April 2016

Felix Haas


One Hundred Twenty-One Days by Michèle Audin, translated by Christiana Hills

The first book I read by Michèle Audin was not, strictly speaking, a work of literature. It had a pale yellow cover with a knight on its flap, the logo of the Springer publishing house, one of the biggest publishers in the mathematical world. The book was called Geometry, and its introduction was preceded by a Georges Perec quote. Little did I know, at the time, that Audin would go on to join Perec as a member of the infamous avant-garde French literary group Oulipo, made up of writers and mathematicians exploring experimental and constrained writing technics.

Born in Algeria in 1954, Michèle followed in her father's footsteps in becoming a mathematician. Yet, it was not he who nurtured her efforts and saw them to fruition. Maurice Audin, doctoral student to the famous Laurent Schwartz, "disappeared" during the Battle of Algiers after being arrested by the French Army, when his daughter was only three years old.

Michèle Audin went on to attend the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris and later worked as a professor of mathematics for well over thirty years. It was in 2013, with her first non-mathematical publication Une vie brève (A Brief Life), capturing Maurice Audin's life story, that she started to shift her efforts away from her and her father's profession to focus on her writing. One Hundred Twenty-One Days, translated by Christiana Hills, is her first work of fiction.

"I start to write: Once upon a time, in a remote region of a faraway land, there lived a little boy." This is Audin's first and last sentence. An opening and closing which embraces a body that is highly unusual. From the tone she chooses, the reader is made to belief that he is reading a children's book, a fairytale perhaps. That is, until the beginning of the second chapter, where the tone, the characters, the time -- well -- where everything changes. We are no longer following a fairytale upbringing of a small boy in Africa. Instead, we are reading diary snippets written by a Catholic nurse during the First World War. We read forward in expectation for the third chapter to establish a link between the first two; however, again, everything changes.

You cannot read Audin's masterfully written book as you would any other work of fiction. Rather, you need to approach it as you might a book of science or mathematics. You underline, you comment, you take notes. In a mathematical proof, you might try to fill in a technical step that was left to the reader by the text itself. With One Hundred Twenty-One Days, you want to capture detail mentioned about seemingly unimportant characters, to serve as cross-references when they are broken out as heroes of a new chapter, which, on first glance, might strike you as an entirely new book.

But what is Audin's novel about? These ruptures in style and characters reoccur chapter after chapter throughout the book, but eventually the story they tell converges on a small group of French and German mathematicians working in a period starting during the First World War and ending shortly after the Second. One Hundred Twenty-One Days is about these lives, their families, friends, and the times they live in. It is about the two great tragedies of the twentieth century, about resisting and collaborating with fascism and German occupation in France.

All grown up, but having lost half of his face, Christian Mortsauf, the little boy from the first chapter, turned mathematician, is a patient of Nurse Marguerite, the author of the second chapter. Another mathematician and patient of hers, Robert Gorenstein, survives the war, only to kill his uncle, aunt, and sister shortly after. Living in a psychiatric institution, he continues to publish mathematical papers until his death. One of the problems Gorenstein poses is solved by a promising student named André Silberberg. It is these three men: Mortsauf, Gorenstein, and Silberberg who form the backbone of Audin's collection of interviews, newspaper articles, and notebook extracts that make up her remarkable book. These loosely connected lives: one of a collaborator, one of a psychopath and killer, and one of a rebel, genius but ultimately a victim, form the cornerstones of the sphere in which Audin tells her story, or, rather, allows a fictitious historian to function as its author.

In the final chapter of this novel without climax or center, the collector of its content offers the short love story between Gorenstein's niece Mireille and Silberberg as an example of what weaves these many loose strings together. "The private events, the hundred twenty-one days of Mireille and André's story, do they not form a sort of chain that holds the threads together -- the very fabric of history?"

So, at the end, it is not a man's rebellion against or another man's complacency with fascist oppression, nor is it a triple homicide committed by a third or the combined mathematical genius of all three that lends itself as the focal point of Audin's novel. Rather, she wants us to see that it is a young woman's love, her "121 days of happiness" which is truly remarkable, "the fabric of history."

Audin lets her fictitious author put this theory forward in one of her last pages and underlines it by her choice of title. Still, it remains difficult to see the importance of this love episode, which is laid out in merely one of her eleven chapters. This point, howver, does not weigh heavy on the impact and the uniqueness of her novel. We wander through her chapters to celebrate every puzzle piece we find that can connect the different islands she has built for us. It is her technical brilliance, rigorous planning, and meticulous execution, which let her succeed.

In this masterful mosaic of different styles, voices, and lives, Audin, amongst other themes, interweaves two great narratives of her and her father's life: mathematics and resistance. When reading One Hundred Twenty-One Days, you will soon notice it is like nothing you have read before. As a work of literature, it truly pushes the limits of our understanding of the word "novel," juxtaposing different fragments of writing, each drastically unique in its narrative mode. Only at first sight does One Hundred Twenty-One Days resemble more a collection of found art or the content of a historian's work folder than the nuanced technical masterpiece that it is.

One Hundred Twenty-One Days by Michèle Audin, translated by Christiana Hills
Deep Vellum Publishing
ISBN: 978-1941920329
200 pages