Michèle Audin’s One Hundred Twenty-One Days (translated by Christiana Hills) is the first Oulipo novel I’ve ever read, though not the first experimental work of fiction I’ve read. Experimental fiction plays with form more than characterization and plot to get readers to think about story in completely different ways—but Oulipo fiction goes further and plays when authors choose not to use the letter e in their story or write an entire novel as a palindrome. For me, a good story revolves around plots, characters, setting, and good writing and not trickery. Literary gimmicks usually drive me up the wall. And yet, I was intrigued by what Audin was doing with her blend of epistolary, documentary, and Oulipo techniques in One Hundred Twenty-One Days. If this is truly representative of Oulipo, I might have to take a deeper dive.
This brief novel begins around 1900 in southern Africa with a boy who is (according to his parents) too smart for his own good. His teacher has to beg the parents to send the boy, Christian, to better schools to nourish his mathematical talents. By the time World War One rolls around, Christian is working on his dissertation for the Parisian École Polytechnique. But Audin starts to switch perspectives on us at this point. By the end of One Hundred Twenty-One Days, we will hear from Christian’s future wife, his colleagues, and his would-be biographer (who also happens to be his son-in-law). Before long, I had mostly lost sight of Christian and gotten much more interested in his family than I ever was in him—especially once he turns out to be the next thing to a collaborationist during the Second World War.
Towards the latter half of the book, I was confused about what I was supposed to make of Christian, who I thought was the main character. But then I had an epiphany. Because One Hundred Twenty-One Days is written in a documentary style, I started to think of the job of biographers. Biographers, especially of the dead, have the incredibly difficult task of trying to recreate an entire person from the papers and impressions they left while they were alive. Even if a biographer can talk to someone who knew their subject, they would still get only a partial view of the subject. So, how to bring someone to back to life, to understand why they did what they did?
Audin is skilled in recreating the biographer’s space. I felt, at times, like I was doing the biographer’s research as I read through diaries, letters, notes on the backs of photos, and the biographer’s own notes. This is what won over the book for me. I love piecing together the real story from things that unreliable narrators let drop. What else is a biography but a story about a character who wants you to think the best of them, after all? And none of the gimmicks kicked me out of the narrative, which is even better.