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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Jacques Roubaud

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To purchase Mathematics

Title: Mathematics:
Author: Jacques Roubaud
Genre: Novel
Written: 1997 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 326 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Mathematics: - US
Mathematics: - UK
Mathematics: - Canada
Mathématique - Canada
Mathematics: - India
Mathématique: - France
  • French title: Mathématique:
  • Translated by Ian Monk

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Our Assessment:

B+ : autobiographical slice(s)-of-life, interesting presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Mathematics: is the third in Roubaud's 'project' of autobiographical fiction (of sorts) that began with The Great Fire of London and continued in The Loop. There are four chapters to the novel, "making up the story part of the book", the first three of which are also littered with "interpolations", which are then explained in an appendix of sorts to each chapter; in addition, there are "two bifurcations", which represent alternative directions that could have been taken in this work"; finally, there is a twenty-seven page 'Descriptive Table of Contents', summarizing each section of the book. Parenthetically, Roubaud notes in introducing this 'Descriptive Table of Contents': "It would perhaps be of interest to start reading here"; since that suggestion only appears on page 299 of the book only readers who examine their books more closely before starting in on them (or who were alerted to the suggestion by a review ...) are likely have done so.
       Mathematics: is presented decidedly (or at least parenthetically, in the US edition) as: "a novel", yet the first-person narrative is clearly autobiographical: it seems very much like a memoir of Roubaud's time at university, and then his military service. While creatively presented, there is little that is obviously fictional about it.
       As Roubaud's embrace of bifurcations -- of alternatives, taken or not -- suggests, Mathematics: is a story of paths and choices. Even the 'project' itself is one of choices, building on the previous, abandoned ones:

I spent years, many years, preparing for that expedition. Then, at a certain moment, I abandoned it. All this, this prose, comes afterward.
       The aim of the adventure was primarily a Project, a Project of Mathematics and of poetry. What mathematics ? I can't really reply because, still sticking to my metaphor of an exploratory journey, it was at the pole that I never reached.
       Roubaud explains how he came to study mathematics, deciding suddenly in 1952 that:
I was going to change directions decisively. I was going to drop the studies I had already begun -- an English degree that was almost finished, and a Russian diploma from the School of Oriental Languages -- and set off on a radically different track: I would start from scratch, so to speak, and begin all over.
       This would not mean, however, any deviation from the route that mattered most to me: poetry.
       Roubaud is a member of the Oulipo, and several figures from the group were also mathematicians, and he describes coming across their mathematical work before the Oulipo was even founded. Similarly, the many-headed mathematician Nicolas Bourbaki (a group-pseudonym) and his work are also significant to him and his fellow students.
       Much of Mathematics: concerns itself with mathematics (even though he admits: "This book will no doubt only feebly justify its provocative title"). Not that those not up to speed with their mathematics need worry: there's little here that's too theoretical (or practical), the emphasis rather on the more general and abstract. Aside from Bourbaki and (Oulipo co-founder) François Le Lionnais' Great Currents of Mathematical Thought, Roubaud also goes on at some length about Andrew Wiles' proof of Fermat's Last Theorem (which happened around the time Roubaud was writing this book). The last chapter is an interesting variation on applied mathematics, as Roubaud describes his role in Gerboise Bleue, the first French atomic bomb test, in the Sahara in 1960, where his mathematical skills were employed in calculating fallout -- a project he was not very enthusiastic about, but which did allow him to avoid getting drawn into the actual Algerian war.
       Mathematics: seems to consist more of tangents than any single, straightforward narrative, but Roubaud's reflections -- often looping, always digressing -- make for a surprisingly interesting read, and form a revealing picture of part of the man. (It truly is only a slice of his life, however, focused almost entirely on fairly limited aspects of it.) An interest in mathematics presumably helps in appreciating (and navigating) the text (though neither knowledge not interest need be anything more than superficial), but Roubaud does move beyond just that, and his creative approach -- which includes, for example, a three-act dramatization of Lewis Carroll's dialogue, What the Tortoise Said to Achilles -- make for work that is consistently entertaining (if also somewhat hard to get a complete grip on).
       Certainly ... different, Mathematics: is nevertheless worthwhile -- and certainly highly recommended to anyone interested in Roubaud, Oulipo, or mathematics.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 March 2012

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Mathematics:: Reviews: Jacques Roubaud: OuLiPo: Other books by Jacques Roubaud under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Jacques Roubaud was born in 1932. He has been a member of Oulipo since 1966. He is a professor of mathematics, and has published both poetry and fiction.

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© 2012 the complete review

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