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B+ : autobiographical slice(s)oflife, 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 twentyseven 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.
I spent years, many years, preparing for that expedition. Then, at a certain moment, I abandoned it. All this, this prose, comes afterward.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.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 manyheaded mathematician Nicolas Bourbaki (a grouppseudonym) 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 cofounder) 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 threeact 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  Return to top of the page  Mathematics::
 Return to top of the page  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.  Return to top of the page 
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