a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|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.
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.
|More information about this work can be found at .|
|(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.)|
(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)