Staff Picks: One Hundred Twenty-One Days by Michèle Audin

Schandra recommends One Hundred Twenty-One Days by Michèle Audin, translated from the French by Christiana Hills:

In honor of the March for Science that happened on Earth Day, April 22nd, the staff put together a STEM-inspired display of books by or about scientists, mathematicians, and doctors.

One of several titles on the display that I personally recommend is One Hundred Twenty-One Days, the debut novel of acclaimed mathematician and Oulipo member Michele Audin. Oulipo, of Georges Perec and Jacques Roubaud fame, is a workshop of predominantly French-speaking writers and mathematicians producing literature using constrained writing techniques. This novel is only the second book by a female Oulipian to be published in English. Rendered here masterfully by emergent French-to-English translator Christiana Hills and printed by Texas’ own Deep Vellum Publishing with geometric cover art by Anna Zylicz, One Hundred Twenty-One Days is a posterchild for the representation of women in translation, STEM fields, art, and literature.

It is difficult to summarize the plot of this novel, primarily because the plot is more like a word problem only solvable through careful reading. And like a math problem, there is a great deal of satisfaction inherent in its completion. I can say that the book’s focal point is a community of scholars, mathematicians, and their families orbiting around the University of Strasbourg during the first and second World Wars. As Amanda Sarasien of the blog Reading in Translation expertly noted:

The daughter of a mathematician who was tortured and killed by French parachutists in the Algerian War, Audin is, herself, a mathematics professor at the University of Strasbourg. Not only does the University … serve as a kind of polestar for the novel’s various narratives, mathematicians’ daughters figure prominently as nodes where the orbits of these narratives cross paths. It is in those moments where a woman’s voice takes over the narration that the novel achieves its greatest emotional resonance.

Audin’s Oulipian constraints demand that every chapter find its own voice in the sparsest possible prose, in some instances reaching the extremes of nothing more than hurried notations. Each of these distinct voices sing loudly without overwhelming the choral whole. More concrete literary constraints showcased in One Hundred Twenty-One Days include purposeful alliteration, palindromes, anagrams, and acrostics, all of which, more because of their artfulness than in spite of it, go unnoticed to the casual reader. And where one might anticipate that these confines would limit such a book, they serve instead to liberate its form far beyond the traditional novel, oscillating stylistically chapter to chapter from a childhood in Africa told as fable to a scholar’s historical research notes to a reporter’s interview transcripts to the diary entries of a combat trauma nurse to…to…to… To borrow from Anne Sexton, “[Y]ou could let some extraordinary animals out if you had the right cage.”

The experience of reading this book is quite a bit like going through guided research or detective work. You might be reading a diary entry and notice a stray detail not immediately expanded upon. You will wonder why it’s there or how it relates to what has come before. Then, two chapters later, perhaps in an interview or an obituary, the detail’s relevance is made marvelously clear. Audin draws on the pleasure intrinsic to discovering the kind of monumental historical coincidences and improbable confluences of people and events with which this novel is fragrantly ripe.

One Hundred Twenty-One Days is a unique find for enthusiasts of works in translation, French literature, history, mathematics, psychology, mystery, poetry, and humanity (so basically anyone). If The Diary of Anne Frank or the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Lights We Cannot See speak to you, so will this.