The Man Who Knew Too Much

Review by Andrew Crumey

Published in Scotland On Sunday


The Man Who Knew Too Much
David Leavitt
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £16.99

Much has been written about Bletchley Park, the secret World War Two code-breaking centre where the German Enigma machine was deciphered, and about Alan Turing, the chief mathematician there who helped found modern computing theory.

This latest offering presents an account of Turing’s tragic life – which ended in suicide when he was 42 – and his main ideas, and is distinguished by being the work of an acclaimed novelist, able to bring a certain stylistic flair to the account. He begins by comparing Turing to the character played by Alec Guinness in The Man In The White Suit: the modest, absent-minded inventor of a revolutionary idea, hounded by forces who see him as a threat.

Leavitt, well known as a gay writer, sees a homophobic metaphor in the film, and in Turing’s case this was actual. Prosecuted for indecency after the war, Turing was put on a course of hormone treatment to “cure” his homosexuality, and it drove him to despair. He took his life by eating an apple he had laced with cyanide.

Leavitt is surely right to see gayness as a central defining feature of Turing’s life, but he strains the theme through constant references to EM Forster, a gay writer considerably older than Turing. The two were both in Cambridge at the same time – Turing as a shy student who rarely socialised, Forster as a feted figure – and Forster’s novel Maurice, with its theme of awakening homosexual identity in a stiflingly repressive society, serves as a recurring leitmotif, illustrating the atmosphere of the time. But Turing never met Forster – he mingled only with scientists and philosophers, most notably Ludwig Wittgenstein, and he certainly never read Maurice (which was published posthumously in 1971). Far more relevant is the short story Turing wrote while undergoing psychoanalysis following his arrest, which Leavitt quotes only in tantalising snippets, describing encounters in parks in fifties’ Britain – a world away from Forster’s turn-of-the-century milieu.

Although we get a good sense of Turing’s middle-class childhood and his lifelong devotion to his mother, the biographical focus slackens with advancing years, and the emphasis is placed more on his work. Most famously, Turing showed that all mathematical calculations or logical deductions can be seen as a “machine”: made actual in PCs. Leavitt ably explains Turing’s reasoning, but perhaps in rather more detail than most general readers would wish: the minutiae are frankly rather dull unless you happen to be a computer scientist, and a quicker synopsis (of the kind Leavitt gives for related work by others) would have sufficed.

If Leavitt never really brings us face to face with Turing then it is probably because the man himself was so reserved, with “more than a touch of Mr Spock” in him. Only at the end, as Turing’s career collapsed in ruins and he began writing strangely camp letters of self mockery to his friends, do we see a complex personality unfold beneath the protective mask of unworldliness. Most poignant of all is Leavitt’s analysis of the fatal apple – almost certainly inspired by one of Turing’s favourite films, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. In the fairy tale, Leavitt points out, the apple is not fatal: the sleeping victim is woken by a kiss. Turing’s prince never came.