This is the unusual story of Marie Curie and Blanche Wittman; two extraordinary women caught between the ordered mathematics of science and the symbolic alchemy of love. The novel deals with amputated emotions, the desire for detachment and its antithesis; a longing for reconnection. Set during the dawn of a new century; Enquist explores the questioning of the rational ‘Enlightenment’ period which nurtured cut and dry methods of modern science and the unfathomable, fledgling studies of psychology.
In the heart of this revolution, the arcane gods of alchemy clashed with the new generation of scientific thinkers who championed the sloughing off of Old-World superstitions to make way for solid fact. Amongst this tumult, Enquist recognises Wittman and Curie as major players and revolutionaries as well as victims of the struggle between the increasingly masculine world they inhabited and their feminine needs.
“The word ‘medicine’, Charcot told her, ‘comes from Medea, the mother of Witchcraft.”
“Does that mean you are a magician?” she asked.
“No”, he said, “I am a prisoner of reason, with my feet buried deeply in the mub from which magic is composed.”
At the crux of this strange narrative lies the eternal battle between the rational senses and the repressed, animal psyche. Enquist builds a masterful framework based on these opposing principles on which to hang and analyse the passions, obsessions and martyred freedom of these women. The result is that he draws many fine connections between the frustrating incompatibility of what we are, and what the world expects us to be.
Inspired by Wittman’s diaries, Enquist finds ways to weave her erratic accounts with historical documents of that time. The story itself is divided into three colours; red, black and yellow which represent the colours of the three diaries Wittman used to record her thoughts.
To begin with, I found Wittman’s personal history infinitely more fascinating than Curie’s; purely because of the sheer bloody-mindedness of her devotion for a science that she was not only a guinea-pig of, but later to which she was a major scientific contributor. While Curie is meted as one of those rare female geniuses that made science her life; Wittman emerges as a little short of a saint, who surrendered her body piecemeal to that wondrous and deadly discovery known today as radium.
At the beginning of the story we are introduced to Wittman in the final stages of her life. She is quite literally only half the woman she once was, having lost three limbs to the radium research that eventually killed her. As an amputee riddled with tumours, she dedicates the rest of her life to recording her experiences as an inmate of the mental institution at Saltpetriere and later as research assistant to the Curie’s. Already a celebrity when she first met the Curie’s, Wittman was famous for her performance of hysterical séances conducted by Prof. Charcot, who later became her lover.
“If you share your darkness with the man you love, sometimes a light appears so strong that it kills.”
Wittman is presented as a woman riddled by obsessions so severe that they manifest in the form of her withering limbs, but Marie Curie is not immune to this form of hysteria. In the final chapters of his book Enquist shows us an alternative Curie; one stripped of that infallible, sterile image that we associate with the founder of radium. We meet a Marie restored to femininity, a Marie who has had been deserted in the wilderness of her deepest sexual desires without a compass to guide her. Enquist’s Curie is so far from the persona we are familiar with, that the tale of forbidden love that ensues serves as a deeply embarrassing and candid account of an average woman’s fall from grace.
The ways in which ‘love’ manifests throughout the novel resembles the chemical transmutations that the Curie’s concoct for their radium research. Science itself becomes a metaphoric element that Enquist shows as having transfused into the lives of these two historic women.
Radium, the cause of Blanche Wittman and later Marie Curie’s death is used as a clever device to represent the toxic, cancerous quality of love.
“He is reposing, secure and painless like a cancerous tumour of love, in her life.”
The luminescence and radiation of unbearable desire is seen as the true culprit in the demise of the women. Enquist takes ‘hysteria’ (a psychological condition synonymous with feminine weakness) and turns it into the guiding light. The phosphorus burn of love remains ever elusive, as neither woman has sufficient words to describe it in the various forms it takes. In conclusion, the formulaic sum of its parts are far too dispersed making them irreconcilable.
DEATH, LOVE and SCIENCE
Time and time again we see Wittman trying to rationalise ‘love’ through the use of scientific methods of questioning, however this falls apart at the seams as the story verges on a narrative hysteria of sorts. The overuse of exclamation marks indicates over excitement that is associated with Wittman’s previous occupation at the mental institute, where she would stimulate bouts of hysteria with the aid of hypnotism. The use of the three colours red, black and yellow are reminiscent of the ancient method of classifying different physical maladies (research). Enquist also uses her amputations to refer to many different folktales where this takes place. I was surprised and moved at the reference to the Danish storyteller Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of the girl with the red shoes, as it beautifully mirrors the moral tale of the price one pays for one’s vanities and obsessions.
I give this 4/5 stars.
- Happy Birthday, Madame Curie! (mohighlibrary.wordpress.com)
- This Day in History, Dec. 21: Pierre and Marie Curie Discover Radium (todayifoundout.com)
- Curie as Celebrity (americanscientist.org)