Author Archives: Horatia

About Horatia

Horatia is a writer and editor.

Dora Diamant’s letters

It’s an image that does not spring readily to mind. Franz Kafka — the tortured Czech-Jewish writer of our imaginations — once harboured an ambition to open a restaurant. In this culinary nirvana, his last lover, Dora Diamant, would be the cook. He would be the waiter. Obviously, this career move never happened, partly because Kafka had laryngeal tuberculosis, which made it difficult for him to eat, never mind take orders. Kafka died in June 1924, never adding waiting at tables to his CV.

It’s a lovely image, though. Imagine strolling out and having the author of The Trial drift by to advise you on the soup of the day. Which might turn out to be some burned cous-cous.

Kafka and Diamant met in July 1923, in the Baltic seaside resort of Müritz. She was working there, supervising a summer camp. He was having tuberculosis. He spent a lot of time in those wicker beach chairs which are an enviable feature of the Baltic coast. They fell in love. When the summer was over, they moved into a small series of lodgings in Berlin. Diamant taught Kafka Hebrew and this is when they rhapsodised over opening a restaurant.[1]

In April 1924, Diamant accompanied Kafka to the sanatorium in Kierling where doctors made a last-ditch attempt at restoring him to health. She was with him he died.

Baltic

The Baltic coast (with swan)

Although Kafka had told Diamant, as he had Max Brod, to burn all his writings, she didn’t. She held onto around 20 notebooks and 35 letters that Kafka had written to her, which we only know about because she had to come clean to Max Brod when they vanished. How did they vanish? Like many other manuscripts do: bureaucracy.

After Kafka’s death, Diamant studied acting and joined a theatre company where she met Berta Lask, a communist playwright. Diamant threw herself somewhat into the spirit of the times: joining the Communist Party, changing her surname to Dymant, and marrying Bertha’s son, Ludwig (also called Lutz) Lask in June 1932. Happy though the newlyweds might have been, other forces in Germany at the time were not quite so well disposed to either Jews or communists — and the newly-minted Dymant-Lask was both.

In April 1933, the Gestapo raided the apartment where the Dymant-Lasks lived.They took away “every scrap of paper they could lay their hands on,” according to Kafka’s biographer Ernst Pawel.[2] Off went the notebooks and the letters. The disconsolate Dora confessed to Max Brod what had happened. Brod mobilised the Czech writer Camill Hoffmann, then working as a cultural attaché in the Berlin diplomatic corps, to see if he could help. However, the Gestapo told Hoffmann that they already had mountains and mountains of paper and the chances of finding a few notebooks were vanishingly small.

In the 1950s, Brod had another go. He asked a Kafka scholar, Klaus Wagenbach,  to just go to the police in Berlin and ask for the documents back. Simple.

According to Wagenbach, the helpful chief of police told them that the army had probably taken the papers east for safekeeping during the bombardment of Berlin.

East.

Silesia? Warsaw? Moscow? Where?

Those papers have not been found.

People are still looking. San Diego State University operates a Kafka Project which conducts the international search for Kafka’s writings. While his letters to Diamant are officially the property of the Kafka estate, the idea that they may unofficially end up in the hands of someone else cannot be discounted.

The letters to Dora Diamant are not the only letters Franz Kafka wrote to a young lady. Felice Bauer — to whom he was engaged, twice — kept the 500 or so letters he had written to her. In 1955, needing the money, Bauer sold the letters to Schocken Books. At auction at Sotheby’s in 1987, Shocken Books sold the letters again for $605,000. They went to a “European private collector” and disappeared from public view.

Dora Diamant went on to live an interesting life. She fled with her daughter from the Nazis first to Russia, then to England, an upright nation which promptly deported them both to the Isle of Man as enemy aliens.

She never wanted to or could forget Kafka

She named her daughter, after all, Franziska Marianne.

1 Back up JP Hodin: “Memories of Franz Kafka”; Horizon, January 1948 pp26 – 45. Accessible at: http://www.unz.org/Pub/Horizon-1948jan-00026

2 Back up Ernst Pawel (1984): The Nightmare of Reason, Farrar Straus & Giroux.

A kilo of Kafka

This week, on 7 August 2016, the supreme court of Israel brought to an end the trial of the Kafka manuscripts. Decades after the author’s death, they will no longer be lost to the world.

During Franz Kafka’s lifetime, a tiny fraction of what he had written was published. Metamorphosis came out in 1915 and, later, a few other stories, too.

The Czech writer left his manuscripts to his friend Max Brod. Like Kafka, Brod was part of the German-speaking Jewish community of Prague. Kafka left explicit instructions as to what Brod should do with the stuff. “Dearest Max,” he wrote. “My last request: Everything I leave behind me … in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches and so on, to be burned unread.”

Kafka’s death came disappointingly early. Suffering from tuberculosis, Kafka died in June 1924, a month short of his forty-first birthday.

Max Brod did not abide by his friend’s wishes. Kafka also left around 20 notebooks and 35 letters in the possession of his last lover, Dora Diamant. She didn’t abide by his wishes, either.

Brod pretty smartish brought out print editions of the novels that were now in his possession. The Trial came out in 1925. This book tells the tale of Joseph K, who is accused of a crime which is never explained and tries to defend himself in a system that is nothing but nightmare. In 1926, Brod published The Castle, which introduces us to another faceless, incomprehensible, dominating bureaucracy. As the twentieth century began introducing the world at large to various incomprehensible, dominating, bureaucratic nightmares, Kafka’s writing resonated with readers. We knew this world. We knew it made no sense. We knew it was cruel. We knew it was pointless to complain. Without Max Brod, we perhaps would not have the perfect word to describe this world: Kafkaesque. (The adjective continues to be useful: it was recently conscripted as an episode title in Breaking Bad.)

The_Trial_Notes

“For the proceedings were not only kept secret from the general public, but from the accused as well.” My own undergraduate highlighting of one of the most puzzling puzzles of the process.

So, some of Kafka’s work was published but some of his manuscripts got “lost”. Not lost in the traditional sense of being stolen, eaten, or burned. Lost in the sense that people knew roughly where they were — in an apartment in Tel Aviv surrounded by hundreds of cats, in a Swiss bank vault, or in the hands of the Gestapo, for example — they just couldn’t get their hands on them.

Because the story is so complicated, I’m splitting it into two parts. This is the tale of Max Brod’s suitcase. In another entry, you can read about Dora’s purloined letters.

In an episode worthy of its own television drama, Brod fled Prague the night before the Nazis invaded the city in 1939. He stuffed a suitcase with Kafka’s papers, snuck through the Czech border just before it was closed, and eventually settled in what became Israel.

When Brod died in 1968, he left the Kafka manuscripts to Ilse Esther Hoffe, his secretary and, some say, mistress. When she died in 2007, a legal battle began. Esther Hoffe had sold some of the papers but left the rest to her daughters, Eva and Ruth. Eva and Ruth claimed the papers were therefore their personal property. The National Library of Israel counter-claimed that the papers were the property of the state. Along the way, the German Literature Archive in Marbach, which had paid $1.98 million for the original handwritten manuscript of The Trial in 1988, demanded the right to purchase all the other manuscripts, too, claiming Israel did not have the proper facilities to look after them. (Although Kafka was born in Prague, German was his first language and the one in which he wrote.) The German proposal raised unease in Israel not only because Brod was a Holocaust survivor but also because Kafka’s three sisters were not Holocaust survivors. Elli and Valli died in the Łódź Ghetto; Ottla in Auschwitz.

In 2010, a Tel Aviv court ruled that the Hoffe sisters must release the papers for cataloguing. Eva and Ruth were actually proposing to sell them by weight, according to one of their attorneys, Uri Zfat: “If we get an agreement, the material will be offered for sale as a single entity, in one package. It will be sold by weight. They’ll say: ‘There’s a kilogram of papers here, the highest bidder will be able to approach and see what’s there.'” Some wondered whether selling Kafka by the kilo was an ideal idea.

Some were also wondering whether Eva’s cat-infested Tel Aviv apartment was really the best place to store potentially priceless unknown works by one of the most iconic authors of the twentieth century. Some papers were there, but nobody knew which, as Eva wouldn’t let anyone inside. Some were in safety-deposit boxes in Tel Aviv banks, others in four more boxes in Zurich’s UBS bank. During the Suez crisis in 1956, Brod had transferred the most valuable manuscripts to Switzerland for safekeeping. The boxes were finally prised open after the ruling in 2010. Inside were manuscripts, including a previously unknown story, it was said, but nobody really knew what, as Eva and Ruti had filed an injunction to keep their contents secret.

The legal battle continued.

And continued.

In 2015, the Tel Aviv District Court awarded custody of the estate of Max Brod to the National Library in Jerusalem. At the heart of the decision was Brod’s own will. He left the manuscripts to Esther Hoffe for her lifetime with instructions that she donate the Kafka papers to a public institution on or before her death. Israel’s National Library was at the top of his list of suggested such institutions.

There was, naturally, an appeal but finally, the supreme court of Israel ruled that Franz Kafka’s manuscripts must go to the National Library. At last, in 2016, the door to the law was closed.

Courts, secrets, cats, safety-deposit boxes, legal proceedings that go on for years and years and years: quite… well, you know the adjective.

What was in those boxes? We still don’t know. I’ll update when we do.

Herman and his codex

The largest medieval manuscript in the world was created in the early thirteenth century in the Benedictine monastery of Podlažice (then in Bohemia, now in the Czech Republic). This enormous work had just a single scribe — one Herman the Recluse. Handwriting experts confirm one hand was involved and a signature in the text (“Hermanus monachus inclusus”) also indicates that just one man — Herman — was responsible.

Why did Herman spend his days so painstakingly scribing? One version of the story says that Herman had committed such outrageous sins (not specified) that he was walled up alive and forced to inscribe holy texts to atone for those sins. It would take you about thirty years to write the entirety of the manuscript, so perhaps that’s true. If so, Herman did a lot of atoning.

Another version of the story says that yes, Herman had committed outrageous sins (again not specified) and yes, he was walled up, but this time the punishment was simply that he starve to death. However, Herman persuaded the abbot to keep him alive for a year and promised that in that time he would create a book that would glorify the monastery for ever. If Herman did so, said the abbot, he could live.

Herman the Recluse wrote day after day, night after night. As midnight of the last night of the year approached, he realised he was nowhere near the end of the book. Death at dawn awaited. So the enterprising monk blazed a trail others would later follow (Faust, Robert Leroy Johnson, etc) and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a finished book.

It’s the second of these stories that gives the manuscript the name it is commonly known by. For while its official name is the Codex Gigas (in English: the Big Book; codex just means it’s a hand-written book), many more people know it as The Devil’s Bible. Partly because of the story surrounding its creation, partly because there is a large illustration of the devil within its pages. Put there, some say, by Herman as a thank-you to his satanic saviour. Put there, some say, as a selfie by Lucifer himself.

Devil

That’s not a diaper, that’s an ermine loin cloth. Ermine is the clothing of royalty and this is the Prince of Darkness. Unusually, he is depicted alone, on an entire page

So why is The Devil’s Bible turning up on Planet Lost Manuscripts when it is plainly not lost? Because some of it is lost. The Big Book is made up of 310 leaves of vellum, but initially it contained 320 sheets. Who took out the ten other leaves? And what was on them?

At one point in its history, the codex was appropriated by the Swedes (responsible for other crimes in the annals of Lost Manuscripts) and housed in the Royal Library in Stockholm. In 1697, when a fierce fire broke out at the castle, someone strong and quick-thinking (more probably two of them; the thing weighs around 75 kilograms) thoughtfully rescued the codex from the flames by chucking it out of a window. Did some of the vellum flutter away in the fall? Probably not, as the National Library of Sweden states that the pages have been cut out, rather than blown away.

The rest of the book contains (in Latin, with rather lovely illuminated letters) the old testament and the new, a list of brothers living in the monastery, a calendar of saints, a short history of Bohemia, and some instructions on the exorcism of evil spirits. So the possibilities of what could have been on those missing pages are multiple.

You don’t have to trawl the web for long to discover various conspiracy theories about the lost content: secrets too explosive for mere mortals to know; magic spells; instructions for the apocalypse. Yet I suspect that the legend surrounding the creation of the codex is colouring people’s imaginations. The Swedish Library suggests that the missing pages contain the Rule of St Benedict, the founding father’s guidance on monastery life. Why? Because when the Benedictines of Podlažice fell into financial difficulties, they borrowed some money from the Cistercians in exchange for the codex. The note in the codex that records this loan also states that the Rule of St Benedict is inscribed in the book. So the Rule was there once, and now it isn’t.

There could have been other text, too (the Rule is quite short) but it’s likely to be a transcription of sacred words rather than a diabolic diatribe. We don’t know who excised the leaves, or why, or where they now are.

(In a recent fictional outing, on the podcast The Black Tapes, the missing pages of the codex are ripped out by Soběslav, Herman’s imaginary apprentice, who blamed the Benedictines for forcing Herman to sell his soul to the devil.)

In a way, Herman kept his promise — if ever he made one. The “inclusus” that follows his name in the text may indicate merely that he was a recluse who preferred a solitary life, rather than being forcibly constrained within brick walls. However, the legend tells that Herman promised to write a book that would glorify the monastery of Podlažice for ever more. Almost a thousand years later, we’re still talking about Podlažice, about his book, and wondering what was on its missing pages.

You can view the entire — and fascinating — digitised text of the codex at the website of the National Library of Sweden.

Codex Gigas digital images by Per B. Adolphson from the National Library of Sweden used under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Illuminated_L

A rather fancy illuminated L

 

The Chronicles of Ivan the Terrible

The news caught my eye this week (February 2016) when I learned that the Russian consul in Edinburgh, Andrei Pritsepov, had presented a copy of The Chronicles of Ivan the Terrible to the Princess Dashkova Russian Centre, part of the University of Edinburgh. “How did Mr Pritsepov manage that?” I wondered, given that the news stories also mentioned that this epic medieval manuscript had supposedly vanished and been “lost for more than 400 years“. (You can see what caught my attention.)

The answer took a little finding out.

Ivan Grozny, the first tsar of all the Russias, is perhaps nowadays better known as Ivan the Terrible. “Terrible” might to our modern ears imply that he was a spectacularly bad tsar of all the Russias, losing territories, devaluing the rouble, under-counting serfs etc. Yet, before translation, the word has more of a sense of “inspiring terror” or “terrifying”. Both of which Ivan certainly was. He had laudable triumphs: he commissioned the construction of St Basil’s cathedral and instituted Russia’s first printing presses, for example. He had less laudable moments, too. As well as perpetrating cruel and senseless slaughter in a paranoid campaign against any perceived traitor, he also managed to accidentally kill his own son.

St_Basil

One of Ivan’s better moments: St Basil’s cathedral. (Sorry, it was a grey day in Moscow when I visited.)

When he wasn’t annihilating thousands of innocent people, Ivan Grozny had an eye on the future. He commissioned The Chronicles: a series of handwritten illuminated manuscripts created between 1568 and 1576. The manuscripts were stitched into ten separate volumes. This “Tsar Book”, as it became known, covered all of world history from Adam and Eve to Ivan’s own reign. Ivan intended the chronicles to provide an education for his children; a sort of How to be a better Tsar.

Sadly, the educative purpose failed, despite the manuscript’s 16,000 illustrations. Shortly after Ivan died in 1584, Russia was plunged into a chaos eloquently described as “The Time of Troubles“. The troubles involved famine (about two million people died; one-third of the population), war and general unrest.

Yes, yes, but how does a set of medieval manuscripts disappear for more than 400 years?

The answer, of course, is that they didn’t.

In those troubled times, the volumes of the original work were removed from the Kremlin, separated, scattered in various regions of Russia, but not exactly lost. The Historical Museum in Moscow had volumes 1, 9 and 10. The rest of the volumes lounged in the libraries of St Petersburg. They simply have never been brought together again as one since The Time of Troubles. Until now.

Step in The Society of Ancient Literature Lovers.

This Russian charity is also known in English as The Society of Lovers of Ancient Literature or The Lovers of Ancient Script or, sometimes, simply The Society of Ancient Literature, with no love of any description involved. Prince Pavel Vyazemsky established the society in 1877. Its main purpose is to “publish Old Russian manuscripts remarkable in literary, scientific, artistic terms or in terms of everyday life, and re-print rare books” (Charter of the Society of Lovers of Ancient Literature, Saint Petersburg, 1877).

The Society of Ancient Literature Lovers has faithfully recreated the Tsar Book as a rather lovely facsimile. The ten volumes in Edinburgh are a newly created copy. Valuable, beautiful, an astonishing gift from Russia; but, despite the original headlines, not the first appearance of the chronicles in 400 years.

Lost Manuscripts: Reporting from the news headlines for you when things aren’t even, it turns out, lost.

What’s that you say? A new book out today?

It’s been quite the season for lost manuscripts coming to light. Earlier in July, we were treated to the publication of Go Set a Watchman, the prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, whose pages lay forgotten and mouldering in a “secure location” for fifty years. Now we have What Pet Should I Get? This new book went on sale today. (You can read it in a house! You can read it with a mouse!) Theodor Seuss Geisel’s last work, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! came out in 1990, 25 years ago. You’ll perhaps know the author better through his pseudonym: Dr Seuss.

What Pet Should I Get? features a brother and a sister visiting a pet shop — which, this being a Dr Seuss book, naturally contains imaginary animals alongside the beribboned kittens and smiling fish — where they struggle to decide which of the many cute creatures to take home with them. Readers will be familiar with the snappy rhymes in which the story is told and the distinctive cartoon illustrations.

The manuscript was amongst papers set aside by Geisel’s widow, Audrey, shortly after his death in 1991. It was rediscovered in 2013 when she and his secretary, Claudia Prescott, were clearing out the author’s office in the Geisels’ home in La Jolla, California.

Of course Random House were going to publish it. Why wouldn’t they? The Cat in the Hat alone has sold over 10 million copies since that anarchic feline arrived on our bookshelves in 1957. Geisel’s work stays fresh and, more importantly, still helps children learn to read, and to learn to love reading. His books use a limited number of words, many of single syllables, and the rhymes help children anticipate and decode the words, however innocent they may be of anapestic tetrameter (a beat of two weak syllables followed by one strong syllable, a signature rhyme scheme of the Dr Seuss books).

Yellow elephant statue in London

Not a Vent, which needs a tent, but a not-quite-rhyming elephant

Why did Dr Seuss never publish What Pet Should I Get? while he was alive and could have fished it out of his pool? He could have done. He was Random House’s president of their “Beginner Books” line, after all. We’ll never know for certain. However, he used some of its ideas in 1960’s One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish — that book contains the same two siblings, which means it was probably written about the same time. In that long-ago era, pet shops were quite ordinary. As a sign of how times have changed, the “Notes From The Publisher” at the back of the new book urges today’s pet-focused children to adopt an animal from a rescue centre instead.

So another lost manuscript sees the light. It wasn’t the only one in that office, either. Random House plans at least two more Dr Seuss books based on the manuscripts his wife found. To which we can only say: Kids, do not doubt! There’ll be another one out!

Go Set a Cat Among the Pigeons

It’s a big month for lost manuscripts, July 2015. Midnight parties around the world to celebrate the publication of Go Set a Watchman. This is the first novel from Harper Lee since the universally beloved To Kill a Mockingbird was published by JB Lippincott on 11 July 1960, exactly 55 years ago today. (Universally beloved and one of the bestselling novels of the 20th century: it’s never been out of print and is a favourite with exam boards, which means that schools purchase new copies year after year.) The new novel has a strange history.

The story is this: Go Set a Watchman was the novel Harper Lee first submitted for publication. Set in the 1950s, it features the character known as Scout in Mockingbird as an adult woman. Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, much taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded Lee to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout. As a first-time writer, Lee said: “I did as I was told.”

After the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee shunned celebrity and the literary world; she stopped giving interviews to the press in 1964. She just got on with whatever she wanted to do for the rest of her very private life. She shared a home with her sister, Alice, in Monroeville, Alabama, where she had been born in 1926. She had no need to work: her first publication saw to that.

Orange cover of paperback edition of To Kill A Mockingbird

My own, much read copy of Lee’s novel, dating from the days when it had only sold 11 million copies

We know she began another manuscript, tentatively entitled The Long Goodbye, but she never completed it. She told a close friend she had two reasons not to write another book: “One, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.”

So Harper Lee might have happily remained in that small but distinguished category of authors who have published only one work of fiction. Then two things happened. One: Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, went through all her papers in 2014 and discovered the lost manuscript. It was in “a secure location”, affixed to an original typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird. Two: Lee’s sister Alice, for many years her protector, died in November 2014 at the age of 103. Pretty quickly thereafter, Tonja Carter negotiated a deal with (who else?) HarperCollins for publication.

The book’s title is from the Bible: For thus has the LORD said to me: Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he sees. (Isaiah 21:6) (The watchman saw “a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels” among other things.)

Pretty quickly, people were declaring what they could see all over the place. They declared calumny, mainly. Lee had said she never want to publish anything else so why, at the age of 88, had she suddenly changed her mind? If the book wasn’t good enough to pass the whip of her editor at the time of submission, why was it suddenly good enough now? Why, back in the 1960s, after Mockingbird had been such a tremendous success and the author was being dilatory with a follow-up, didn’t the publishers dust off the manuscript already in their hands and bring it out as a sequel?

Lee, who had a stroke in 2007, suffers from memory loss, has severe hearing and vision problems, and lives in residential care. Speculation about her state of mind was instant and rife. Had she really consented to publication? If she wanted the book published, why didn’t she set about it smartly some time ago? She said she had forgotten writing it. “How can you forget a whole novel?” people wondered. “Especially when it is 50% of all the novels you ever wrote?”

A compelling question, one might think, but not without precedent. When Graham Greene published The Tenth Man in 1985, he stated in the preface that he had “forgotten” writing it in the 1940s while he was working for MGM. (I can’t recall anyone speculating whether Mr Greene was doo-lally when he mentioned this.)

In a statement to the New York Times, Tonja Carter said that Harper Lee was “extremely hurt and humiliated” at suggestions that she had been pressured into publication. Nevertheless, The Alabama Securities Commission launched an investigation under their remit to help prevent financial fraud against the elderly. After talking with her, they concluded that Lee wanted the book published.

“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird,” says Atticus Finch.

Is Go Set a Watchman a bluejay or a mockingbird? Guess we’ll soon find out. Publication  is on 14 July. The initial print run? Two million copies. A triumphant lost manuscript, indeed.

* Statement from Harper Lee in Harper Collins Press Release 3 February 2015: Press Release

* As quoted by the Rev Dr Thomas Lane Butts of the Monroeville Methodist Church in an interview with Australia’s Sunday Telegraph

* Even that is disputed. The New York Times reported that Justin Caldwell, Sotheby’s rare-book expert, discovered the typescript of Go Set a Watchman during a visit to Alabama in 2011. At that meeting, to appraise a Mockingbird manuscript for insurance purposes, both Tonja Carter and Samuel Pinkus, Harper Lee’s then agent, were present. Tonja Carter acknowledged that she had been there but she said that was out of the room running “an errand” during the crucial time and therefore knew nothing about the new manuscript. “Really?” some people said.

The million-dollar tidy-up: a prime example of housekeeping

We tend to think of the ribbon of history being pulled into its pattern by large events: a shot ringing out one Sarajevo morning, a wall rising up one Berlin night. The influence of housekeeping on history is a sadly neglected field of study, but perhaps the prime example is a house-clearance in Göttingen.

Bernhard Riemann was a shy, devout German mathematician. He only ever published one paper on number theory, and that ran to a mere nine pages. However, his 1859 Ueber die Anzahl der Primzahlen unter einer gegebenen Grösse (On the Number of Prime Numbers less than a Given Quantity) was an instant hit, and continues to run and run.

Back in 300 BC, in Greece, Euclid had proved that the number of prime numbers is infinite. (A prime number is a number that can only be divided by itself and 1 with nothing left over.) Euclid could not find a way to predict where these numbers would appear in a sequence. Neither could anyone else.

Mathematics is above all else about patterns. Mathematicians hated the fact that they couldn’t predict when the next prime number would pop up. They all agreed that the numbers couldn’t just turn up at random intervals. But they kept on doing so. You could have a big gap, and then two primes almost next to each other.

At the core of Riemann’s 1859 paper was an idea — a hypothesis — that seemed to reveal a magical relation between primes and other numbers. Riemann argued that his hypothesis was very likely to be true. But it was just that: a hypothesis. He couldn’t prove it.

(That’s as much as you’re going to get on the hypothesis itself. I, being a mere mortal, soon got lost among Riemann’s zeta functions, his non-trivial zeros and his complex planes. There is a useful round-up of resources here.)

As well as being shy and devout, Riemann had a couple of other marked traits. One was ill health. In the autumn of 1866, on a visit to Italy with his wife and daughter, he developed tuberculosis. He died, aged only 39, and was buried in the cemetery in Biganzolo.

He was also a very messy worker. He filled pages and pages with scribbles. On hearing of his demise, his housekeeper, back home in Göttingen, took this golden opportunity to clear out the papers in his office. She merrily consigned hundreds of pages to the flames before the mathematical members of the university arrived to stop her.

Did Riemann have a proof for his hypothesis that was lost forever in her kitchen fire? We’ll never know.

What we do know is that, over 150 years later, no-one has yet proved Riemann’s hypothesis, although the legions of mathematicians who have tried is impressive. Computers have generated prime numbers a million digits long, which still fulfil the hypothesis, but don’t prove it. Attempts to disprove the hypothesis have been equally unsuccessful; not one prime number yet encountered doesn’t behave in the way the hypothesis predicts.

In 2000, the Clay Mathematics Institute chose the Riemann hypothesis as one of its seven Millennium Problems; the first person to prove it will receive a prize of one million dollars.

Does it matter? Does it matter at all if someone proves a mathematical prediction from 1859?

Computer error messsagePerhaps. Every time you use a cash machine or use a credit card to pay for something on a secure website, huge prime numbers encrypt the information that you send. These security systems are based on the unpredictability of prime numbers. A proof the hypothesis could lead to an easy way to predict prime numbers, and thus, potentially, an easy way to break our everyday encryption.

The one-million-dollar prize would be peanuts. You could make many millions more simply defrauding the banks before breakfast.

Maybe, somewhere in Göttingen, lives a housekeeper’s descendant with a lost manuscript, a neat little proof, and a finger poised above SEND.