The Goddess of Small Victories
The Goddess of Small Victories
by Yannick Grannec
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Debut Novel Mixes Mathematics with Marriage

An exclusive Authorlink interview with Yannick Grannec,
Author of The Goddess of Small Victories

By Diane Slocum

January 2015

Adele was a cabaret dancer. Kurt Gödel was a mathematical genius. Yet their relationship lasted 50 years. The question is how. Anna meets Adele in her old age, and in the process of trying to obtain Kurt Gödel’s records of his work for her institute, forms a deep friendship with the dying woman that changes Anna’s life.

“How could a woman love such a difficult man for fifty years?”

AUTHORLINK: What made you decide to write the story of Kurt and Adele?

GRANNEC: When I was eighteen, I read Gödel, Escher, Bach and became fascinated by the work of Kurt Gödel. Twenty years later, I read an essay about the friendship between Gödel and Einstein and, as the subject interested me, read other essays. In one of them, I came across a few lines about Adele that struck me as condescending. This question was implied: How could such a genius marry such a common woman?

Knowing Gödel’s life—the man was paranoid, anorectic, depressed—I wondered: How could a woman love such a difficult man for fifty years? There was nothing scientific about it, but that seemed to me to be the real mystery.

What supported me throughout the writing of this book is as much the beauty of the mystery of intimacy as the beauty of scientific mystery. The mystery of a love that endures for over fifty years despite historical and personal chaos. The mystery of the world around us, a mystery that persists even as understanding of our scientific knowledge grows.

AUTHORLINK: What did you do for research to portray the characters of the Gödel s as well as the intellectuals surrounding them at Princeton?

GRANNEC: Before throwing myself into writing fiction, I read everything I could find as documentation—biographies of and essays on Kurt Gödel and the scientists of his milieu. The greatest difficulty was in understanding certain subjects in mathematics or physics and attempting to popularize them without making them dull. When I pulled on a string, another would unravel…I gathered information on the physicist Wolfgang Pauli and I fell on Jung. I became interested in the theory of time travel and ended up having to immerse myself in Kant…I admit I suffered from some good migraines!

“When I stood before the Gödel’s grave at the Princeton cemetery, I cried for real.”

My greatest joy was to travel to Vienna and Princeton, to the very places of history. In Vienna, the old photography shop where Adèle’s father was based made tears come to my eyes. When I stood before the Gödel’s grave at the Princeton cemetery, I cried for real. I was obsessed with Adèle, she spoke to me at night, at times I only had to jot down her advice when I awoke.

AUTHORLINK: How did you manage to write all the conversations among the geniuses? Do you have a background in math and physics?

GRANNEC: My scientific credentials amount to a high school diploma in science and a life of reading. It took a big dose of pure madness to disguise the pretensions of this exercise.

To make these geniuses “speak” in a way that was “relatively” credible, I read as many letters and collections of speeches and quotes as I could, to place myself in their phrasing, their way of thinking, their humor. The rest is improvisation. Einstein, Gödel, and Pauli were geniuses, but they were men first. Their feelings were universal.

AUTHORLINK: How much did you know about Adele’s character and how did you add to this historical data?

GRANNEC: The available biographies were mainly scientific and factual. They spoke very little of Mrs. Gödel and when they did it was in condescending terms. And so I did some research with only one question in mind: “How was this couple, with people who were so dissimilar, the genius and the little cabaret dancer, how were they able to survive fifty years together?” I listed the important characters, read their biographies and their letters. The novel takes place over the course of almost a century, and so I applied myself to creating a detailed chronology, superimposing the personal events of the Gödels’ life over great moments of history and scientific discovery, and even including popular songs and films. Adele is in this way described in relief: it’s her very absence that allowed for the energy of fiction.

AUTHORLINK: When did you decide to make it a story of two women – Adele and the fictional Anna?

GRANNEC: Anna was born in hindsight. I needed a character who would listen to Adele. And I felt a need to interrogate the Gödels about their lack of reaction to the rise of the Nazis. I needed to explore this gray area. I’m going to say something very pretentious, but the novel’s construction is meant to be a metaphor for the Incompleteness theorem. The system observed here is not a mathematical system, but that of Adele and Kurt’s relationship. Extrapolating from the Incompleteness theorem—Gödel forgive me!—we can say: one has to be outside of the system to understand the system. So I opted for a double construction: a subjective perspective, from the inside of the system where Adele recounts her story and her feelings in the first person, and a more objective perspective, in the third person, where the narrator observes Adele and the way she tells her story.

“The more I wrote, the more the relationship with the old woman became a creative “recreation,” . . .”

The more I wrote, the more the relationship with the old woman became a creative “recreation,” allowing me to work without documentation, following my intuition. Her destiny became a mirror of Adele’s with, obviously, different paradigms of social origins and historical circumstances. In the end, Anna is, for me, a very positive character: she gives Adele her affection and the possibility to pass on the vital force that defines her. So the novel doesn’t conclude with a disappearance, but with all the possibilities of a life being constructed.

AUTHORLINK: What types of writing have you published before this? How did that help with the writing and publishing of the novel? How did you interest a publisher in a story about a mathematician?

GRANNEC: I was a graphic artist and an illustrator. I’ve written some children’s books, but this influenced neither the writing nor the publication of this novel. They are two very different worlds. I sent my manuscript by mail to an editor who was recommended to me by a friend. He replied to me in five days. For me it was a miracle, because I thought this subject wouldn’t interest anyone. I had devoted four years of my life to writing the novel without thinking of what would come afterwards, without thinking of publication or imagining a fantastical success. I think that’s the key. Do what interests you, in the manner in which you feel, with the utmost sincerity and engagement, even if the project seems crazy, vain, or beyond your capabilities. Writing is first and foremost a dialogue with oneself. Sometimes, miraculously, this dialogue resonates faithfully for others. And you don’t plan a miracle.

About Yannick Grannec:

Grannec is a professor of fine art and an enthusiast of mathematics. She has been working two years on her next novel with themes of psychogenealogy and art as a source of resilience. Her novel was translated from French by Willard Wood.

Diane Slocum
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.