Sunday, February 08, 2015

THE GODDESS OF SMALL VICTORIES






The Goddess of Small Victories, Yannik Grannec, Other Press, 2014 (translated from the French by Willard Wood), 464 pp



Another great read for The Tiny Book Club! What is it like to be the wife of a genius? Not that great.

Adele Porkert was working at a cabaret and living with her parents in Vienna. In 1928, she was beautiful and in her early 20s. Early one morning walking home from work she noticed a man walking slowly on the other side of the street. Alarmed because of rumors about gangs that snatched young women from the streets and sold them to brothels in Berlin, she bolted for her door.

But eventually, after seeing the same man at that same time and place for over two weeks, she decided he was harmless and became curious. Then one night he appeared with some friends at the cabaret. Adele met Kurt Godel, who was destined to become one of the most renowned mathematicians in the world. She finds him good looking and intriguing, so she seduces him and becomes his lover. Little does she know she has attached herself to a troubled genius. This is a fictional account of the marriage between them.

Yannick Grannec is French, this is her first novel, and she calls herself a math enthusiast. Researching Godel's life out of curiosity, she came across some scanty information about his wife and wanted to know how a woman could have loved such a difficult (paranoid, anorectic, depressed) man for fifty years. In an interview with her publisher she gives an account of writing the novel and the challenges she faced rendering concepts of advanced mathematical theories into simple words. 

The book is a fascinating study of love, devotion, and the painful interaction of two individuals driven from their beloved Vienna by Hitler's antisemitism and forced to assimilate into academic life in Princeton, NJ. Yes, my home town!

I grew up always aware of Princeton University, the Institute for Advanced Study (where Godel researched and taught) and the high intellectual status of my town. Einstein, Oppenheimer, Godel, and many others of genius proportions, all featured in the novel, lived and taught there, contributing to a sort of Golden Age of science in America in the 1940s and 1950s, though that was tarnished by the atom bomb. It was a time and place where great brains developed the foundations of the modern world as we know it in all its technical wonders as well as horrors.

It was not a good time for women. Adele was not lacking in intelligence and was well endowed with energy and courage. She poured all of that into Kurt and grew old, fat, tired, and discouraged. A woman today has to wonder how she could have been so devoted to a man whose mental difficulties overtook him as his genius burned away. (It is a well documented fact that most math geniuses burn out early.) Godel became more and more eccentric, more of a hypochondriac, subject to depression and he refused to eat. 

Because of a lack of biographical data about Adele, we will never really know but Yannick Grannec supposed a probable story of a relationship based on love, commitment, and mutual admiration even as these two drove each other to distraction. They are portrayed as a couple who needed each other, he for Adele's caring and protection, she for the fascination of his esoteric mind. Would they have been happier if they had parted? They never did until Godel died and then Adele was devastated. She lived on still caring for his destiny and proper place in the world.

I found the novel believable, entertaining, and informative. I loved that she called Adele a goddess. Now I need to find and read about some female geniuses and the men who took care of them.

2 comments:

  1. I like the topic. I think I would enjoy this one; troubled genius is a fascination of mine. :-)

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