Lettres brûlées / Burned Letters

Translated from the French by Javier Arango

Translator’s Note: Michèle Audin is a mathematician, author, and member of the literary group known as Oulipo, which has included writers such as Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec. Since 1960, Oulipo authors have sought to explore connections between literary form and content by imposing structural and stylistic constraints on their writing, resulting in playfully experimental language-games and boundary-pushing works. In this text, Audin, who is the biographer of mathematician and women’s rights activist Sofia Kovalevskaya, draws upon her own interest in the history of mathematics while honoring the Oulipean tradition, blending elements of fiction and non-fiction throughout. In true Oulipean fashion, “Burned Letters” contains a lipogram, a section written entirely without the letter “e”, evoking Perec’s A Void, which employs the same technique (can you find it?). The result is a joyful and ingenious exercise in literary imagination. Audin writes: “The historical context comes from my book Remembering Sofya Kovalevskaya (Springer 2011, for the English translation) and Reinhard Bolling’s article 'Deine Sonia: a reading from a burned letter' (in Math. Intelligencer in 1992). The novelistic part is inspired by the 'story of the man who bought the vase of the passion' in Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec, and by A Void, also by Georges Perec.”


Story of the burned letters

February 1891. Berlin. Learning of Sofia Kovalevskaya’s death, the mathematician Karl Weierstrass burns all the letters that she has sent him. This could be the end of a novel, a 19th century novel: after the death of the young heroine from a lung illness, the old mathematician throwing into the fire the letters from his favorite disciple, lost forever…

We are left with his own letters. Historians are immensely frustrated by this. But it’s not over yet. There appears a 20th century novel, in which a historian discovers one of these coveted letters that had disappeared forever.

January 1990. Djursholm. Just after the destruction of the Berlin wall, a historian from what is still East Germany can finally go to Sweden. He looks through the archives left behind by Sofia Kovalevskaya. He does not have much time; he reads, digs around, searches, copies. He recounts:

“It was late that afternoon. It was the second day of my stay. I got ready to examine a box containing Kovalevskaya’s posthumous papers. […] illuminated by the faint glow of the desk lamp.”

This “faint glow” contributes to the novelistic effect of the account… But it’s not just a literary effect: we are in Sweden, in January and at the end of the afternoon!

“I discovered, to my great surprise, a text filled with crossed-out words and phrases, and in places, notes in a scribbled hand that resembled Sonya’s own. As incredible as this seemed, it turned out that it was a page from a draft of a letter that Kovalevskaya planned to send to Weierstrass.”

The collective despair of all historians at the fact that the father of modern analysis burned his papers becomes the joy of the historian who finds this unexpected evidence, undoubtedly the only thing that survived the destruction. More and more excited, the historian finds other pages of the draft; he deciphers them… The dead pages, buried in the posthumous box, palpitate and come back to life under his gaze. Sofia’s style, her broken German, incorrect and delightful, her markings, her liveliness… and, as a cherry on the cake, the letter recounts an episode unknown to her biographers. Sophie arrives to Stockholm– the draft contains no indication of the date but, yes, she is referring to her arrival to Stockholm in November of 1883 to take up the position of Privatdozent she has just received– by boat. The boat arrives ahead of schedule, so nobody is waiting for her, she who will be received like a princess. Then another traveler, who imagines that she is a young governess from abroad, takes charge of her and finds her a hotel in a working-class neighborhood…

Why was this draft not destroyed? How did it remain among Sofia’s belongings for more than seven years of her life? How did it end up in a box of posthumous papers, which could not have been the result of Sofia’s disorder? How could it be that nobody had opened this box? We will undoubtedly never know.


A novelist might find something in this story that could spark her imagination.

Story of the man who bought a notebook full of equations

Ernest Glockenspiel was the victim of a scam, which became as well-known as the incident of the forged letters that Vrain-Lucas sold to Michel Chasles: two inspired swindlers sold him, in 1961, a letter from Sofia Kovalevskaya to Weierstrass.

Born in 1896 in Ulverston (Lancashire), Ernest Glockenspiel exiled himself at a very young age to take a position at a college in Massachusetts. At the beginning of the 1950s, he published a monumental biography, which is still authoritative, of the so-called father of modern analysis, the German mathematician Karl Weierstrass. This historian, meticulous, almost obsessive, never married, was renowned for his erudition, as much in mathematics as in history, for his extensive knowledge of the German language and culture, remarkable in an American academic of his century, for the precision with which he cited his sources, and for the prudence of his interpretations. Skepticism and passion are the two characteristic traits of historians. Skepticism led him to collect evidence of the authenticity of the accounts and judgements of others. Which still did not prevent his passion from leading him to an unbounded credulity.

As is often the case, he became deeply enamored with the protagonists of his work, with Weierstrass himself, but especially with the famous Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya.

One day in April, 1961, an Italian student came to see Glockenspiel in his office. He introduced himself under the name Corti, said he had taken the course “Theta Functions in Europe around 1880” taught by Glockenspiel the year before, and explained that he shared an apartment with a sociology student, a Swede, who had left unexpectedly, of course leaving his rent to be paid, forgetting only some bundles of old papers. Corti wished to pay off some of his debt and asked the historian if he’d be willing to examine the Swede’s papers and tell him if they had any monetary value. Glockenspiel, who did not expect much from these old things, accepted to look them over when he heard that the manuscripts were written in Russian and German. He asked Corti to show him the documents. The young Italian came back the next day with a cardboard folder covered in worn black cloth. Glockenspiel untied the ribbon that held the folder shut, and glimpsed a bundle of manuscripts in Russian. Trembling, he realized that the back of one of the pages was covered with mathematical formulas written in a small, crammed hand. The ecstasy of discovery took hold of him. He could already see himself publishing “An Unknown Manuscript by Kovalevskaya.”

He offered to pay Corti two months’ rent to let him keep the folder, which the young man accepted. Glockenspiel, who had already decided to track down the Swede, contacted a private detective whose address he had just found on a flyer dropped opportunely in his letter box. The detective, one Zambono Salami, did not delay in informing him of the Swede’s new address, and telling him that he worked at a library in New York. Glockenspiel went to find him one evening as he was leaving work, talked to him about the manuscripts and asked him where he had found them. The man proposed to Glockenspiel that they go chat in a quieter place. There, he spoke of papers that had belonged to his grandfather, who had been a gardener in Stockholm. The origin of the papers was no longer in doubt to Glockenspiel. And so he began to dream about what the notebook in question might be.

He had written numerous pages about Weierstrass’s lost manuscripts himself. He had spent long winter days, illuminated by the faint glow of a desk lamp, in the archives, and had grown certain that no unknown document would be found. As for the papers of Kovalevskaya, whom the historian thought of as Sonja, she was so disorganized and bohemian, had lived in so many furnished flats here and there, that one might well find a letter; in fact, they were found regularly. None of her letters to Weierstrass though, all of which he had burned carefully and methodically when he had learned of the death of his most gifted student, his little Sonja; but who knows, perhaps one day someone might unearth the notebook that Weierstrass had entrusted to her and which had never been found.

And what if she had never really lost the notebook, what if it had always remained amidst her clutter so that even she thought it to be lost? He also saw himself publishing “The Weierstrass Notebook lost by Kovalevskaya, critical edition by E. Glockenspiel.” Without even seeing it, he asked if the notebook was for sale. The man wanted 20,000 dollars. If this was really the notebook, and Glockenspiel no longer had any doubt that it was, it was a small price to pay.


So, straightaway, Glock runs to that library in Manhattan, at which said gallant individual works. Glock finds a blond city-boy smoking a cigarillo, who talks a mighty bad Anglish, and who most importantly, is carrying a bulky cardboard box, which, as is said to Glock, was found in a grand park, in a rich man’s backyard in Stockholm, or actually in Djursholm, not far. His grandpa, a custodian, as Glock is told, dug, ran plows, laid irrigation, in short, was a guardian of said grounds. On a particular day, his grandpa found a box. In which, among such an outlandish potpourri, was a pair of folios and a card in handwriting. It’s all still at my disposal, says that man. It’s fascinating.

That night, Glock could not nod off. Glock had to know about that box, had to look through it, and for that, Glock had to buy it. So, a pair of days forward, by a pond in a big public park, with many carp a-laughing and many ducks a-quacking, Glock paid. Not millions, but just upwards of four bars, in cost of gold, to that guy smoking a cigarillo, who, having put on a cardigan (all in all, March was coming to a finish, it was cold), was carrying that carboard box in a bulky rucksack. Glock paid his cash, took his box, instantly his own box, which slid into his gigantic bag; pays his dollars to that unknown gallant man, who, tipping his Panama hat, smiling mockingly, bows, walks out of that grand park, only to board, not a Hispano-Suiza as you might think, but a black and gold urban taxi, which was cruising around that vicinity.

All this had an air of normality. So Glock, happy but palpitating with a touch of agitation, unpacks his loot. Glock first saw a black folio of Karl W.’s, a drawing, a pair of straight short horizontals, plus a long orthogonal, just as you’d think, but also six fractions, long calculations, a boundary formula, and functions and solutions, thus, math. Aha, roars Glock! Glock saw a big chunk of manuscript that was poorly known– but not unknown– from Sonya’s instructor.

Thus, as an apricot on a baba au rhum, at bottom of his box, Glock finds a draft of a card. Illumination! You could say Glock is basking in triumph right about now. So Glock starts to study it. Glock knows it is a draft of a card, a draft that Sonja forgot in back of a manuscript that was also lost. Glock scans it, knowing in all his passion, thinking it is an awfully long card, by God…

… but which, in its conclusion, would only mock Glock!


The end of the letter was nearly illegible but he managed to decipher it: “I hope that your health is better and that you are as happy to receive this letter as the gullible Glockenspiel is to have bought it.”

The staging here was less sophisticated than that which, a century earlier, had led James Sherwood to buy the Vase of the Passion, but it’s also true that the sum in play was smaller, more suited to the means of an academic. The man who had said his name was Corti had in fact attended some lectures of Glockenspiel’s course– but no student by that name had ever enrolled. Nothing more was ever known of the “Swede,” who had only filled in for a few days, under his alias, at the library where Glockenspiel had met him. The preparatory work had not been too complicated; the two accomplices (it was the so-called Corti himself, who, with a bit of makeup, had played the role of Detective Salami) had transcribed one of Weierstrass’s lessons from a lithograph, and imitated Kovalevskaya’s handwriting and German syntax, without much creativity as to the content, since the mathematician’s life was too well-known to merit inventing a new episode. The most difficult part had been the ageing of Weierstrass’s notebook and of Kovalevskaya’s letter, for which they had to use, along with a hammer, several tins of tea leaves.