“Can you prove love?” – Self-sacrifice for a mathematical genius (Vienna, Austria; Institute of Advanced Study (IAS), Princeton, NJ; Maine; PA; 1928-1980): Mathematicians strive for simple, elegant proofs. How ironic and sad that one of the great mathematical minds of the twentieth century, a logician from Austria, Kurt Gödel, had such a complicated and inelegant fifty-year “love story” with a Viennese cabaret dancer he had absolutely “nothing in common” with, Adele Thusnelda Porkert.
Mathematicians seek “truth and beauty.” But there’s no “self-evident truths” in The Goddess of Small Victories, except that the genius who sought beauty in his “Incompleteness Theorem” was an incomplete man. Instead, there’s an impressive and engrossing blending of historical facts, personal truths, logical conjectures, and creative storytelling that does not trivialize weighty math and science concepts. This is a daring historical novel that keeps you intellectually on your toes.
The Gödel’s fifty years is relayed to us at the end of Adele’s life, when she’s widowed, 80, and a feisty resident at a nursing home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, not too far from the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, where most of their “love story” takes place.
Debut author, Yannick Grannec, a fine arts professor in France, deftly paints a stark portrayal of the couple’s extreme differences: He a fragile, elegant dresser who never laughed; she sports “wild gypsy hair” and loves music (“What’s the point of living if you don’t know how to dance?”). He a selfish, unaffectionate man with a deeply troubled psyche (twice hospitalized for anorexia, psychotic episodes, depression, exhaustion); she a tower of strength who’d “lift mountains” if need be. Tragically, the woman fond of sweets, flowers, colorful paintings, and movies sacrificed everything for Kurt, including family and citizenship, ending up with a life likened to a “black-and-white film.”
Sometimes the smart prose is so mathematically relatable as in: “Life is an equation. What you gain on one side is taken away on the other.” But mostly, if you try to grasp the heavier mathematical logic, philosophies, and physics bantered about in the dialogue of the brainy men peopling the novel – and in the extensive, supplemental endnotes – the prose will feel wildly inaccessible. That is beside the point – or precisely the point. These commentaries serve the reader emotionally well. They bring you viscerally close to the frustration, anger, condescension, and loneliness Adele must have felt much of the time around her intensely single-minded husband. (Once, at a bucolic inn in Maine, he graced her by attempting to explain cardinal/ordinal/natural numbers, integers, and infinity. The mood was spoiled as soon as she asked what he sees when she sees the beautiful ocean. His idea of beauty: “A field of wave interactions”!)
Throughout, Kurt Gödel feels terribly inaccessible and, frankly, terribly unlikable. Adele may be ornery, but who can blame her. A truth is she intrigues us. How did she endure a lifetime with this egocentric, psychologically impaired man who “took care of nothing?” She mothered and nursed a paranoid man who refused to eat and touch her. A man so obsessed with smells, cleanliness, weather, and afraid of making mistakes he “preferred keeping silent to being in error … unwilling to make a misstep, he would forget to take any step at all.”
Don’t worry if you don’t care about “geeky factoids” or the “grandiose mechanism of the universe.” What we care about are the accessible, universal matters of the heart. The prose has a pathos that touches us, for we can’t help but wonder when are we asking too much of any one human being to sacrifice themselves for another?
This affecting novel is narrated in two compelling female voices that alternate between chapters that track the fifty years. The cantankerous voice is Adele’s; the other belongs to Anna Roth, a 30-year-old archivist working at the prestigious Institute. She’s tasked to get Adele to turn over the archives of the “mythical recluse” for the betterment of mankind. Up until now, Mrs. Gödel has adamantly refused. These two women encounter each other around the same age Adele met Kurt, who to be fair was “charming” back then. “His eyes, an impossible blue, were full of greatness.”
Anna’s life parallels some of Adele’s history: loneliness (her intellectual, self-absorbed parents dismiss her as mediocre); involved with an eccentric fellow absorbed in mathematics; surrounded by geniuses. She’s provocative too, so her ability to match wits with the elder woman opens the door to an evolving relationship. Don’t expect Adele’s caustic tongue to be enchanted prose! Her elegance is “self-assurance.” Well-practiced in reading minds, do expect she’ll let her guard down to offer Anna words of wisdom on pursuing pleasure and happiness. Whether Anna succeeds at her original tasking becomes almost beside the point too.
The challenging assignment gives Anna purpose. She doesn’t “claim to understand him” but she knows Kurt’s German shorthand, Gabelsberger. For once, Anna feels she’s in the “right place at the right time.” Paradoxically, not the case for Kurt. He was the wrong man at the wrong time. His paranoia was intensified by the oppressive historical times, which the author takes us through with painful honesty: the Nazi’s were “burning books, banning music, closing the cafes, and turning off the lights in Vienna,” yet the Gödels remained blind to (Kurt) or ignored (Adele) the political landscape, since they weren’t Jewish, until they no longer could; The Manhattan Project; McCarthyism; and the assassination of a beloved President.
While the author proclaims she’s an “enthusiast of mathematics,” the odds are most of us are not, which adds to the courageousness of her novel. Because its characters are famous, and not quite-as-famous, mathematicians and physicists who came together at a unique period in history when intellectuals were escaping Europe – and they found refuge at a “quaint cocoon” – a “scientific Mount Olympus” – in a high-brow university town where their only “assignment was to think,” the reader gets an exceptional chance to peak into the personas of exceptional minds.
Unquestionably, the most likable of the brilliant bunch is Albert Einstein, despite what you’ve heard about his flawed personal relationships. One of Kurt’s very few friends, Einstein was the “personification of friendship.” Their daily “arm-in-arm” walks around the Institute were legendary. Grannec’s comparisons of the two are delightful: Kurt was “closemouthed and the other charismatic.” Albert with his “tousled hair,” Kurt the impeccable dresser. Einstein “wore himself out fighting battles for everyone else, whereas Kurt had never fought for anyone but himself.” Albert with his “thunderclap laugh” like Groucho Marx; Kurt the stony Buster Keaton. Even the analysis of their disciplines is catchy: “Mathematics is the skeleton, where physics is the flesh.” Noteworthy is that the unemotional Kurt upon meeting Einstein found it an “unforgettable experience.” Einstein’s profound concerns about the military’s dominance over science; that his discoveries led to the atomic bomb – Peace and Humanity – are unforgettable.
To his credit, Albert was also Adele’s friend. So, was Wolfgang Pauli, father of quantum mechanics, who consoled Adele that it “can’t be easy on a day-to-day basis” to be married to a man who lost his “ability to see the whole.” Pauli, like Albert, valued perspective. The “one absolute in a world like ours is humor.”
Some other exceptional minds you’ll meet along the way: Robert Oppenheimer, “Oppie,” a nuclear physicist who directed the Institute after he led The Manhattan Project; Oskar Morgenstern, an economist best known for game theory; and John von Neumann, whose mathematical work greatly influenced the development of computers and computer science.
Meanwhile, after 432 thoughtful pages, the central genius character still remains elusive. I think that is also the point. Did Adele feel that her calling was to ease his “obstacles so he could address his calling?” Consider herself lucky to have a “mission,” as her Vienna friend once advised? Or, as the sub-title suggests, she truly loved him? Since we’re told this is a “love story,” she must have. Our proof.