MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

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)
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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.

Contributed by Paul Siebert

Hey Alex, i would Like to mention few facts and coincidences concerning the book One Hundred Twenty-One Days by Audin. I don't know the content of the book. But did you know that her father was also a mathematician and was kidnapped, murdered and killed by french soldiers because he participated in Algerias anticolonist war? He was a student of Fields-award Mathematician Laurent Schwartz (cousin of the french primeminister Debre, and was also related to the famous mathematicians Paul Levy and Jacques Hadamard). Schwartz was a Trotskyist activist (also involved in the Russell-Tribunals) and caused a small crisis by awarding Audin a PhD in absentia to provoke the government to investigate his disappearance. Also he and other french intellectuals signed the manifesto of the 121 (with Sartre, der Beauvoir etc), which tells the soldiers to drop their weapons. Schwartz had to go into exile. 121 is the same number as in the book's title. Until today there has been no further official investigation into the case Audin's disappearance.

Thank you, Paul, for that information. I knew much of the information about her father. In fact, she has written a non-fiction book about him called Une Vie Brève, but I did not know about the Manifesto of the 121 prior to your e-mail.

I am also 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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(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

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. Mandelbrot the Magnificent by Liz Ziemska
  2. Colonel Lágrimas by Carlos Fonseca Suárez
  3. La formule de Stokes, roman by Michèle Audin
  4. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  5. The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti
  6. The Boy Who Escaped Paradise by J.M. Lee (author) / Chi-Young Kim (translator)
  7. Continuums by Robert Carr
  8. The Art Student's War by Brad Leithauser
  9. The Capacity for Infinite Happiness by Alexis von Konigslow
  10. The Blue Door by Tanya Barfield
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 (2 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
5/5 (2 votes)
.

Categories:
GenreHistorical Fiction,
MotifWar,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,
MediumNovels,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)