The Goddess of Small Victories by Yannick Grannec, translated by Willard Wood
Reviewed by Jan
The Goddess of Small Victories, a debut novel by French novelist Yannick Grannec, fictionalizes the career of brilliant real-life mathematician, logician, and philosopher, Kurt Gödel. Gödel made an immense impact in philosophical and mathematical thinking of the 20th century, through his two incompleteness theorems and the clarifications of the connections between classical logic, intuitional logic, and modal logic. But rather than focus on the dense task of explaining his life’s work, Grannec shifts the spotlight of Gödel’s life to that of his wife, Adele, a woman we know very little about.
The narrative of this book follows Adele and another woman: Anna Roth, assistant archivist at Princeton University, trying to collect Gödel’s papers from Adele years after Gödel’s death. To say that Adele, housed in a nursing home, is reluctant to give up the papers is to underplay the complex emotional identity that Adele has constructed. In a last ditch effort, the mathematics department sends an assistant archivist, someone who has merely an incomplete understanding of the the content of the papers, to convince Adele to donate the papers. Over time, Anna and Adele form a close bond. Both are outsiders in the thinking world. Both have been cruelly mistreated by the insiders, yet both have strong attachments to the people inside: Adele married Gödel and the two fled across the world together; Anna’s parents were both mathematicians, and her sometime lover is a computational engineer working on encryption at MIT.
As Anna’s visits to Adele become more frequent, they discuss Adele’s life. At first, Anna views Adele as a larger-than-life figure: the wife and sole companion of one of history’s greatest logicians. Anna needs Adele to be this long-suffering, admirable person of superior wisdom “formed by a fate beyond the unusual.” But Adele sees through Anna’s grab at hero-worship and denies her own strength, “Like you, I am a woman who has given up. You don’t recognize yourself in me because your resignation is recent. ”
The narrative alternates chapters: glimpses of the years of Adele’s life starting when she first met Gödel in 1928 interspersed with brief glimpses of Anna’s life starting with her visits with Adele in the nursing home in 1980 until Adele’s death. Adele tells of her life with Kurt starting in Austria, fleeing Nazi occupation (with the very true anecdote of Adele fighting off a group of bullying brownshirts with an umbrella on the University of Vienna steps) to Princeton, Kurt’s deep friendship with Albert Einstein, living in America in the age of atomic uncertainty. Gödel’s was a tragic fate. He had several, severe depressive episodes during his life, and events like the McCarthy-era surveillance of intellectuals led to a persistent belief that he was being followed and poisoned. He ate only the food that Adele prepared for him. When she was hospitalized for stroke for six months in 1978, Gödel stopped eating all together. He weighed 65 pounds when he died, curled up in a chair, in a Princeton hospital.
But he was one of the greatest minds history has ever known. He discovered the incompleteness theorem through which (all too simply–apologies): (1) if a system is consistent, it is incomplete; and (2) the consistency of axioms cannot be proven from within the system. There will always be at least one true but unprovable statement. At the time, formal logic and ontological rhetoric circled around each other. Adele’s axiom was always, “People have a right to try and understand,” but she often could not. Still, she had the strength to stand up to intellectuals who considered her to be beneath their status; it kept her questioning those who attempted to shake her off. Throughout the narrative, Adele inquires about Gödel’s work, engages with Gödel’s colleagues, and is continually rebuffed as being too simple to understand formal logic because of her background as a retired cabaret dancer. Yet, Grannec imbues Adele with the graceful (and in no way unintelligent) ability to apply the theorems of formal logic to her practical life in ways her husband could not: “My husband taught me this. Life confirmed it. A system cannot understand itself. Self-analysis is very difficult. You can only see yourself through others’ eyes.” Kurt Gödel searched for the “imminent mathematical universe,” populated by mathematical beings of pure formal logic. He withdrew from his academic society over time and lived on the fringes of the physical world, refusing to eat and becoming more paranoid. Adele took care of his physical existence in the universe he actually inhabited: the universe Gödel hated and mistrusted–the universe he was convinced was poisoning him. Adele was forced by her husband’s circle of colleagues into the fringes of their society by her uneducated, dancer’s background. She didn’t exist even the margins of the fictional letters Grannec has Kurt write to his family in Austria-Hungary. She lived by love and suffering alone.
Several characters in the narrative remind each other: “Life is not an exact science.” Life is an inexact science. Science in the sense that it is a body of knowledge, gained through observation and experimentation (experience). Inexact in that it is the opposite of “exact”, or measurable. Albert Einstein says to Kurt Gödel, “what is incomprehensible is that the world should be comprehensible.” This books is not about misunderstood heroes. This book is about a person who was never a hero in the first place. This is a book about compassion: boundless and immeasurable and unquantifiable. Adele rejects Anna’s search for a meaningful heroine. But Anna concludes, “You’re far from mediocre, Adele. And I find you enormously courageous.” Adele believed her mission was to preserve and protect the body that housed a great mind. It did not take a mathematician to see the importance of Kurt Gödel’s work: love serves in the place of belief in certain circumstances.
I opened this book because it is about an archivist. I will open it again because it is about boundless love and suffering: how inseparable and how profound and how complete they are in an incomplete world.