This novel (first published in French in 2014) centres on two mathematicians, both damaged in the first world war, and both nursed by the same young woman. Mortsauf has most of his face blown away, so is one of the gueules cassées; he marries his nurse, becomes a successful academic and achieves a position of influence under the German occupation. Gorenstein, who is Jewish, suffers psychological damage in the war, and in an unexplained fit of violence murders most of his family. He is incarcerated, but continues to do mathematics.
These two disturbed men are the focus of a novel that explores a disturbed century. The most telling chapters are about the period that has been even more troubling to France’s conscience than the Great War, the period of the Occupation, with its betrayals and shameful complicities.
It is a tricky book. Michèle Audin is a member of the Oulipo group, writers who experiment with technique to find ways of expressing things otherwise unexpressed. Her book has someting in common with the work of Georges Perec, author of La Vie mode d’emploi, and the astonishing W, ou le souvenir d’enfance. She is also a mathematician; one chapter lists numbers, and their significance to the novel.
But then, every chapter of this book is written in a different style: Just-So story, diary, list, bundle of letters and so on. No style is able to tell the complete story, and there are gaps between the texts, things missed out or unexplained. Things are different in different texts; even Mortsauf’s name is never stable. We are made aware of the text’s textuality, not only by the variety of styles, but by constant references to other texts, and by literary game-playing. Half way through reading one section, you become aware that its sentences are presented in alphabetical order. I’m sure that there are some games that I’ve missed (mathematical ones, I suspect). I know that some people don’t like this sort of thing. I do, rather.
The book’s title refers to a young couple, Mireille and André . They have just one hundred and twenty-one days of happiness together before André , a Jew, is deported.
As Bookslut has written in rather a good review of the novel:
In the final chapter of this novel without climax or center, the collector of its content offers the short love story between Gorenstein’s niece Mireille and Silberberg as an example of what weaves these many loose strings together. “The private events, the hundred twenty-one days of Mireille and André’s story, do they not form a sort of chain that holds the threads together — the very fabric of history?”
So, at the end, it is not a man’s rebellion against or another man’s complacency with fascist oppression, nor is it a triple homicide committed by a third or the combined mathematical genius of all three that lends itself as the focal point of Audin’s novel. Rather, she wants us to see that it is a young woman’s love, her “121 days of happiness” which is truly remarkable, “the fabric of history.”
The novel increasing fragmentation corresponds to the gaps in French society made by the disappearance of people like André from French society, and the gaps in public discourse as more and more things become unsayable.
The Great War is where the story effectively begins, and one of the questions that the novel does not answer is about the damage done to men like Mortsauf and Gorenstein. Does it inevitably lead to the evils of the rest of the century?
The English version is from the enterprising Deep Vellum Publishing, and is translated by Christiana Hills. It can’t have been an easy book to put into English, and I think she’s done a good job. When I go to France later this year, maybe I’ll look for a French version, to see what that is like.