Monday, 22 April 2013

Boken om Blanche och Marie / The Story of Blanche and Marie av Per Olov Enquist (2.5/5)

First published: 2004
Original title:
Boken om Blanche och Marie

Original language: Swedish
Translation to English by:
Tiina Nunnally
Page count: 258

The back says: In 1878, Blanche Wittman was committed to Salpetriere Hospital as a hysteric and placed in the care of the famous M. Charcot, who regularly displayed her, in a cataleptic state, before a public audience. Over time, the nature of her participation in these demonstrations changed; she graduated from patient to assistant and on leaving the hospital, was hired by Marie Curie to work in her Paris laboratory. On 17 February 1898, radium was discovered and Blanche's exposure to it necessitated the amputation of all her limbs, save one. As for Marie, her husband and collaborator Pierre was weakened by illness and subsequently killed having wandered in front of an oncoming horse and cart. Following this, she embarked on an ill-fated love affair, which, in 1911, almost cost her the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Using Blanche's notebooks - 'The Book of Questions' - Enquist deftly weaves fact and fiction in a powerful tale of scientific discovery, death, art love and the extraordinary relationship of two remarkable women at the dawn of a century of tremendous change. The Story of Blanche and Marie was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

I say: I read this in Swedish for uni, but would have gotten around to reading it eventually as I’ve seen the title quite a few times. However, I’m not sure I would have finished it if it weren’t for the fact that we’re discussing it tomorrow.

It just didn’t grip me at all.

At the moment we are discussing faction (novels that are a combination of facts and fiction) and this is a typical factional novel. The narrator tells us that he has found Blanche’s notebooks about love, and then proceeds to retell her story with quotes and rather annoying comments of his own. I’d never heard of Blanche, but of course knew who Marie Curie was, and at first I thought this was going to be an interesting read, but it turned out to be surprisingly boring and I am going to blame it all on the writing because both women lived very fascinating lives - Marie won the Nobel Prize twice and Blanche went from being a ‘hysteric’ treated by J. M. Charcot to working for Curie and ended up losing all of her limbs bar her right arm (which is how she kept her diaries) - but Enquist’s writing was so disjointed and dreary it made them both seem uninteresting.

Which is a feat in itself.

The narrator kept harping on about the notebooks and how Blanche was searching for the meaning of love, and then inserted Marie’s life and affair and now she’s in England hiding with the suffragettes in London, and here is Blanche at the hospital being hypnotised, and now a quote from Einstein about Marie, and oh dear Freud apparently stole Charcot’s work, and here’s Blanche left alone in a wooden box on the floor...

It was all just too much for me.

Having said that I did learn a bit more about Curie and Charcot and the historical facts were interesting; it was the fictional parts and the presentation I had a problem with.

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