In far too many historical novels, the trappings of the period hang like heavy, lead-lined drapes. We look at them, but not past them to the ruling passions and ideas that ought to drive the tale. The Swedish writer Per Olov Enquist tears down those curtains of plush and gilt to give us the illusion of an emotionally naked past.
Enquist writes dramatic fiction, not pseudo-documentary, but he does so with a stripped-down empathy that clears the cobwebs from his genre. In The Visit of the Royal Physician, winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2003, he lent a breath-catching intimacy to the travails of a wayward English princess and her radical lover in 18th-century Denmark. His latest novel unveils a saint of modern science, Marie Sklodowska Curie, to reveal the blood and tears that helped lay the mental foundations of our world.
"Blanche" in his story is Blanche Wittman, confined as a traumatised teenager to the "dark castle" of La Salpêtrière hospital in the Paris of 1878. Over the next 15 years, her publicly displayed trances and fugues as the "queen of hysterics" make her a jewel in the clinical crown of Jean Martin Charcot, the star physician whose theories on the relationship of memory, mind and body helped push an Austrian assistant named Sigmund Freud (a coolly observed bit-player here) down his revolutionary road. For Enquist, Blanche and Charcot - half-mutually deceiving lovers, half-actress and manager - reinforce each other's dreams and delusions in the great 19th-century quest to "map the dark and unknown continent of Woman". And, not surprisingly, her "hysteria" vanishes with her medical Svengali's death.
In the novel, told in fragmentary flashbacks by a narrator groping after truth, Blanche jumps out of this psychiatric crucible and into a scientific fire. Enquist's version has her collaborate with Marie Curie on the decisive breakthroughs in the discovery of radium, and the investigations into radioactivity, achieved by the Polish immigrant physicist and her husband, Pierre. Once more a partner-victim in the laboratories where modern thought takes shape, Blanche loses limb after limb to the toxic effects of radium, that "blue light of the new century". Eventually, she assumes the post of Marie's cherished confidante. Then, after Pierre's death, the hallowed Mme Curie wrecks her reputation via a scandalous affair in 1910 with her married colleague, Paul Langevin.
As before, Enquist tells it fast, and tells it slant (aided again by his excellent translator, Tiina Nunnally). His narrator cuts nimbly between Blanche's exposure to the charismatic rays of Charcot and Curie, with each pivotal scene lit by a radium glow of striking gesture and dialogue. This is intellectual history illuminated by bolts of Expressionist lightning: not for nothing does Strindberg, as well as Freud, take a brief bow.
The fate of dismembered, and unremembered, Blanche suggests that science has built its palaces over the forgotten bones of its humble helpers - especially of women. This feminist strain deepens with Marie's disgrace at the hands of a chauvinistic press, "an animal in a hostile jungle", and her flight to seek refuge among militant Suffragettes in London.
Yet Blanche throws herself, body and soul, into her sacrificial roles in the "sullied history of modernity", and adores her two protectors-cum-tormentors. Enquist restores love - but a dangerous love - to the heart of scientific endeavour: the spirit in its study, and the ghost in its machine. "How can we find connections," asks his Blanche in a notebook, "if not through love?" Hollywood-style yarns of love in the lab (or on the couch) generally offer more bathos than pathos. Swiftly, even savagely, Enquist lifts Blanche and Marie from victimhood through tragedy and into a kind of staccato exultation.