I didn’t especially enjoy reading Fonseca’s book, but I recognize its literary merit and I expect it will be translated into English, perhaps after his literary output has reached some critical mass (he’s only 28, after all), if only because he lives in London and studied in the United States. Évariste, on the other hand, written by François-Henri Désérable, also 28, a former professional ice hockey player, seems to me much less likely to be translated — not because Galois is less popular outside France than in his native country but because the book presupposes the kind of familiarity with France in the early 19th century that is hard to acquire without a solid grounding in the French public school curriculum. I don’t mean that it’s a childish book, but rather that it’s addressed to readers who care about French history in the way French people do. Désérable especially cares about revolutionary times; his first novel, published two years ago, was entitled Tu montreras ma tête au peuple, “You will show my head to the people.” If that quotation doesn’t speak to you, you may not care enough about revolutions to read Désérable’s books.
Désérable has very little to say about mathematics except to say that he doesn’t understand it at all. After stating Galois’ theorem on solvability by radicals he addresses the reader:
It’s no use nodding your head in approval, I can see it in your eyes: you haven’t understood a single word [pigé un traître mot] any more than I did.
Je défends l’idée d’un partage de notre globe, qui compte justement deux hémisphères, entre les uns et les autres. Et si l’on édifie un jour un mur tout le long de l’équateur, un mur infranchissable, hérissé de barbelés et de tessons, j’en poserai moi-même la première pierre… [I support the division of our globe into two hemispheres separating the two groups. And if one day a wall were to be built along the equator, an impassible wall, bristling with barbs and shards, I would myself place the first stone.
The reviewer for Le Figaro had even less to say about mathematics, but he did have some advice for the author that I’m afraid I can’t translate:
le narrateur de François-Henri Désérable fait preuve parfois d’une telle morgue que, séduit par l’originalité de son talent mais agacé qu’il n’en use pas plus délicatement, on a envie de lui chuchoter d’arrêter son numéro, de poser ses cymbales, de dire sans apprêt ce qu’il a dans l’âme, le cœur et les tripes.
So I’ll let this quotation speak for the mathematics of Évariste (my rough translation):
The mathematician who in a simple formula perceives something more than a series of numbers and obscure symbols, something mysterious, namely a means of removing oneself from the world in order better to possess it, to escape from the real in order better to subdue it, that mathematician, Mademoiselle, is incarnated in the number as the writer is in the word, is the Number in person. Évariste, when he does mathematics — and at that time he was doing only that — is the Number in person.
Apart from that, the author is unduly harsh with Poisson. His recommended reading list at the end of the book contains only texts in French, and thus doesn’t include Amir Alexander’s Duel at Dawn, which MWA quotes extensively. But it does include the brilliant and sophisticated Évariste Galois. La fabrication d’une icône mathématique by Caroline Ehrhardt, about which Hélène Gispert wrote
A chief figure in the mathematical Pantheon, Galois has come to stand as the prototype of the cursed genius, whose person and writings were credited with skills and meanings Ehrhardt proves they did not have.
Désérable puts those skills and meanings back in the story, which he otherwise would have no reason to write. Elsewhere, Ehrhardt had this to say about how the reader as well as the author is needed to make mathematics, a very timely observation in view of what did or didn’t happen in Oxford last week.
The ideas of a mathematician are never transparent and they have no abstract or absolute existence. A mathematical result can only be validated by the reading, which is made of it through a specific interpretative framework. This framework is intimately linked to the mathematical toolkit that the reader has at his disposal, and to what the reader considers to be at stake in the text he is assessing.
For the first half of the book I, like the Figaro reviewer, also wished Désérable would “put down his cymbals,” but when poor Galois went to prison, where he met Raspail and Nerval, or when he turned the “Mademoiselle” of the earlier quotation into Galois in order to send him/her to a fateful fictional encounter with Stéphanie, I decided the book wasn’t so bad after all.
Last January Désérable was interviewed on France Culture along with Emmanuel Arnaud, author of Topologie de l’amour, a novel about a fictional topologist that I haven’t read but that I suspect doesn’t have much to say about topology, and with a third author, a mathematician this time… Can you guess who it was? No, really, you’ll never guess!