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Mathematique is the third volume or (to use the author's terminology) "branch" of an ambitious postmodern autobiographical project that already includes Le Grand Incendie de Londres (1989; see WLT 64:2, p. 278) and La boucle (1993; see WLT 68:1, p. 85) and is expected to have at least two more "branches." Although this volume is considerably more linear than the two previous ones, genres are constantly mixed as autobiographical material is interlaced with erudition (on the history of mathematics), references to contemporary events, theoretical discussions (of Fermat's theorem, for example), essays (on the Field Prize), and vignettes of people Roubaud has known, some of them of importance in mathematics and intellectual history. The author has a distinct propensity for parenthesis (including parentheses within parentheses) and for shifting from one level of discourse to another without transition. References to the French nuclear bomb and discourses on the theory of sets are presented alongside such banal information as the problems he is having with his refrigerator and where he purchased his newspaper.

The retrieval of the past, then, is never separate from the moment of writing. Mathematique is a highly self-conscious text which constantly reminds us that it is in the process of becoming (there are numerous references to the type of computer he is using and even to the fonts he is choosing), that there have been previous "branches," and that more are forthcoming. After the table of contents that normally concludes books written in French, the reader discovers another four pages which are presented as constituting the first pages of the next volume.

The author, Jacques Roubaud, has had a distinguished career as a poet, theoretician, novelist, and prominent member of the OuLiPo group (the first to be admitted after the original founders) while at the same time pursuing a professional career as a mathematician. This volume, as the title leads us to expect, focuses on his discovery of his vocation as a mathematician. Roubaud is adept at making us share in the excitement of his encounter with the new mathematics emerging in the 1950s and his decision to specialize in a discipline whose rigor would complement his equally strong desire to be a poet. The "otherness" of mathematics, then, becomes a means of protecting the autonomy of his poetic practice. The emphasis on mathematics notwithstanding, the volume is far from being a dry and abstract treatise. Roubaud writes clearly and, occasionally, wittily, and is capable of treating language playfully, delighting in deviations from accepted norms of prose by occasionally antepositioning adjectives ("le nom de son devenu prospere proprietaire"). His numerous digressions, which in previous volumes could lead to some frustration on the reader's part, here contribute to the text's readability by aerating the more strictly mathematical portions of the discourse.

Like Stendhal, who was the first autobiographical writer to admit that he could not be sure that he was telling the truth about events in his past, Roubaud acknowledges that "la verite du souvenir n'est pas la verite de la conformite du souvenir avec les choses souvenues." Nevertheless, like Stendhal as well, he firmly intends, he declares, to remain rigorously faithful to those memories. It is specifically in the unconventional manner in which the past is retrieved that each subsequent volume of this project becomes increasingly engaging.

Emile J. Talbot University of Illinois, Urbana
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Author:Talbot, Emile J.
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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