One Hundred and TWenty-One Days by Michèle Audin
Deep Vellum Press, 2016; 200 pp
Reviewed by Timothy O'Donnell
I find that the “unexpected” results, more often than not, in tragedy, but in rare circumstances—the lottery, or receiving ARCs—it is a welcomed and often life-changing experience. When I received a package from Texas-based Deep Vellum Press it contained both an ARC of the book I had originally requested along with a thin volume by French mathematician, author and Oulipo member Michèle Audin. One Hundred and Twenty-One Days is a slim, sparkling novel that imbues warmth into the cold reality of mathematics and war.
First published in French in 2014, and masterfully translated into English by Christina Hills, One Hundred and Twenty-One Days is Audin’s debut novel. It should be noted that the gorgeously minimalist cover design of Anna Zylicz and Deep Vellum’s continued use of her work speaks to the publisher’s commitment to bring books into translation that are beautiful both inside and out. Inside, Audin’s prose transfixes immediately—bleak, brief sentences that bring to mind other French-language literary luminaries like Duras, Bataille, and Beckett. Audin finds humor in the abrasive and absurd, leading to one of my favorite lines from the beginning of the novel, presented without context: “They all spanked him once more for luck. Then he went away, a little swollen.”
Written in modulating chapters, One Hundred and Twenty-One Days is told in fabulist fragments, newspaper clippings, psychological reports, and diary entries, lists and obituaries. Relying on a cocktail of memory, Audin tells the very human story of French academics—and their families—through both World Wars. The novel begins in Senegal, on a French plantation where Christian M., one of the novel’s many protagonists, learns that the cold, calculating world of mathematics is much kinder than that of the human soul. After a series of rather absurd incidents, we’re re-introduced to Christian as a young adult, his face disfigured by an artillery shell during World War I. Another mathematician in the hospital’s care, Robert Gorenstein, also ended up on the wrong end of a German artillery shell, his face equally destroyed. They both receive the care and love of a nurse, Madeline, who eventually marries Christian though her diary speaks to a greater love for Robert. As World War I fades into World War II, both Christian and Robert continue their pursuit of mathematics—Christian through traditional academia, Robert in the care of a psychiatric hospital after the gruesome murder of his family. As international loyalties shift, new characters are added, others subtracted: German and French, mathematicians and military.
Though I hesitate to call One Hundred and Twenty-One Days a biographical novel, the intertwining of politics and mathematics is not a foreign concept to Audin, whose mathematician father Maurice was arrested and “disappeared” during the Algerian War of Independence. This does not mean that Christian, Robert and the other mathematicians in the novel are heroes. Each chapter unravels the personal histories of anti-Semitic mathematicians and good-hearted madmen flawed by circumstance, their allegiances stretched taut by war. To give away more would be to take away the delight of discovery that Audin’s novel provides. If I can lodge one complaint it would be how the novel sputters slightly in the second act, not so much progressing the narrative as stagnating. The novel finds redemption in the final chapters, specifically the aptly named tenth chapter, “The Numbers,” a list of ascending numbers detailing the beauty between the atrocities. Audin is clearly an adept author and if One Hundred and Twenty One Days is any indication, she should gain greater international admiration with each new novel. By the final chapter—a listing of names, literary allusions, and places—we see Audin’s novel not as purely fiction but a scrapbook of memories, both real and imagined, beautiful and horrifying. History is an equation; it repeats, multiplies and divides.