Zazie

My favorite French novel is “Zazie dans le métro”, by Raymond Queneau. I won’t go into detailed literary criticism to explain why, though the amazing inventivity of the language is one reason, but mention only that the fact that Queneau is well-known to have had a lively interest in mathematics is certainly another factor (there are not many mathematical traces in this book, though there is a very nice sentence, which I can’t locate at the moment, which mixes elliptic, parabolic and hyperbolic…).

Parenthetically, Queneau’s interest was shared by all the writers of the OULIPO group, the best known of whom is probably G. Perec. Perec is the author of the book-without-e “La disparition”, but he also wrote an absolutely hilarious pastiche of a scientific paper (not a mathematical one) entitled Cantratrix Sopranica L.” (which you really should read if you have never seen it; it’s in English). Even the bibliography is a jewel, as shown by the citation of a paper by “Einstein, Zweistein, Dreistein, Vierstein et Saint Pierre”. Note that this mathematical interest actually makes plausible the claim (which I have just seen on the web) that Grothendieck played a small role in L. Malle’s film version of “Zazie…”.

Coming back to “Zazie…”, when, to celebrate a friend’s PhD defense in Orsay in 1998, I decided to write a short story with the intention of cramming it with as many mathematical terms as I could in a non-professional context, I chose to imitate Queneau’s masterpiece, and make use of his characters Zazie, of the famously free vocabulary, and her uncle Gabriel, amateur of “sirop de grenadine” and, in the evening, dancer in a transvestite cabaret in Paris.

The resulting text is here; I will leave it as an exercise to find all the hidden mathematical terminology. The counts you may reach might not be the same as mine (which I will include in a follow-up after re-reading the text carefully, since I don’t remember it…). For instance, I don’t think I knew that “net” was a terme de métier when I wrote this text, and other instances yet unknown to me might lurk in it. As a teaser, I will mention “Eh quoi, si on élit P. Tique…”, which really must be read “Équation elliptique” (elliptic equation), and “Et les uns poussaient en avant, et les autres tiraient en arrière” (and some pushed forward, and some pulled back), which should be self-explanatory.

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Kowalski

I am a professor of mathematics at ETH Zürich since 2008.

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