Experiments in Love

Reviewed by Ruth Franklin
Sunday, August 13, 2006


A Novel

By Per Olov Enquist

Translated from the Swedish by Tiina Nunnally

Overlook. 218 pp. $24.95

Women's intellectual history is rich in ironies, but this is a particularly strange one: In Paris, at the turn of the 20th century, a visionary Polish scientist had just discovered a peculiar new radioactive substance, for which she became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. Her laboratory assistant was a former inmate of the city's infamous Salpêtrière Hospital -- the star subject of some of the most ignorant experiments ever performed on women in the name of science, conducted by male doctors seeking the cause and cure for hysteria.

The first woman, of course, was Marie Curie. What we know about the second, whose name was Blanche Wittman, occupies -- in the words of Swedish playwright, poet and novelist Per Olov Enquist -- just "a paragraph in the history of medicine." She was briefly famous as the object of neurologist J.M. Charcot's demonstrations of how pressure points on the female body could be manipulated to produce twitching, melancholia, paralysis, even -- he claimed -- love. (A painting that depicts her fainting into an assistant's arms as the doctor looks on reportedly hung in Freud's London office.) Her second career as Curie's helper came to a ghastly coda: Radiation damage forced her to undergo the amputations of both legs and one arm.

The Book About Blanche and Marie , Enquist's engrossing but ultimately puzzling novel, seeks to resuscitate Blanche as an intellectual force. Among her papers, we learn, was found a folder marked "Amor Omnia Vincit" -- love conquers all -- with three notebooks inside. Blanche, as Enquist would have it, was carrying out a semi-scientific study of her own, an investigation into the nature of love. The novel is loosely structured around these "found" notebooks, imagining an apparently fictional relationship between Blanche and Charcot as a counterpoint to a tragic (and true) romantic episode in Curie's life: After the death of Pierre Curie, Marie had an affair with Paul Langevin, another scientist, which ended in humiliation when love letters she had written urging him to leave his wife were published in the newspaper. As a result, the Nobel academy asked her to decline her second prize for chemistry, which it had just awarded her, but Curie refused, defiantly appearing in Stockholm to accept the prize amid cries of scandal.

Are human beings nothing more than machines, responding in predictable ways to anyone who pushes the right buttons? Is love just a " neurological fit with catatonic elements " or a force as strong as the earth's magnetic field? These are the questions at the heart of Enquist's investigation, and he often manages to exploit the full potential of his rich material: Blanche, reduced to a torso, writing her memoirs with her one remaining hand; Marie, maintaining her dignity even as the Nobel Committee tries to retract the second prize following her disgrace; Charcot as a young man entering Salpêtrière, then the world's most important center for neurological research, and finding it a "chamber of horrors."

Individual episodes here have a dream-like resonance. Marie, falling in love, recalls sledding as a child in Poland: She is at the top of a hill, "a little frightened, in the breathless sort of way that she loved. They were calling her from the bottom of the slope; invisible voices from the foot of the cloud: Come on, Marie! She knew that if she went she would feel terrified, and free. So she took a deep breath. Marie! Marie! And she took off." But the novel gets dragged down by its own weightiness, especially as it insists repeatedly on radium as a rather obvious nexus of love and death. Just before they make love for the first time, Paul Langevin thinks, "Marie, the one who was most forbidden and thus mortally threatening, whom he loved, though he had always known that he who touches Marie touches death , and that's why she possessed this insane allure."

But Enquist never explains what, other than her deformity, makes Blanche remarkable; her pronouncements tend to be either tendentious or melodramatic, and so the device of framing the narrative around her notebooks seems ill considered. The book purports to be "about Blanche and Marie," but Marie is so much more fully imagined that she hijacks the novel whenever she appears.

The Book About Blanche and Marie offers a sort of feminist revisionism, restoring the forgotten figure of Blanche to her rightful place and insisting that Marie's passion is as valid as her work. But I couldn't help feeling a little sorry for Marie as her affair of the heart took on ridiculous proportions, with her contribution to science diminished to "that deadly blue light." ·

Ruth Franklin, a senior editor at the New Republic, is writing a book about the literature of the Holocaust.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company