In Andrè Brouillet's famous painting of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot's lecture on female hysteria, a woman is draped over Charcot's assistant's arm. She is placid and completely sensual in the cold room; her dress has fallen from her shoulders and a nurse reaches out to help her as she swoons. This woman is Blanche Wittman, the favorite hysteria patient of Charcot, the head of the women's psychiatric hospital. Brouillet's painting was the only existing image of Blanche Wittman until Per Olov Enquist's new novel, The Book About Blanche and Marie. Marie Curie, the two-time Nobel Prize winner and scientist who hired Blanche to work in her laboratory, supplies the other half of the title. Elegantly translated by Tiina Nunnally, the book starts at the periphery of the peculiar friendship between these two astonishing women and spirals slowly inward, layering delicate strands of fact and narrative.
The Book about Blanche and Marie is structured around Blanche's journal, which she calls “The Book of Questions.” Blanche is a triple amputee as a result of her years of work with radium in the Curie laboratory, and writes in her journal with her remaining hand. She focuses on one question in particular: What is Love? By examining her tumultuous relationship with Charcot and her impressions of Marie's own troubled romantic history, Blanche tries to uncover an answer. While Blanche admits that “love is not something a person can understand,” she is convinced that the investigation is what keeps her alive.
Science and love overlap continually in this quiet, probing novel. Blanche compares her inquiry with Marie's own study of a substance called pitchblende, in which she first discovers radium. Though seemingly simplistic, the comparison is not too far off. In the world of Blanche and Marie, radium and love have the ability to elucidate and empower as well as to stifle and maim. Blanche and Marie end up making great sacrifices for both.
Pre-surgery, Blanche's body is an object of both scientific research and physical desire for Charcot. When an ailing Charcot is forced to admit that his theories of female hysteria are misguided, Blanche remains at his side out of a combination of love and professional duty. She takes great pleasure in easing the pain of Charcot's fallen reputation and failing body. Blanche also acts as a confidante for Marie when, after her husband and partner Pierre's death, Marie begins an affair with the married physicist Paul Langevin. The scandal breaks just as Marie is awarded her second Nobel Prize for Chemistry. In the midst of her crumbling love affair she is asked to forfeit her award, but refuses to do so. Added to her personal and professional humiliation, Marie, like Blanche, suffers the physical consequences of her work: she develops painful ulcers and ultimately dies of complications resulting from her exposure to radiation.
Throughout the novel, Enquist captures the possibility and the restlessness of an uncharted century. Charcot's student Sigmund Freud, August Strindberg, and Jane Avril are some of the historical figures who make appearances. But Enquist is more than a historical novelist: he is a biased and enraptured observer. He often includes personal reflections on his characters, breaking into his own family history, and at one point even confessing a strange regret that Blanche was not Swedish. He says of Blanche, “If we look at her with rational eyes she is incomprehensible. But don't do that!” The book constantly appeals to the irrational reader, a reader who can get caught up in the knots of storyline, the interjections of the author, the looping repeated passages; one who revels in the silences of history rather than one who craves the clarity of facts.
In his austere but mesmerizing novel, Enquist reminds us that it is the messy and often incomplete search for truth that is to be valued above all else. As Blanche writes late in her journal, “I think if we put all of our loves together, I mean my loves and Marie's, then an image of life itself would emerge, in the spaces in between.” This is precisely what Enquist has done in The Book about Blanche and Marie, and it is a dim, but radiant, image that emerges.
Diana Thow lives in California and will be attending University of Iowa's MFA in Translation program in the fall.