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Per Olov Enquist, Boken om Blanche och Marie (The Book about Blanche and Marie)

Norstedts,  2004. ISBN: 9113013602

Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2005:1

Enquist has not rested since the international success of The Royal Physician’s Visit (Livläkarens besök, 1999, translated by Tiina Nunnally), an intriguing and beautiful novel set in the eighteenthcentury Danish court. 2001 saw the Swedish publication of the 600-pager Lewi’s Journey (English trans-lation forthcoming, also by Nunnally), another absorbing historical novel based on the personalities, social history and recorded internal power-play of the Swedish Pentecostal movement. Like these two books, in Blanche and Marie the topic is once more Europe’s struggles for enlightenment and the writing is elegantly truffled with pieces of research, made personal by Enquist’s allusive writing. It is both a given success and a daring exercise, in which risks are taken with both content and style. The two women are friends but make an apparently ill-matched pair: the strong-minded, freethinking physicist Marie, and the ex-hysteric, intense Blanche, actress-extraordinary on the stage of early twentieth-century psychiatry. Just friends? “But they surely loved each other” Enquist assures us, using the kind of interventionist trick he likes a little too well. Certainly Marie cares deeply for her former assistant Blanche, who is an amputated wreck (only one working limb left, a hand to write with) after helping with radium extraction in Professor Curie’s laboratory. Blanche, a torso confined to a wooden box-bed, was once a woman of beauty and wit and acclaim, despite the kind of family background that would have sunk anyone less resilient without a trace. In her notebooks, the fantasy chronicle on which the novel is “based”, she writes of being the most glamorous of asylum patients and loved by the great neurologist Jean- Marie Charcot, and charts with great sympathy the storms of Marie’s love life after her beloved husband’s death and during the time leading up to her second, personal Nobel Prize in Physics. Given the crowd of larger-than-life characters – including the Curies, Charcot and his amanuensis Sigmund Freud – and the glimpses into the history of the physical and medical sciences, one wishes for many more pages. The only disappointing thing about this book is that it isn’t long enough. The risk Enquist took by relying on Blanche’s notebooks, with their focus on personal emotion, has not entirely paid off. The reader, fascinated by the tale of love and grief, constantly buttonholed by the author to stick to this story, might still pick up the sound of the History of Science sobbing off-stage at a missed opportunity.

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