Turing, Snow White and the poisoned apple

Another gloomy rendering of his life (and death) might disappoint Alan Turing’s shade, says Sinclair McKay

9 May 2015

9:00 AM

9 May 2015

9:00 AM

Fall of Man in Wilmslow David Lagercrantz

Maclehose Press, pp.366, £18.99, ISBN: 9780857059895

As a young student, the atheist Alan Turing — disorientated with grief over the death of his first love Christopher Morcom — wrote to Morcom’s mother with an atomic theory of how one’s spirit might transmigrate. Years later, he brought the modern computer age into being by positing machines imbued with consciousness. You can’t help wondering what Turing’s shade — whether ethereal or perhaps digital — makes of his posthumous fame. Plays; books; postage stamps. Now, following Benedict Cumberbatch’s doomy big-screen portrayal of the Bletchley Park codebreaking genius in The Imitation Game, David Lagercrantz fictionalises the murky aftermath of Turing’s death. In doing so, he explores questions not only of identity and maths and philosophy, but also of good taste. Turing took his own life, after all: is it quite seemly to turn this into noirish entertainment?

Yet Lagercrantz’s careful refusal to let this defiantly odd work fit into any concrete genre somehow smothers qualms. In 1954, in the quiet (and suffocating) Cheshire town of Wilmslow, young detective constable Leonard Corell — intelligent, unusual sensibilities — is on the scene at Turing’s house, deeply affected by the sight of his corpse. A bite of an apple dipped in home-brewed cyanide was his baroque method of self-dispatch (all true). A year previously, he had undergone nightmarish ‘organotherapy’ (chemical castration) as his sentence for ‘indecent behaviour’. Young Corell, despite his distaste for Turing’s homosexuality, feels the need to investigate his death further. In doing so, he crashes up against the snarling, nervy paranoia of the early Cold War years, and also unearths family secrets of his own.

So there is brute homophobia (senior police relishing the chance to entrap and arrest gay men) and cynically blithe intelligence folk (the velvet glove/iron fist theatricality of GCHQ operatives). But the cleverness of Corell’s clogs also leads him to top-secret former Bletchley colleagues (the work of the Park was very strictly classified until the 1980s) and academic contemporaries — disconcertingly not fictional but real people, such as the mathematician Robin Gandy — who are thrilled to discuss with Corell the ideas of Kurt Gödel, the mathematical twists of the Liar’s Paradox, and Turing’s intellectual encounters with Wittgenstein. Incidentally, even those completely familiar with the Turing story will find the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs mentions rather moving.

There are also occasional swirling passages of Le Carré-esque suspense: could it possibly be that Turing was in fact murdered by maverick security service personnel, convinced that his gay contacts on foreign holidays were really Soviet agents? But essentially, what makes the novel so curious is its dogged faithfulness to the biographical facts, even down to the fixtures of Bletchley’s Hut 8.

George Gould’s translation of Lagercrantz’s Swedish original has the faintest sniff of W.G. Sebald; haunted characters determined to pull others down into turbid, oppressive currents of memory and ideas. You are willingly drawn down with them. But Turing’s shade might not care for his life being remembered with such gloom.

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  • Julia Turing

    Though the ‘imitation game’ movie was mostly fiction and did a very poor job portraying the real and fascinating life and charactatur of Alan Turing, even portraying him as a traitor to his country by collaborating with a Russian spy while at Bletchley Park (absolutely rubbish) but a lot of people made money off of Alan Turing. Now this fictional book is coming out to do the same thing….exploit the tragic story of Alan Turing and distort the truth just to sell books and make the bucks. The real tragedy is how people are raping Alan by making millions off of him by making up stories about his life that isn’t true. Why don’t you vultures just leave the poor man alone, he had to suffer more than enough already!!! He deserves to be recognized for the Nobel prize!! And be posthumously Knighted….if you care about him why don’t you push to do positive things for him such as these???…….stop the fictional crap!

  • TrippingDwarves

    Some years ago I heard an interview with a colleague of Turing’s in which she seemed to pour an ice cold bucket of water on the whole suicide myth. She said he quite often did experiments at home involving dangerous chemicals and was notoriously slapdash regarding his personal hygiene to the point of having nearly poisoned himself once before. The conclusion being that the poisoned apple was little more than a silly accident. Add to this the various assertions by several others who knew him and stated quite clearly that even the night before his death he was in very high spirits and not at all suicidal, the whole suicide thing begins to look a bit shakey to say the least. I point this out simply for the reason that I think the poor man may be in danger of being greatly misunderstood. I’m sure the interview could be traced since it was most likely broadcast on radio four.

    • Sean Lamb

      Home experiments with dangerous chemical or some paranoid MI6 spooks at the height of Cold War fever convincing themselves that Turing had been blackmailed into selling secrets and bumping him off?
      Then leaving a half eaten apple at the crime scene as a mafia code?

      I am rather into mafia codes at the moment. Can’t understand why anyone bothers speaking plain English anymore.

  • MA0

    At the science museum there is a section dedicated to Turing and the Bletchley story. Children bounce around it. A prominent panel of text goes into some detail about his sexuality and the primitive society which drove him to his cruel and tragic death. It made me wonder if that is how Turing would want to be remembered. It’s too late now. His story has become a vehicle to help take vulnerable people to a different world of regrets.