Désérable conjures up here for us, in another book from my French Lit targets 2016, the life and death of ‘Évariste Galois who aged 15 discovers maths, aged 18 he revolutionises them; and at 20 he dies in a duel.’***
Évariste Gallois lived in the troubled early years of the nineteenth century including the July revolution (depicted in Delacroix’s painting which is described in detail during the book)
The challenge Désérable gave himself was to write a book on this character from the early years of the nineteenth century, to make it interesting and not to attempt to explain the maths. Let me assure you he manages this! The style is conversational, conspiratorial as he first explains to us the reader that for the sake of the story and to better understand this young man, we are to be a young lady, a demoiselle, we even resort to subterfuge to follow him.
‘This twelve soon to be thirteen year old pupil, we could follow him day in day out, in the school yard, in the classroom even as far as the dormitories of the College Royal, except that he would notice, would be frightened and would probably tell on us and we would probably be shown the door, especially since you are a girl and that this is a boy’s college. Supposing this to be true, let’s say you are the hat upon his head……and I am his shoes.’***
As far as mathematics goes we learn that he is the precursor of group theory, fifty years ahead of his time but more especially that his manuscript was lost a first time in the papers of Fourrier who died before reading it when Évariste was only 18 and that the famous Poisson did not understand the importance of his work, that history only knows of his work because he scribbled it out a last time and left it for a friend on the night before the duel in which he was killed.
He lived through momentous times, the July revolution in France (where following the revolution years and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, the then King Charles X was deposed in a violent 3 day revolution and replaced by Louis Philippe who accepted to be a constitutional monarch), whilst Gallois himself was locked in at his school. He was himself then arrested the next year and jailed for Six months.
‘The trial was short; the verdict delivered : Duchâtelet received three months… Évariste was condemned to six. He had spent three months in preventative detention and on the eve of his birthday he learnt that he still had twice that to do. Happy birthday…..Instead of a cake he was only allowed the usual rations : a jug of water from the river Seine, dry bread and some rotten vegetables.’***
And then finally the culminating moment of his all too short life, the duel, we know that Évariste had been left for dead but not much else and that he was discovered and died some hours later, Désérable chooses to present this as an affair of love and honour.
‘Let it be said, this was no plot, but an affair of the heart that was the cause of the duel, a quarrel of no importance as were so many, as there still are (except that today they’re not resolved by pistols at dawn: we send deadly tweets, insult each other on Facebook, release sex tapes, in short everything is handled on line).’***
An interesting book to read, keep Wikipedia available to be able to look up the different moments in French history, and no, Louis Philippe was not only a style of furniture!
First published in French as Évariste by Gallimard in 2015