of dependency – she can’t live without her, but in Judith’s company she is meek and subdued, and tongue-tied to the point of being paralysed. Not to mention that living with Judith Shapiro is like being with a time bomb that is about to explode at any minute.

Typical Chianti scenery, just like the one in Absolute Truth, For Beginners.

How was it, to write about their love affair?
IIt was so fascinating! You know, it’s funny, because I started to write this novel because I was interested in time; but the story grew and changed as I kept writing it, so that finally what interested me most was Elisa and Judith’s affair. And it was a huge advantage, the fact that they were both women, because it meant I could ignore all gender roles and just see where the relationship might go. And still, despite of it all, there was a curious power play going on between Elisa and Judith Shapiro. So yes, I loved writing about their affair. I loved the scenes where they were together, just the two of them.

During the story Elisa abandons art history and academic study. Was this something you have experienced too? You wrote a PhD, but then left university.
Actually yes, I had a similar crisis too. Already before I had finished my doctorate I knew that I would never become a researcher. What I wanted to do write was novels, not academic papers or books.

What else inspired you to write this book?
Old Italian villas. Expats in Florence. Encyclopaedia Britannica – I got the idea of ‘Elisa’s words’ while browsing it for the umpteenth time. And yes, the Tuscan countryside. When I think of this novel, in my mind’s eye I see a perfectly harmonious Chianti landscape.