The Mathematics of History: On Michèle Audin’s One Hundred Twenty-One Days

Jonathan Russell Clark

Trans. Christiana Hills. Dallas, TX: Deep Vellum Publishing, 2016. 200 pages. $14.95.

In 1960, the writer Raymond Queneau and the engineer François Le Lionnais founded Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (“workshop of potential literature”), which came to be known by the shorthand Oulipo. It was a literary movement principally focused on restraints—e.g., member Georges Perec’s 1969 novel A Void is a lipogram, a work that deliberately excludes a letter or letters, in Perec’s case the letter “e.” Other members of the distinguished group—which also included many mathematicians and engineers—were Italo Calvino, Marcel Duchamp, and the cartoonist Étienne Lécroart. Thus it was not something one could simply join.

“And then, one day,” the mathematician and writer Michèle Audin wrote recently, “the Oulipo becomes a reality for me: ‘it’ invites me to a meeting.” So Audin became one Oulipo’s few female members, and with the publication of One Hundred Twenty-One Days, she becomes only the second female member to publish a book in English (the first was Anne F. Garréta, author of Sphinx). She does not disappoint Oulipo’s legacy: One Hundred Twenty-One Days is a remarkable novel, a brilliant pastiche of varying styles and forms, elegantly crafted and intricately structured, but also one that never neglects the humane emotions and drama of which great novels are made. At just over 150 pages, Audin is able not only to cover a large swath of time (around 1900 to 2013) but also a stunning array of characters and relationships.

Her debut focuses on the fate of French mathematicians throughout World War II, convincingly using journals, notes, letters, newspaper articles, records, and lists to, on the one hand, tell their stories and, on the other, aid in the narratives’ uncanny verisimilitude. The fact that all her characters are invented—that she’s able not only to make them historically believable, but also that her world is as complex and capricious as history itself—is astonishing: how, I wondered many times in my reading, can she keep all of this information, all these characters, all these themes, these minute connections, in her head at the same time? Historians must wrangle together enormously disparate facts and events; their only invention is the causality they imply in their telling. The novelist’s wholesale invention, conversely, usually begins small and snowballs through associative and intuited developments. With her erudite chronicling of twentieth-century Europe coupled with her impeccable, novelistic eye, Audin seems to have performed both acts—she created a world the size of history and chiseled it into the meticulous shape of fiction.

One of Audin’s more effective strategies is the way she plays with the reader’s empathy. The novel begins with a young boy living on his parents’ plantation in Africa, whose “insatiable curiosity” about things like “why the Blacks on the plantation were beaten with a stick” cause the members of his community much exasperation—with the sole exception of his schoolteacher, who encourages the precocious boy to attend secondary school, an unprecedented occurrence for a child from “the land around the Saloum River,” and one his parents immediately reject. But he goes, and as readers our empathy is obviously placed on this boy who seems to reject the slave-owning, question-squashing rigidity of his mother and father, who seems only to want to learn, to explore, to discover who he is. When he winds up in Paris as a teenage math prodigy, we’re geared up for a quest-like story to follow. But then in the next chapter, through the journals of a nurse in World War I named Marguerite, we are introduced to another mathematician: Robert, a Jew injured in battle, whom the nurse falls for but ultimately (or to use her word, “naturally”) rejects, she whose father “would never have agreed for me to marry a Jew.” Soon she meets another injured (but this time facially disfigured) veteran, but this time it’s our boy from the African plantation, a Christian—in fact his fucking name is Christian—and this time, still with a wisp of her first mathematician, Robert, drifting in her memory, she doesn’t refuse his proposal of marriage. Now the reader’s empathy has splintered (or doubled, depending on your perception)—and we feel for Robert, who survived the war but watched all his comrades die, who was rejected out of prejudice, and is facing in a way he couldn’t imagine a near-future rife with the full spectrum of ravenous, rapacious anti-Semitism. We also feel for Christian, our inquisitive boy, stunted in his promising progress by the force of history, now disfigured, relegated to wearing a leather mask that makes him sound like a horror movie villain.

Now here’s where the reader’s empathy is tested: in the next sections we learn, matter-of-factly in a newspaper clipping, that Robert Gorenstein “was arrested for the murder of his uncle, his aunt, and his brother” and that he had killed them to “eradicate the dead branches of his family” (though one can’t help but notice the date of the murders: two days after Marguerite and Christian were married). Now our empathy is twisted, and we’re forced to acknowledge that the nurse’s prejudice (or at least her complicity in society’s prejudices) wound up saving her life. She narrowly avoided marrying a monster. But of course that’s only half-true; she merely escaped the clutches of one monster. Christian, our boy, now a man, becomes a monster of an entirely different sort: a Nazi. Marguerite, like so many women before and after, could only choose between monsters.

But lest this become a novel that merely follows monsters (or lest this become a novel that believes in such reductive characterization), 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—and though at times it can all be a little overwhelming to keep it all straight, even this temporary dizziness contributes to the novel’s implicit view of history: it is vastly more complex than any single point-of-view, or any one narrative (or, shit, any fifty narratives, 121 narratives) could ever come close to grasping.

Mathematics, it could be argued, with its infinite numbers and seeming nonsensical equations—but also with its wondrous way of being able, to a certain degree, to collapse the unimaginable enormity of the universe into quantifiable and measurable truths—is like an antidote to history; or rather, it tries to do the same work as history, to look at life and see what things add up to, but it does so with an awareness of the bewildering multiplicity that is, in fact, working in the same space as that uneasy ambiguity. But as Audin shows us, not only can math be crassly politicized—Christian (the spelling of whose last name changes every chapter, mimicking the shifting nature of his morality) during the war is promoting “Deutsche Mathematik” over the inferior “Jewish mathematics”—but, more broadly, more profoundly, no math, no formulation or equation, will ever be able to calculate the depth of humanity’s evil, or the range of its enduring strength.

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