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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

One Hundred Twenty-One Days

by
Michèle Audin


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase One Hundred Twenty-One Days



Title: One Hundred Twenty-One Days
Author: Michèle Audin
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 152 pages
Original in: French
Availability: One Hundred Twenty-One Days - US
One Hundred Twenty-One Days - UK
One Hundred Twenty-One Days - Canada
Cent vingt et un jours - Canada
Cent vingt et un jours - France
  • French title: Cent vingt et un jours
  • Translated by Christiana Hills

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Our Assessment:

B+ : multifarious and calculated, to good effect

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/8/2016 Nancy Kline
Publishers Weekly . 28/3/2016 .
Le Temps . 6/6/2014 Isabelle Rüf
TLS . 27/7/2016 Scott Esposito
World Lit. Today . 11-12/2016 Corine Tachtiris


  From the Reviews:
  • "(I)n Christiana Hills’s elegant translation of Audin’s rich, tragic, yet playful novel, he comes to represent France in the brutal 20th century." - Nancy Kline, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Audin's smart, deeply empathetic text is enriched by recurrences, coincidences, and invocations of European poetry, including Dante's Inferno and Faust, since numbers alone cannot make sense of the war's aftermath: the lives senselessly ended, spared, or quietly destroyed" - Publishers Weekly

  • "Sa démarche est passionnante, originale et attachante, son «roman» est terrible par tout ce qu’il laisse entrevoir dans sa sobriété d’enquête: le colonialisme, la boucherie de la Grande Guerre et ses ­séquelles, l’antisémitisme généralisé, la collaboration." - Isabelle Rüf, Le Temps

  • "A spider web loosely constructed around Mortsauf, One Hundred Twenty-One Days resolutely avoids telling a conventional story; fortunately, Audin lacks pretence and offers valid reasons for her method. Polymorphous and fluid, the book considers how our lives find their shape, and which details are amenable to history’s telling. (...) Though successful, One Hundred Twenty-One Days largely does feel like a pastiche of styles and ideas drawn from the French avant-garde." - Scott Esposito, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(T)ruly the sum of its parts. (...) Translator Christiana Hills deserves praise for re-creating the range of voices, styles, and eras in English while maintaining a distinctly French air." - Corine Tachtiris, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The title may be One Hundred Twenty-One Days but the span of the book is much greater, its first chapter 'A Childhood (1900s)', its last: 'The Form of a City ... (Paris, April 25, 2013)'. One chapter is, in fact titled, 'One Hundred Twenty-One Days' -- but also extends beyond that timeframe (from August, 1944 through the summer of 1945). And much as the novel extends beyond the title's claim and promise, so too the apparent numerological focus -- one chapter is simply titled 'The Numbers' and is, in one sense, simply a list of numbers with brief annotations -- is only part of a bigger and more complex picture.
       Author Audin is a mathematician, and her novel prominently features several mathematicians -- making the number-focus less of a stretch. Comfortable with both mathematical history and theory, she is also able to use these to good effect in a novel that addresses issues that seem to stand in contrast to the (supposedly) more pure abstract and rational world of mathematics.
       Audin is also a member of the Oulipo, and so her novel includes Oulipian constraints. The most obvious is one that binds the occasionally disparate-seeming story -- or rather stories -- together, as each new chapter begins by repeating the last words of the previous one, in a new context and setting -- the story coming (essentially) full circle. (The first chapter does begin: "I start to write:", rather than with the novel's concluding sentence (which then follows) -- a jumping-in point that also, briefly shows the author's hand behind the work.)
       Above all else, One Hundred Twenty-One Days is marked by Europe's two great twentieth-century wars, and it is on these that Audin's story focuses. But it begins almost like a fairy tale -- or, in its (almost) opening words, exactly like a fairy tale:

     Once upon a time, in a remote region of a faraway land, there lived a little boy.
       Christian -- who only later adopts a last name, Mortsauf -- grows up in the backwaters of Senegal, but he is academically so gifted that his foreign teachers see to it that he gets a proper education and, eventually, the opportunity to study in France. From early on his life is marked by two foreign cultures, the German -- he learns German at school, and is a favorite of the German teacher -- and the French, and much of the novel takes place at the often uncomfortable intersection of these two nations and cultures over the next decades -- most notably in chapters that describe the visits of German mathematician Heinrich Kürz to (a very tense pre-war) Strasbourg in 1939 and then occupied Paris in 1942.
       Christian is marked by the First World War -- he literally becomes a masked man, appropriate given the complex identity issues that follow him. (This is a novel that is full of pseudonyms, assumed names, and misreported names: unlike numbers, identities prove much more uncertain.) Others are also scarred, including fellow polytechnician Robert Gorenstein, who nevertheless continues his mathematical work while institutionalized, after committing a horrific act.
       The chapters -- the title of each of which is already an Oulipian allusion -- take on very different forms: the opening one is almost conventional in its fairy-tale form, the next one a diary, the third a collection of twenty-two newspaper clippings. The list-chapter, simply titled 'The Numbers', shows, in condensed form, the range and mix of Audin's concerns: switching from historical dates to irrational numbers (π, √2, etc.) to specific counts and ages; beginning with "-25, the temperature (in degrees Celsius) in Upper Silesia in January 1945 during the evacuation of Auschwitz" and closing with "157034, the number tattooed on a survivor's arm and jotted down on a page from a blue notebook" it is bookended by pointed reminders of the Holocaust. Finally, a 'supernumerary chapter' stands at the end of the text, offering some guidance as to many of the references.
       One Hundred Twenty-One Days -- a title that echoes de Sade's most famous chronicle of horrors -- addresses much of modern French (and specifically French-German) history, especially at its worst, around the World Wars. Her perspective nominally mainly the mathematical milieu, Audin considers issues of complicity and collaboration, and the lingering (and far-reaching) effects of the moral and political rot that seems to surface, regardless of conditions. So even in the fairytale beginning, Christian is beaten by those who should love him -- his parents -- and finds opportunity among those who are also oppressors (the colonial masters).
       One Hundred Twenty-One Days can't easily be reduced to a 'story about' some-( or many) things, even as its main themes are constants. Chapter after chapter, it takes a new approach and perspective, with various characters often only glimpsed almost in the background. Christian, for example, figures in some form in many of the chapters -- right up to his 1996 death notice -- but is only really front-and-center in the opening chapter. And yet the book is also arguably 'about him' (at least as much as anyone ...).
       A short book, it nevertheless is very full -- in part also thanks to its reliance on notes, newspaper cuttings, and numbers, all of which often suggest more than just what's there. Audin also shows a good touch with her varied approaches: whether straightforward story-telling or in imitating diary-voices, or collecting assorted notes, the pieces of her puzzle are all well-drawn.
       One Hundred Twenty-One Days is, in the best ways, a provocative read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 March 2016

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Links:

One Hundred Twenty-One Days: Reviews: Michèle Audin: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French mathematician and writer Michèle Audin was born in 1954. She is a member of the Oulipo.

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© 2016 the complete review

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