The Story of Blanche and Marie by Per Olov Enquist, trs Tiina Nunnally

Marie Curie and the queen of hysterics
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

'Love cannot be explained. But what would we be if we didn't try?" Blanche Wittmann wrote these two sentences five times, in more or less the same wording, in notebooks that were not to be discovered until 25 years after her death, encased in a brown folder labelled BOOK OF QUESTIONS. There were three of them, the Yellow, the Black and the Red. They form the basis for Per Olov Enquist's mesmerising re-creation of two intertwined lives. What love and what questions! Fiction could not invent anything more extraordinary.

Blanche's first true love was Professor Charcot, the mentor of Freud. Along with 6,000 or so other women Blanche was an inmate of the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, where Charcot worked and developed theory and practice. He was convinced that these women were far from universally incurable; hysteria surely operated according to distinct laws which, if understood, could be counteracted, to the improvement if not the total cure of the sufferer. So receptive was Blanche to Charcot's powers that she became his principal demonstrator, known as "The Queen of Hysterics". A painting, by André Brouillet, of her swooning under his benign authority appears on the jacket of the novel - fittingly, for the inextricability of the erotic from all areas of life is a dominant theme. Charcot comes across appealingly, a worthy heir of the Enlightenment, a dedicated alleviator of misery, and a great lover of animals. Yet Blanche Wittmann killed him. Or so she claimed.

"Sometimes when I was praised during my performances at Salpêtrière Hospital," she wrote, "they would use the term 'luminescent' about the impression that I made. Little did I know back then that this word... would return in the world of physics and science, where I would now make my contribution by explaining the connection between radium, death, art, and love."

She may not have managed quite that. But two years after Charcot's death in 1893 she went to work for Marie Curie, and by her side she would die in 1913. She assisted that infinitely demanding work with pitchblende which Marie carried out with her scientist husband, Pierre, was with her for their discovery of polonium and radium, and for Pierre's tragic death in a street-accident in 1906, three years after he and Marie had shared the Nobel Prize for Physics. Blanche sustained Marie through her period of grief-stricken withdrawal, and was her confidante when in 1911 she won a second Nobel Prize (for chemistry) while enveloped in a sex scandal. Blanche shared Marie's awed delight in the shimmering blue of radiation; it was like the sea turning into a living animal, it partook of that luminescence that had surrounded her in the Charcot years. "Radiation," she wrote in her note-book, "is making my body disintegrate..." Over-familiarity with pitchblende resulted in terrible lesions, necessitating amputations of her left arm and both her legs. At her death, she was, says Enquist, "a sort of torso, though with a head".

Enquist refers, without naming it, to a remarkable earlier book of his, Downfall (1985) where he examined the capacity for love in real-life cases of people marginalised by deficiencies and abnormalities. Its most memorable character is Pasqual Pinon, a Mexican "freak" with a woman's head erupting from his forehead, a head which knew feelings and thoughts - and in fact survived "her" owner by eight minutes. Pinon is evoked here because, like him, the eponymous subjects of this book depart from norms, and in so doing, both threaten and cast light on us of the majority.

Blanche, from a dysfunctional background and classified insane, recovers her mental health only to end her days an anomaly in a wooden box-cart. Yet her questions show up the inadequacies of so many of the criteria we use for judgement of ourselves. Marie Curie - Manya Sklodowska, denied higher education in her native Poland, yet, in France, the Sorbonne's first woman teacher - is cleverer than most of us can conceive of being. Yet she too, in her tensions between intellectual quest and physical and emotional needs, aids our perspectives.

Three years after Pierre's death Marie fell in love with a married physicist, Paul Langevin. The public's discovery of their relationship brought her an opprobrium that was never altogether to lift. She was vilified as a foreigner, and her achievements were ignored. But she had only turned out, like Charcot's hysterics, like her own pitchblende, to be subject to laws as yet not fully acknowledged. Enquist questions and probes throughout as insistently as his protagonists. Such is his practice anyway; he is one of the contemporary novel's greatest human investigators.