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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Book about Blanche and Marie

Per Olov Enquist

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To purchase The Book about Blanche and Marie

Title: The Book about Blanche and Marie
Author: Per Olov Enquist
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 218 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: The Book about Blanche and Marie - US
The Book about Blanche and Marie - UK
The Book about Blanche and Marie - Canada
Blanche et Marie - France
Das Buch von Blanche und Marie - Deutschland
  • Sweish title: Boken om Blanche och Marie
  • Translated by Tiina Nunnally

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Our Assessment:

B+ : great stories, interesting presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 4-5/2006 Marcela Valdes
FAZ A 16/3/2005 Rose-Marie Gropp
The Guardian . 4/11/2006 Anne Enright
The Independent . 27/10/2006 Boyd Tonkin
Independent on Sunday . 15/10/2006 Paul Binding
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 15/2/2005 Andreas Breitenstein
The NY Times Book Rev. . 2/4/2006 Francine Prose
The Spectator A 21/10/2006 John de Falbe
The Telegraph . 29/10/2006 Caroline Moore
The Telegraph . 17/12/2006 Jane Stevenson
TLS . 20/10/2006 David Coward
The Washington Post . 13/8/2006 Ruth Franklin
Die Welt . 26/2/2005 Peter Urban-Halle
World Lit. Today . Summer/2005 Anna Paterson
Die Zeit B 10/2/2005 Verena Auffermann

  Review Consensus:

  Generally impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "It's a shame that Enquist doesn't detail Charcot's hypotheses more clearly, since the tragic effect of Blanche's romance depends on the reader's understanding that Charcot's hypnotism research is now considered a disaster." - Marcela Valdes, Bookforum

  • "Weil Enquist nichts Geringeres als das Geheimnis der Liebe sucht, kann er auch keine fortlaufende Geschichte erzählen. Er muß sich in Kreisen, in Windungen bewegen. Es ist ein labyrinthisches Buch: Wie man in einem Irrgarten stets mit der rechten Hand die Begrenzung des Wegs berühren muß, um den Ausgang zu finden, so muß man die Liebe ständig berühren wollen in diesem Roman. (...) Es ist ein herrliches Buch, es ist wie ein wilder Phantomschmerz, der nicht aufhört, wenn man es schließt." - Rose-Marie Gropp, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Per Olov Enquist has been a great writer for so long in his native Sweden that, at this stage, he can write what he likes. He brings a sense of freedom, and intellectual relish, to The Story of Blanche and Marie, which is not so much the story of two famous women as an interrogation of their story. Enquist likes asking questions of history: this is perhaps a more honest way of proceeding than merely stating the facts. (...) It is dizzy with associations and questions, full of interest and appetite and the satisfactions of a good mind. It is a strongly feminist piece of work, and often funny. The aftertaste it leaves, however, is a little strange." - Anne Enright, The Guardian

  • "Enquist tells it fast, and tells it slant (aided again by his excellent translator, Tiina Nunnally) (.....) Enquist restores love -- but a dangerous love -- to the heart of scientific endeavour: the spirit in its study, and the ghost in its machine." - Boyd Tonkin , The Independent

  • "Enquist questions and probes throughout as insistently as his protagonists. Such is his practice anyway; he is one of the contemporary novel's greatest human investigators." - Paul Binding, Independent on Sunday

  • "Enquist's material is, or could have been, fascinating. But I finished the narrative with a feeling of exhaustion and strain, doubtless a result of the effort required to peer around the writer who was blocking my view of the real lives of the two intriguing women at this novel's heart." - francine Prose, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Anyone who read Per Olov Enquist’s dazzling novel about King Christian IV of Denmark, Caroline-Mathilde and Struensee, The Visit of the Royal Physician, will not be surprised to hear that he has written another fascinating, highly charged miracle of compression. Through his narrative method and his treatment of history he stretches our idea of what a novel is, and in so doing he stretches our understanding of his subject. Fiction rarely gets more interesting than this." - John de Falbe, The Spectator

  • "This technique may feel like a lump in many readers' throats. Chapters are chopped into disparate paragraphs; paragraphs amputated into truncated sentences -- grammatical 'torsos', indeed. There are numerous incidents of superb power, such as the scenes where Marie is hounded after the publication of letters to her married lover; but readers will doubtless be divided as to whether the effect is frustrating or stimulating." - Caroline Moore, The Telegraph

  • "This strange book promises a great deal, but does not entirely deliver. Enquist's detached, gnomic prose draws elegant spirals around the mysteries of identity, and he is not concerned to create a sequential narrative. His structure is cumulative, the relationship between episodes left to the reader to infer. But the ultimate effect is spectatorial." - Jane Stevenson, The Telegraph

  • "Narratively underpowered at times, but elegiac and not afraid to be brutal, this story of two women who loved and lost is a poetic audit of the cost of living." - David Coward, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The Book About Blanche and Marie, Enquist's engrossing but ultimately puzzling novel, seeks to resuscitate Blanche as an intellectual force. (...) But Enquist never explains what, other than her deformity, makes Blanche remarkable; her pronouncements tend to be either tendentious or melodramatic, and so the device of framing the narrative around her notebooks seems ill considered. The book purports to be "about Blanche and Marie," but Marie is so much more fully imagined that she hijacks the novel whenever she appears." - Ruth Franklin, The Washington Post

  • "Enquist, der sich in der Darstellung leidender Menschen, Frauen zumal, nicht genug tun kann, er sucht genau im Leid die unerklärlichen Dinge zu ergründen. Weil seine Analyse diskret ist, werden seine Figuren (wie hier Blanche und Marie) sichtbar, aber nicht durchsichtig." - Peter Urban-Halle, Die Welt

  • "The knowing god must have made this story come Per Olov Enquist’s way to stop it from falling into the hands of historical fiction writers of a lesser order. (...) Perhaps the only truly disappointing thing about this fascinating book is that it isn’t long enough. The risk Enquist took by confining the narrative to Blanche’s rambling notebooks, with their focus on personal emotion, has not paid off." - Anna Paterson, World Literature Today

  • "Enquists Roman, eine Mischung aus collagiertem Sachbuch und Herzensergießungen zweier unverwandter, aber durch die Liebeserfahrung verbundener Seelen, beginnt mit großem Schwung. Enquist schiebt kühn Fakten und Fiktion ineinander. Aber dann rutscht er ab, seine Worte werden lieblich, wenn nicht schwülstig, und die Erklärung des Hysterischen als genialisches Attentat auf die Schamhaftigkeit greift auf den Text über." - Verena Auffermann, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Book about Blanche and Marie is yet another novel by Per Olov Enquist based on historical fact (with Enquist emphasising, however, that: "This is a novel" -- and, indeed, taking considerable liberties with the facts). The cast of characters is an impressive one, led by Blanche Wittmann, a long-time (and leading) hysteria-patient of Jean Martin Charcot, reduced eventually to little more than a torso pulled about in a box on wheels, having lost two legs and an arm. Why was she a triple amputee ? Because after being released -- apparently no longer hysterical -- from Salpêtrière after sixteen years she found employment in the radioactive laboratory of Marie Curie.
       There are cameos by Charcot's assistant (Freud), Strindberg, and various scientists of the time, but this is a book about Blanche and Marie, a faux-biography cum literary interpretation cum speculative essay -- all in the guise of a novel.
       Enquist builds the book around three different-coloured notebooks filled by the one-armed Blanche. On the folder that held them she wrote: Amor omnia vincit -- love conquers all -- and those are the words Enquist begins his novel with. As he then suggests:

     Love conquers all, as a working hypothesis, or the innermost core of pain.
       Blanche -- going from hysteria to healed after having spent half her life institutionalised -- was subjected to some bizarre treatments for her curious ailment (one no longer common -- in that sense -- in medical parlance). Sex was considered to be part of the root of the problem, and in her case matters were presumably not helped by Charcot's own infatuation with her (elaborated by Enquist, apparently considerably beyond what actually happened between the two).
       Marie Curie offers a different example when, after the tragic death of her husband, she fell in love with a married man, an affair that outraged the French public and damaged both her professional and public standing.
       Referring to and quoting from the strange notebooks -- half diaries, have commonplace books --, re-imagining some of the pivotal events and all the while offering interpretive speculation, Enquist's approach is anything but straightforward. This is not a mere retelling of these two lives. Enquist doesn't even bother to hide his authorial presence, occasionally referring to his own experiences (and books); the two-headed Pasqual Pinon -- who also featured in Downfall -- again crops up as an example and figure that fascinates him.
       Enquist doesn't begin his undertaking with some set hypothesis on the question of love and its nature that is then proven on the basis of events; instead, these lives and events allow him to ruminate and speculate. It's an odd mix of story-telling (with some great stories) and philosophising, but a rewarding one.
       The Book about Blanche and Marie is a short and often fast-moving book, but it also requires some patience, because Enquist refuses to be direct. But it's worth it for what he makes out of this rich material.

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The Book about Blanche and Marie: Reviews: Blanche Wittmann: Marie Curie: Per Olov Enquist: Other books by Per Olov Enquist under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish author Per Olov Enquist was born in 1934.

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© 2006-2010 the complete review

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