a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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One Hundred Twenty-One Days (2014)
Michèle Audin (Author) / Christiana Hills (Translator)
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

This tragic "novel" by mathematician and Oulipo member Michèle Audin follows the lives of three fictional mathematicians (Christian Mortsauf, Robert Gorenstein and Andre Silberberg) through the first and second World Wars. (Actually, Christian M's last name keeps changing throughout the book, but I will simply call him Mortsauf here fore clarity.)

I have put "novel" in quotes because the book has a strange format. Only the first chapter, which describes Mortsauf's childhood in Africa and takes the form of a "fairy tale", is written as a standard narrative. The rest of the book is cleverly comprised of excerpts from newspapers, interviews and diaries along with other seemingly non-fictional sources. One chapter is simply a list of quantities and their stated relevance listed in increasing order.

The reader must put this information together into a story, and it is a sad story involving the horrors of war, anti-semitism, and an unforgivable act of violence committed by one of the three primary characters with whom the reader has likely developed some empathy. Love also appears in the book, love both of mathematics and of people, but it cannot compete with the overwhelmingly bleak context.

Of course, Audin portrays mathematics (both the discipline itself and the culture of those who study it) accurately. We learn a bit about how Mortsauf's mathematical talent was cultivated at school despite opposition from his family. We see mathematicians doing research in number theory, talking about lemmas and proofs, in dreadful circumstances. And a few specific mathematical ideas (many about the number π) are also discussed. She even subtly addresses sexism in mathematics. However, I do not believe any of that is the point of the book. The characters just happen to be mathematicians, but I see this as a book about this difficult time in European history and the timeless aspects of human nature that it reveals.

As with most works from the Oulipo group, there is mathematics not only in the story itself but in the structure of the writing. Those sorts of things are a bit outside of the domain of this Website. You can read about some of it in the book review that was published in the AMS Notices and in an accompanying interview with the author.

I am grateful to Allyn Jackson of the American Mathematical Society for bringing this work and its English translation (released in 2016) to my attention.

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Works Similar to One Hundred Twenty-One Days
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Colonel Lágrimas by Carlos Fonseca Suárez
  2. La formule de Stokes, roman by Michèle Audin
  3. The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti
  4. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  5. The Boy Who Escaped Paradise by J.M. Lee (author) / Chi-Young Kim (translator)
  6. Continuums by Robert Carr
  7. The Art Student's War by Brad Leithauser
  8. The Capacity for Infinite Happiness by Alexis von Konigslow
  9. Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
  10. The Trachtenberg Speed System by Buzz Mauro
Ratings for One Hundred Twenty-One Days:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
3/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
5/5 (1 votes)

GenreHistorical Fiction,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)