The Book We're Talking About: 'The Goddess Of Small Victories' By Yannick Grannec

The Goddess of Small Victories
by Yannick Grannec
Other Press, $26.95
Published Oct. 14, 2014

What we think:

Though heavy-handed in parts, Grannec's novel is an important meditation on those forgotten by history, as she shares the insights of a great and troubled thinker's wife.

Not all truths are provable. This is the basic premise of Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, a groundbreaking advancement in the fields of logic and mathematics, but, as a character in Yannick Grannec’s debut novel puts it, such a “lyrical extension” of the theorem would have made Gödel shudder.

Revered internationally within his field by the age of 25, Gödel devoted little thought to metaphorical or romantic interpretations of his work, and instead channeled his energies to topping his early achievements, eventually applying formal logic to philosophy and theistic pursuits. But anyone interested in the mathematician knows that story, which is why Grannec’s novel, which navigates Gödel’s life through the eyes of his wife and eventual caretaker, is a fascinating read.

Adele, an outspoken Viennese dancer seven years his senior, is uninterested in academic pursuits. In Grannec’s version of the couple’s story, the two have little in common, aside from an initial attraction. Adele impetuously rants publicly about politics, whereas Gödel remains disengaged with the topic, even in private. Their relationship is strained by the genius’s disapproving mother, but Adele proves useful to Kurt in “handling the details” of his life -- preparing his meals and maintaining the fragile balance of his mental state -- so that he can focus as intently as possible on his work. The two eventually marry and, after Austria's fall to the Nazis, move to Princeton, where Gödel meets a cast of now-famous scientists, including Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer.

Adele prefers the melancholic streets of wartime Vienna to provincial Princeton, where she scarcely speaks the same language as her peers, and is left with little choice but to devote herself entirely to Kurt’s neuroses and daily maintenance. To make matters worse, the couple begins to attend therapy (not psychoanalytical, despite their nationality and Adele’s interests), where Adele’s hysteria is considered unfounded, and Kurt’s mental health is unduly deemed intact.

These scenes from Kurt and Adele’s life are told in chapters that alternate with a parallel story -- that of a much older Adele who’s been committed to a hospital after Kurt’s death. She shares the details of her marriage with a research librarian, Anna, who’s been tasked with obtaining Kurt’s archives, to which the stubborn Adele inexplicably clings dearly. Too many pages are divvied up to Anna’s portion of the book, and the annals of her troubled childhood, unambitious pursuits and failed relationships are lackluster when read alongside Adele’s passages.

A similar problem arises when Grannec tasks herself with the unenviable job of turning historical figures we uphold as gods, or at least characters, back into real, believable people. What’s left to be said, or imagined, about Albert Einstein? The portions of the book that personify his absentmindedness are cartoonish, especially when bookended by the freshness of Adele’s voice and perspective. Still, those interested in the history of science will find a glut of intruiging tidbits about the figures Grannec brings to life over dinner party debates and meandering strolls around the Princeton campus.

What other reviewers think:
Kirkus: "An intellectually challenging, though occasionally lopsided, deconstruction of the notion of 'the great man.'"

Publisher's Weekly: "Grannec depicts the life of historical mathematical prodigy Kurt Gödel and his mismatched but devoted wife, Adele, in this overly earnest debut."

Who wrote it?
This is Yannick Grannec's first novel. It was originally written in French, and was translated by Willard Wood, an NEA fellow in translation.

Who will read it?
Fans of historical fiction, especially that which focuses on women's stories.

Opening lines:
"Anna waited at the exact boundary between the hallway and the bedroom while the nurse pleaded her case. The young woman concentrated on every sound, trying to contain her anxiety: wisps of conversation, raised voices, televisions droning, the swish of doors being opened, the clatter of metal carts."

Notable passage:
"My husband queried the stars, whereas I already had a well-ordered universe. A tiny one, to be sure, but protected, and on this earth. They left me alone to battle entropy. Thanks a bunch! If men swept the flood once in a while, they'd be a lot less unhappy."