Translated from the French by Christiana Hills
One of Publishers Weekly's "Best Books of 2016"
Winner of a French Voices Award
Debut novel by mathematician Oulipo member layers coded narratives across World Wars unlocking the entangled history of politics and science.
Publication Date: May 17, 2016
"...rich, tragic, yet playful novel..." — Nancy Kline, New York Times Book Review
"Formally dazzling, playful and affecting, a new Oulipian classic." — Lauren Elkin, author of Flâneuse and The End of Oulipo?
This debut novel by mathematician and Oulipo member Michèle Audin retraces the lives of French mathematicians over several generations through World Wars I and II. The narrative oscillates stylistically from chapter to chapter—at times a novel, fable, historical research, or a diary—locking and unlocking codes, culminating in a captivating, original reading experience.
Longlisted for the 2017 PEN Translation Prize
One of Publishers Weekly's Best Books of 2016
One of Words Without Borders' Picks for "Favorite International Reads of 2016"
Included in Rain Taxi’s Fall 2016 print edition
“In her use of multiple forms—diaries, letters, newspaper articles, interviews—within Oulipian constraints, Audin delivers elegant proof of the unsolvable.” —Susan Harris, Words Without Borders
"Polymorphous and fluid, the book considers how our lives find their shape, and which details are amenable to history’s telling." —Veronica Esposito, Times Literary Supplement
"Audin smartly introduces new figures and new turns to constantly shift the reader’s investment—as we move into the war we’re confronted with the horrors of the concentration camps, but also with those who endured and survived, and we feel the rampant terror among occupied cities but also the courage of those who resisted." —Jonathan Russell Clark, The Kenyon Review
"This is an unconventional novel that has many layers and makes you think about love, history, war, racism, rebellion, caring, and many other things but most of all about telling a story. Highly recommended." —European Mathematical Society
"This weird little puzzle of a novel is about mathematicians in wartime, and it's only the second book published in English by a female member of the Oulipo. Audin, a French mathematician, scavenges different forms and styles (a fairy tale, a diary, newspaper clippings) to create a sort of literary mixtape. Perhaps the best comparison is Valeria Luiselli's The Story of My Teeth—like that novel, it gives you the rare, head-scratching feeling of not being able to say what exactly makes it so good. " —Gabe Habash, Publishers Weekly (Best Summer Books 2016)
"A story about mathematics and love . . . Throughout the novel, there is a clash, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, between the icy objectivity of mathematical theory and the messy chaos of everyday life. . . . The 120 Days of Sodom, the notorious unfinished novel by The Marquis de Sade, ends in a simple math problem. It reduced all the atrocities, carnage, and outrage into a formal exercise a student would do for homework. Audin performs the same operation, constantly reducing and distilling narrative until nothing remains but pure numbers. Although, since 20th century history and personal love is involved, the numbers are anything but pure." —Karl Wolff, New York Journal of Books
"Audin wants us to think about how our stories get told and how our history gets constructed. She never lets us forget that her novel is first and foremost an artifact; she has put its pieces together artfully, but its unique form ensures the artifice is on display. Audin’s Oulipian constraints implicitly argue that wartime narratives — and ultimately all narratives — are necessarily partial." —Rebecca Hussey, Full Stop
"This is a novel for those who like a little experimentation in their fiction...Audin uses a different form for every chapter, including letters, fables, psychological reports, diaries, interviews, newspaper clippings, and more. The effect is stunning. If you’ve read and liked other novels set in wartime, you’ll want to pick this up for an entirely different experience of what the fiction of war can be." —Book Riot (Recommended Book)
"Numbers are the markers of human life: dates, ages, addresses, social security numbers, bank accounts, even concentration camp tattoos and prison badges. With numbers we seek to sketch the outlines of—or worse define absolutely—an identity... What is a life of a hundred years, marred and disfigured too young, a life of anger and bitterness compared to the brief four months of a young, passionate love affair? How does one truly measure the value of a life lived? Audin doesn’t presume to answer, but her mesmerizing first novel poses the question with artful grace." —Chris Phipps, Diesel: A Bookstore (Oakland, CA) (Staff Pick)
" . . . Audin's smart, deeply empathetic text is enriched by recurrences, coincidences, and invocations of European poetry, including Dante's Inferno and Faust, since numbers alone cannot make sense of the war's aftermath: the lives senselessly ended, spared, or quietly destroyed" —Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"Audin focuses on a handful of top-flight French mathematicians caught up in the two wars, and this type of character, quite rare in novels, somewhat distinguishes her tale from other similar accounts of the tragic fates awaiting brilliant minds. . . . Given the fate of the European Jews in general and, in this novel, that of André Silberberg and other Jewish mathematicians in particular, a strong point is being made: what matters is not emotional connection, but rather gathering scattered bits of fact, piecing some of the puzzle back together, and restoring the identities and thus the full-blooded faces of those whom the Nazis sought to efface. " —John Taylor, Arts Fuse
"While not shying from the admission that bald figures can bring us to our knees with despair—just think of the incomprehensibly large numbers of dead in any reporting on genocide—the novel suggests that words turn innocent numbers violent. And it’s the mathematician, finding symmetry in the seemingly senseless, who uncovers the transcendent human stories buried under generations of historical devastation . . . an elegy, an invocation of memory, made all the more bittersweet when told in numbers." —Amanda Sarasien, Reading in Translation
"Audin’s prose transfixes immediately—bleak, brief sentences that bring to mind other French-language literary luminaries like Duras, Bataille, and Beckett. Audin finds humor in the abrasive and absurd..." —Timothy O'Donnell, American Microreviews & Interviews blog
I start to write:
Once upon a time, in a remote region of a faraway land, there lived a little boy. And this little boy was filled with an insatiable curiosity and was always asking lots of questions. The faraway land where he lived was in Africa, in the area surrounding a big river called the river Saloum, and the little boy filled the area around this river with his questions.
He asked his father why the Blacks on the plantation were hit with rods and his father beat him with his leather belt; he asked his mother why she didn’t read her Bible by herself and his mother beat him with her two white hands; he asked the village priest why he drank the communion wine during catechism and the priest beat him with his stick; he asked the schoolteacher why the same number, p, was used to measure every circle, big ones and little ones, and the schoolteacher didn’t beat him.
I must tell you, dear one, that some good fairies were watching over this little boy’s cradle. If there were a few evil fairies as well, no one noticed. So there will be no discussion of evil fairies at this point in the tale.
A fairytale is a way of telling a history. The river Saloum, its village, its plantation, its pirogues, and its Flamboyant trees form the setting for this one. The little boy’s parents, his little brother, the fairies, the priest, the schoolteacher, a dog, and a few of the villagers are the characters. The little boy, who lived in this exotic setting at the center of this little world, was named Christian. The good fairies, along with the schoolteacher who didn’t beat anyone who asked him questions, were responsible for the fact that he really loved going to school, where he learned to read books, to write fast and well, to count fast and high, and to ask questions. As for his parents, they thought the time he spent at school was much too long. Because, you see, though his mother liked that he could read the Gospels aloud to her, his parents wondered why it was necessary for him to learn any more. One day when his father was beating him with his leather belt, he said: “Well, you’re not going to become a writer!”
Michèle Audin is a mathematician and a professor at l’Institut de recherche mathématique avancée (IRMA) in Strasbourg, where she does research notably in the area of symplectic geometry. Audin is a member of the Oulipo, and is the author of many works of mathematics and the history of mathematics, and has also published a work of creative nonfiction on the disappearance of her father, Une vie brève (Gallimard, 2013), contributed to a collection of short stories, Georges Perec and the Oulipo: Winter Journeys (Atlas Press, 2013), and edited and annotated an abecedary of Oulipo works, OULIPO L’Abécédaire provisoirement définitif (Larousse, 2014). One Hundred Twenty-One Days is her first novel and was published to universal acclaim in 2014 by the prestigious Gallimard publishing house in France.
Christiana Hills is a literary translator who graduated from NYU's MA program in Literary Translation, and is currently a doctoral candidate in Translation Studies at Binghamton University in New York.