Interview: Yannick Grannec

Photograph by Bruno Charroy

Photograph by Bruno Charroy

Loneliness. Yearning. Madness. Love. Sacrifice. Possibility. These are the elements of life that Yannick Grannec forces us to think about through her debut novel The Goddess of Small Victories, a fictional story that re-imagines the life of mathematician Kurt Gödel and his wife Adele. The book is so thorough, the characters so vivid, that by the time I finished the book I was crying on the subway, so moved and exhausted, as if I had just lived an entire life with the Gödels.

I urged others to read this book. I wanted them to experience this kind of storytelling and the way it forces us to reexamine ourselves in the context of love, as this excerpt so poignantly shows:

A last housecleaning for Kurt. It’s the only thing I ever did for him throughout my life. Putting the world in order to keep that damned entropy from swallowing him up. Do all women share the same fate? We mate out of love or a need for security, only to wind up keeping afloat the one who’s meant to be a rock. Is this what happens to all of us? These brothers, fathers, lovers, friends—are we there to fish them out when they go down? Is that the cockeyed reason God gave us breasts and hips? Are we no more than flotation devices? What is left to us afterward, when there is no longer anyone to save?

Below is an interview with Yannick Grannec about the building of Goddess, which Other Press was kind enough to let us reproduce here for you.

—Laura Mae Isaacman


Interviewer: How does Gödel’s most intimate relationship, his marriage to Adele, offer a more complex understanding of the many dimensions that made up this man? Why did you choose to tell his story from Adele’s perspective?


Grannec: When I was eighteen, I read Gödel, Escher, Bach and became fascinated by the work of Kurt Gödel. Twenty years later, I read, by chance, 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.

I had the intuition of a human story that needed telling, one that came with an opportunity to share what has always fascinated me, the history of science, as part of the fabric. To tell it in the voice of Adele seemed to me completely natural: she was the Candide, which allowed to me to transmit complicated ideas with simple words. I felt an immediate empathy for her, as though I’d always known her: she spoke to me of all these destinies of women, of these lives sacrificed for love or out of social obligation. She spoke to me of my mother, my grandmothers, and all those other women howling through my DNA.


Interviewer: In chapter 26, a poignant conversation between Kurt and Adele makes Gödel’s elegant and abstract Incompleteness Theorem accessible to the lay reader. Was it difficult to achieve this accessibility?


Grannec: For all the parts of the book that dealt with mathematical theories, the exercise presented a succession of difficulties. First of all, it was necessary to attempt to understand. For this famous Incompleteness theorem, I could talk about it in a general way, but not with any detail; I’m not a mathematician, and I’m not at all conversant in the language of logic in which it’s expressed. Then, I had to betray. Because the language of mathematics is, by its very definition, objective. But, to integrate it into fiction, and to share it, I could only use written language, a subjective tool. To go from sign to metaphor is a betrayal. So I needed to accept, and have others accept, an inevitable inexactitude.

For the part on the continuum hypothesis, I took a course taught by a mathematician friend. This part is more developed, because I thought I understood it better, and my intention was to use only what I thought I understood, because it was important to me to be intellectually honest. Of course, often, we think we understand, but it’s only the surface of things.


Interviewer: Tell us about your experience researching for the novel. How much time did you spend researching the Gödels, Einstein, and other Princeton luminaries, before you felt comfortable writing about them? What did you find in your research that was surprising or unexpected?


Grannec: Even before beginning to write, I read a great number of documents over the course of at least a year. Of course, I had begun with everything that was within my intellectual reach that had to do with Kurt Gödel, then Einstein, then the biographies of those scientists who shared their destiny. But as soon as I pulled on one thread, an infinite tapestry appeared: I had to stick my nose into epistemology, into history in general, into philosophy, etc. I admit to having had a few periods of discouragement. In particular about Husserl, on whose subject, clearly, I stumbled. I didn’t have the keys, like Adele. I assembled a wide-ranging collection of photographs to nurture my imagination (the people, the period clothing, the places, etc.) and then I went on reconnaissance to Vienna and to Princeton, to soak up those places. In certain neighborhoods, those two cities seem to be stopped in time. It is very easy to imagine the era before the war in Vienna and the 1950s in Princeton. I had come up with a route, from house to café, from university to sanatorium, to follow in Gödel’s footsteps. I understood why, for example, they lived in the suburb of Grinzing: the 38 tram was direct from the mathematics university. Kurt didn’t like complications in his daily life. Each new discovery stirred up big emotions: seeking Kurt and Adele on the street where they lived, I found an old photography studio, at the address that had belonged to Adele’s father. I’ve returned there since, only to discover it was replaced by a snack bar. Destiny, in this case, gave me this gift. Three years later I would have missed it. At Princeton, I timed the route, to determine the length of the conversations with Einstein. At the Gödels’ tomb, in Princeton, I cried. I’ve lived with them; they’re my family.

As for having the nerve to make Einstein, Gödel, or Oppenheimer speak, I owe it to a kind of wild foolishness, the one that urges you to jump from a diving board into cold water. In retrospect, I shiver at the thought.


Interviewer: How did you become interested in mathematics? What interests you about the intersection between mathematics and literature?


Grannec: Since I was a good student, I was pushed to do a science baccalaureate. I had already decided to study the arts, but I always liked mathematics and physics. All my life, I followed my interest through my reading. I had, I think, a natural affinity for seeing the world through structures and interactions.

I am often surprised to see people, in other ways very cultivated, shrink back when you speak to them about mathematics or science in general.

For me, everything is connected, all human knowledge is interdependent. I wanted to share this conviction. Fiction, recounting a singular human adventure, seems to me to be the natural medium for speaking of the universal. I often use this image: the love story of Kurt and Adele is the Trojan horse that allows me to speak of more abstract subjects without paining the reader allergic to science. I’m going to talk to you about mathematics, and you won’t even see me doing it. (Or almost . . .)


Interviewer: Was it harder to write about Anna, who is entirely fictional, or to write about Adele and Kurt? Why do you find that the weaving of fact and fiction is such a compelling combination?


Grannec: Each exercise has its own difficulties. To slip into Gödel’s life demanded a great deal of exactitude. When you use someone’s life, respect is an imperative at every moment. For Kurt, it wasn’t difficult; his life had already been explored and dissected by different biographers. For Adele, I had so little information. I had to make myself empathetic, attempt to guess her feelings, her emotions, through the few anecdotes I was able to gather: the aggression of the Nazis on the steps of the university, the naturalization scene in Oskar Morgenstern’s memoirs, Dorothy Morgenstern’s saying that she was very intelligent and funny. I constructed three chronologies: an historic and scientific frieze; a timeline of Kurt Gödel’s life (his trips, moves, work, depressions, and health problems), and underlining it, one of Adele’s life as well. She was the unknown in the equation determined by History and the history of her husband. I tried to guess at and date her moods, her joys, and, at times, her despair.

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. As I wrote more, the character of Anna developed. The relationship with the old woman became a creative “recreation,” allowing me to work without documentation, following my intuition. But without—and here lies the difficulty—the crutch of reality, which gives a writer material that’s irreplaceable, even with lots of imagination.


Interviewer: The Goddess of Small Victories is your first novel. What was it like to publish it in France, and now to have it published in the United States?


Grannec: From many angles, the story of this book is even more fictional that its content. I worked for four years, convinced that this book wouldn’t interest anyone, but happy to confront the mountain, as a personal challenge. I rented a maid’s room (so Parisian!) to finish writing it. The owner recommended an editor, to whom I sent my manuscript. Around the same time, I packed my boxes and left Paris, where I had lived for twenty-five years. On the road to my new life, five days after having mailed my manuscript, I received a call from this editor, Stephen Carrière, who told me he absolutely wanted to publish it. What happened next was even more fantastical, because the reception by booksellers and journalists was very enthusiastic and I won a number of prizes. Then, thanks to this book, I met mathematicians and experts on Gödel, including Sheryl and John Dawson, who had translated his papers and whose support was invaluable. I attended the international conference on Gödel, where I was able to meet just about everyone in my bibliography. To see it now translated in the United Sates is yet another event in this waking dream that never ceases to surprise me. Had I known, I’d never have dared to write it!


Interviewer: Many writers have routines and tricks to help them with their work. Do you have any writing quirks?


Grannec: I’m a mother; I write when my children are at school. I’m very disciplined by nature, one could even say obsessive; I don’t have any problem working between set hours. While I write directly on the keyboard, my notes are handwritten. I’m very adept with the Post-it technique, which allows me to see on my wall the progress and the structure of the story. I rarely write in a linear way: I’m solving a giant puzzle that begins with digesting the documentation. Then I force myself to lightly freewheel with my characters, and little by little, helped by my intuition, these disparate pieces begin to fall into place. As with a puzzle, the beginning is laborious and discouraging, what follows gains speed until the moment when I have the flow, finally, and can write without interruption for five or six hours in a row. I need only silence, a thermos of tea, and a few legal drugs: nicotine and sugar. For me, writing is physical, something like a marathon; I finish my sessions exhausted before beginning my second day as a mother. The one and the other aren’t incompatible, with a little organization: daily life nourishes creativity and allows us to put our ego back in its place. As far as possible from the page.

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