Book review: Mathematics: A Novel

Mathematics: A Novel by Jacques Roubaud has a lot in common with my degree. It seemed to go on forever without any particular point, was incomprehensible in large chunks, and ended with a nagging sensation that it ought to have been first class. Oh, and it was a cross between dull pedantry, absurdist propaganda, and French.

It's the first dead-tree book I've ever read and though "This really needs to be an e-book." It's a structural labyrinth, beset with bifurcations and cross-references -- at one point, I was working with three separate bookmarks. Even within the main text, Roubaud makes copious use of nested brackets, typographical gimmicks and so many sidetracks you can barely remember what road you were heading down.

It's an experimental work - Roubaud is a member of the Oulipo (Ouvrier de littérature potentielle, or workshop of potential literature - a largely French maths/poetry movement which uses constrained writing techniques to produce works). There are several references to Oulipo and its members scattered throughout Mathematics, which seems a bit on the incestuous side. I don't recall who said that literature is something nobody wants to read, but everyone wants to have read. I suspect potential literature is something that nobody wants to read, but somebody wanted to write.

As for the story, such as it is: it follows Roubaud's course through mathematics - the frightening, disengaged lecturers, the frightening, disengaged French education system, a flirtation with Bourbakism, temporary obsessions with Fermat's Last Theorem - and ends in the desert doing sums for the French army. There are beautiful flurries of scene-setting, and turgid pages that read like the bits of my NaNoWriMo efforts I mark "To delete later". In fact, this is part of Roubaud's experiment: he wrote nightly, and didn't go back to check.

The trouble with pantsing your autobiography: it makes it very difficult to make sense of as a lay reader.

Mathematics is hard work, and probably worth the effort for someone of a particular mindset; the same sentence could probably be written without the italics.

-- Thanks to @teakayb for the gift voucher I spent on this book.


Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.


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