Book Review: Mathematicians in Combat — Michèle Audin’s “One Hundred Twenty-One Days”
Audin scrutinizes political commitment when it is undertaken by representatives of an intellectual discipline which, at least at the theoretical level evoked in the novel, is detached from the real world.
One Hundred Twenty-One Days by Michèle Audin, translated by Christiana Hills. Deep Vellum, 162 pp., $14.95.
By John Taylor
Both 20th century stories have been chronicled countless times and variants on them can now add nothing essential: young men killed or mutilated during the First World War; and then the Second World War, with Jews of all ages and conditions deported to the Nazi death camps and systematically murdered there. As memoirs and biographies have often emphasized, talented young artists, musicians, poets, and scientists were among the victims of the slaughters. We imagine the promising future that awaited them and know the all-too-real future that destroyed them. And yet these stories need to be told, and retold, for History incessantly repeats itself and few if any lessons are ever learned.
The French mathematician and Oulipo member Michèle Audin (b. 1954) uses these wartime settings and the theme of doomed gifted youth for her debut novel, Cent vingt et un jours (2014), now ably translated by Christiana Hills. Audin focuses on a handful of top-flight French mathematicians caught up in the two wars, and this type of character, quite rare in novels, somewhat distinguishes her tale from other similar accounts of the tragic fates awaiting brilliant minds.
She portrays the mathematicians in all their human qualities, which run the gamut from frailty and deceit to resilience and heroism. Especially compelling is her depiction of mathematicians during the German occupation, when some of her characters enter into the French resistance movement, while others, including the main character Christian Mortsauf, collaborate with the enemy. There is also a key German mathematician, Heinrich Kürz, around whom the plot revolves when the most brilliant of all these mathematicians, the young Frenchman André Silberberg, arrives on the scene. Silberberg is Jewish, and the social and intellectual consequences of the absurd racist notion of “Jewish mathematics,” like the even more notorious Nazi concept of “Jewish physics” directed against Einstein and the theory of relativity, are vividly detailed in the novel.
All these mathematicians are working on fundamental theorems. Watching them doing so, thanks to Audin, is one of the novel’s engaging and instructive satisfactions. She opens up the ivory tower for the layman’s inspection. The result is a vision of nobility and baseness, rivalry and altruism, not to mention scintillating minds, and minds less scintillating. The latter are a vital part of the sad and sobering drama that enfolds in One Hundred Twenty-One Days.
Audin’s writing also differs from standard chronicles of, say, trench warfare, the German occupation of Paris or the treachery of the death camps in that she employs a heady variety of narrative forms, ranging from the “fairy tale” that opens her novel to diary excerpts, newspaper clippings, scientific articles, pages torn from notebooks, psychiatric assessments, descriptions of photos, reports on historical research, scholarly footnotes and even, in Chapter IX, a list of numbers (with captions) that surely also recapitulates the Oulipo-inspired structure of the storytelling. There is also some old-fashioned suspense—but at one remove. Audin is not just interested in telling a compelling story; she wants to examine how the past can be recovered and thus implicitly raises issues of historical veracity and justifiable speculation.
“A fairytale is one way to recount history,” she asserts at the onset, while outlining the childhood of Christian Mortsauf, a mathematically gifted little boy living “in a remote region of a faraway land.” His parents are cruel both to him and to the blacks living on the plantation that they run. But after several episodes involving parental brutality and unexpected strokes of good fortune, the boy manages to reach Paris and study mathematics. Yet at this point in the tale, as the novelist admits, the setting must “expand even more [and] other characters get involved in the story, which is going to become so complex that the fairytale, with its good and evil fairies, will not be enough to tell it.” Christian Mortsauf has to march off to a battlefront in the First World War and his run of relative good luck at once ends and continues later in other, more devious, ways.
The story diversifies, at times playfully (à l’oulipienne), but ever with an acute hidden edge. A prime example is symbolized by Mortsauf’s family name. He is nearly killed in the First World War, from which he escapes permanently mutilated. He wears a leather mask to hide his marred face. Appropriately enough, the name “Mortsauf” can be glossed as “Dead-Except.” As the novel progresses, this revealing name will take on variant spellings: Mortaufs, Motfraus, Morstauf, Morfaust, and then simply “M.”
Some tantalizing etymological teasing is going on here: “-[F]aust” of course, in the penultimate variant, but also “Mot-” (“word” in French) followed by the Latin “-fraus” (“fraud”) in the name “Motfraus” (Word Fraud”). The name “Morstauf” seems an anagram of the original “Mortsauf” and thus of Balzac’s character Madame de Mortsauf, who has an unhappy childhood in The Lily of the Valley but who then becomes, in contrast to Audin’s character, a symbol of purity and devotion. And not only is “Mort-” (“death”) blatant as a prefix in “Mortaufs,” but the prefixes “Mor-” and “Mors-” suggest “biting” and the “bit” in a horse’s mouth in two of the variant names. Could “Mor-” also be “moral” with the “-al” truncated in this novel where moral behavior is is rare? Should one even hear the Dutch senses of “Morst-,” which variously indicates “dirty,” “spilling,” a “mess”? Or the German “morsch” (“rotten”)? In any event, Audin germanizes Mortsauf’s name as he sides with the enemy. After the war, he becomes “M.,” manages to get through the purge committee, and dies in 1996 at the age of 103. Yet despite wartime acts for which he never really has to pay, he too has been a victim: first, of the immitigable harshness of his parents and then of the savagery of the First World War. This novel offers neither an accusation nor an indictment, but rather assesses causes and consequences.
Audin scatters literary hints throughout, and they range from Dante and Alexandre Dumas to Samuel Beckett, Ernst Jünger, and Raymond Queneau. A “Supernumary Chapter” at the end lists about forty more allusions without making it completely clear where they can be found.
The title, which specifically refers to the short-lived love between two key characters, Mireille Duvivier and the doomed André Silberberg, surely also refers to Georges Perec’s posthumous novel 53 Days (1989), which in turn refers to the number of days that it took Stendhal to dictate The Charterhouse of Parma. Moreover, Perec’s book is a literary thriller based on narrative fragments. At one point in the novel, Audin transcribes an interview with another important character, Pierre Meyer, who implicitly asks the novelist: “You’re handling the chronology, right?”
These spirited Oulipian gambits stand out and may irritate some readers. They keep the emotions from building up and making this novel thoroughly gripping. Feeling is in shards, as it were. Given the fate of the European Jews in general and, in this novel, that of André Silberberg and other Jewish mathematicians in particular, a strong point is being made: what matters is not emotional connection, but rather gathering scattered bits of fact, piecing some of the puzzle back together, and restoring the identities and thus the full-blooded faces of those whom the Nazis sought to efface. And even the face, behind the leather mask, of Christian Mortsauf, who was maimed by his childhood and by war in ways that are not merely physical.
For this same reason, Audin’s deepest and most intimate novelistic inquiry is hardly without personal resonance. She scrutinizes political commitment undertaken by representatives of an intellectual discipline which, at least at the theoretical level evoked in the novel, is detached from the real world. Most French readers of this book are aware that Michèle Audin is the daughter of the brilliant French mathematician Maurice Audin (1932-1957), who was arrested by the parachutists of General Jacques Massu—when she was three years old—and who died under torture because he was a communist engaged in the struggle for the independence of Algeria.
The family was living in Algeria, which was also their homeland. His body was never found, and his wife’s and then his daughter’s efforts to receive an explanation, from the French government, about his murder have gone unanswered ever since. On 1 January 2009, the author refused to receive the Legion of Honor, on the grounds that the President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, had refused to respond to a letter asking for information on her father, the possible whereabouts of his body, and for recognition of the French government’s role in his disappearance. It could well be that such biographical and autobiographical elements are also discreetly woven into the fiction of One Hundred Twenty-One Days, which, rather as in Stendhal’s famous definition of the novel, travels down the road of the twentieth century and holds up a mirror to the real world.
Originally from Des Moines, John Taylor has lived in France since 1977. He is the author of the three-volume collection of essays, Paths to Contemporary French Literature (Transaction Publishers), and has translated books by many French and Francophone poets, including Philippe Jaccottet, Pierre-Albert Jourdan, Jacques Dupin, Georges Perros, and José-Flore Tappy. Forthcoming from Seagull Books is his translation of Pierre Chappuis’s Like Bits of Wind.