The Goddess of Small Victories
by Yannick Grannec
Translated by Willard Wood
Other Press, 2014
$26.95, 464 pages
Reviewed by Daniel P. Haeusser
In 1931, soon after finishing his doctorate at the University of Vienna, mathematician Kurt Gödel published his incompleteness theorems that demonstrate that a closed system of axioms cannot be used to demonstrate its own consistency. The broad themes and implications of Gödel’s work are popularly known in the foundation of Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Recently, in La Déesse des petites victoires (The Goddess of Small Victories), Yannick Grannec approaches the emotions and personal events around Gödel’s life and achievements through the point of view of his wife, Adele.
Like many brilliant minds, Kurt Gödel’s intellectual capabilities came at the cost of social awkwardness and eccentricities that built over time into debilitative paranoia, malnourishment, and depression. After encountering brief mentions of Gödel’s wife in biographies on the mathematician, Grannec envisioned an exploration of what devoted married to such a difficult, prominent man would entail. What role could this woman have played, relegated in histories to a role of mere housewife, yet in a place as key support for both her husband and their close friend Albert Einstein during the pivotal decades of the 1940s and 1950s?
Translated from the French by Willard Wood, Grannec’s debut novel succeeds in its historic, though speculative, portrait of Adele Gödel. The Goddess of Small Victories rests grounded in a strong sense of setting, from the period following the collapse of Austria-Hungary following World War I to the annexation of Austria by Germany and the Gödel’s departure from their Nazi-controlled homeland for new possibilities in the very different, academic environment of Princeton New Jersey. This latter period, featuring other famous personalities (including the aforementioned Einstein) would appeal to readers with an interest in either history or the mathematics/science. Ultimately these elements are flavorful backdrop for the central feminist motifs of the novel. These motifs exist inherent in Adele, but also fully created by Grannec in a character that serves as a modern and younger reflection of Adele.
Now confined to a nursing home in Pennsylvania following her husband’s death, Adele Gödel awaits death, alone and stubbornly keeping Kurt’s records and papers from the interested academics and historians. The Institute of Advanced Studies employs Anna Roth, a modest young woman with connections to Princeton and the field of mathematics, to go and visit the widow Gödel and convince her to release Kurt’s documents. Using Anna’s point of view Grannic describes the young woman’s background and her building relationship with Adele. These chapters in Anna’s point of view alternate with chapters that are recollections from Adele’s point of view. The Goddess of Small Victories thereby takes the structure of a contrapuntal conversation between the lives of two very different women united in the common tie of searching for personal identity and purpose within a cultural framework that defines them in terms of the men who surround.
Historical realities provide opportunity for Grannec to accent such feminist motifs within Adele’s biography, but also limit her from realizing them within the plot to the level that modern readers might hope. Bright and fiercely independent, Adele is a woman ahead of her times. Working as a young woman as a cabaret dancer in Vienna, Adele is eager for a career and a life independent from any family. But a chance encounter on the street with Kurt starts what soon becomes a passionate, romantic relationship. Grannec imagines an unplanned pregnancy playing a role in the eventual decision for Adele to marry Kurt, one of several fictional extrapolations necessary for the story that the author highlights and explains in footnotes that accompany the main text. Adele’s strong will also empowers her commitment of marriage to Kurt. Viewed by Kurt’s mother as a common tramp unworthy of her son’s social class and inadequate to fulfill his intellectual and high-maintenance domestic needs, Adele is unwelcome in the Gödel family. Kurt’s child-like personality and reliance on his domineering mother initially impedes the advancement of his relationship with Adele. Her abandonment of complete independence for traditional marriage thus appears like a stubborn reaction to Kurt’s mother, a determination to prove the woman wrong and to usurp her role as caregiver to Kurt’s many needs, to be a managerial complement for a man whose intellect and knowledge of possibilities made action an overwhelming burden.
I accepted my intuition as a natural phenomenon. He was attracted by my legs, but he stayed with me for my radiant ignorance. He would say, “The more I think about language, the more astounded I am that people manage to understand each other.” He never spoke in approximations. Surrounded as he was by clever talkers, he preferred keeping silent to being in error. He liked humbleness in the face of truth. This virtue he had to the point of toxicity: unwilling to make a misstep, he would forget to take any step at all.
As the sexual passion of their relationship wanes, Adele and Kurt increasingly share a love of mutual dependence, giving Adele a purpose even in their new home in the United States surrounded only by Kurt’s intellectual colleagues. Adele manages to stay afloat amid the seemingly insurmountable waves of national politics and Kurt’s increasingly poor health and difficult behavior by a devoted inner strength. In this Adele conquers the infinitely impossible challenges as wife of Kurt through a series of small victories that also chip away at, repudiate, her discreteness. As she responds to an attempted complement by Anna:
“You had a lot of courage. You lived an absolute life.”
“You’re very naïve! On the scale of a person’s life, the absolute is the consequence of many small renunciations.”
Ultimately, Adele’s own health begins to fade. Physically unable to care for her husband as she once did, Kurt literally starves to death. Partially feeling blame for this, Adele loses her purpose. The strong, independently natured woman has become defined by her husband, and with his death now feels unbearably alone.
Then Anna comes along, visiting Adele seemingly only to get Kurt’s archives from the widow. The ornery Adele soon feels appreciative of the captive audience that Anna represents and the personal stories she can trade. While Adele dived headfirst into romance, Anna has little interest in romance with the men that pursue her. Where Adele is blunt and confident, Anna is hesitant and timid. But just as Adele lived a life as an outsider (nationally, intellectually, socioeconomically, and culturally) so too does Anna. A pair of passages, the first from Adele regarding Kurt’s colleagues and the second from Anna regarding a childhood friend and now suitor, illustrates these parallels nicely:
Tears welled up in my eyes in spite of myself. The men probably thought I was worried about the fate of mankind, but in fact I was feeling a wave of self-pity. I was a child in a world of adults. Their universe was not accessible to me: it couldn’t be explained with a simple drawing in the sand or a few pebbles in a line. I didn’t have the words, so I cried.
She considered for a brief moment explaining that she had firsthand experience of a similar pain in the rear. When he was six, Leonard could do long division in his head, while Anna was still struggling with the multiplication tables. At twelve he started offering comments on the work of his mathematician father, who developed second thoughts about having fed his son’s insatiable curiosity. Quick-tempered and alluring, Leo would accept no restrictions. Like the recursiveness that fascinated him, he answered to no one but himself.
These texts illustrate the common circumstances and relationships between Adele and Anna’s lives, down to the mathematical recursion (‘recursiveness’) in which their partner, or potential partner, specializes. Just as Adele found purpose in serving the wishes of Kurt, so too is Anna potentially heading down a similar path with Leo. Adele seems to sense this fact in Anna, and the relationship between the two women forms a mentorship, as Adele’s stories take a role of instructing Anna with important lessons about love, life, and personal strength. As a result the meekness of Anna begins to evolve as she considers taking more risks, discovering her potential paths, and giving voice to her desires. And Adele rediscovers purpose in helping Anna realize a freedom that Adele could never realistically grasp.
With The Goddess of Small Victories, Grannec manages to cleverly paint a broad feminist portrait from combined brushstrokes of little details between the lives of both Adele and Anna. Its combination of historical fact and inventive fiction creates an artistic novel with meaning and entertainment. Careful not to misconstrue the actual history, Grannec provides extensive postscript material, including notes, a bibliography, and an explanation of the small liberties she took with events or characters.
As a reader of French, I also compared Wood’s translation to the original text and found it impressive, particularly in its translation of textual formatting between how French novels usually organize dialogue and paragraphs compared to English ones. Wood likewise successfully captures the style and tone of Grannec’s original text, including the confidence of Adele compared to the less assured Anna. For English speakers interested in discovering this winner of the 2013 Prix des Libraries, I recommend reading this well deserved and accomplished translation.