The Goddess of Small Victories
Kurt Gödel (April 28, 1906 - January 14, 1978) shook the foundations of mathematics in 1931 when he published his incompleteness theorems and thus halted the formalism promoted by Hilbert that culminated in the Principia Mathematica By Whitehead and Russell.
Gödel had a delicate health and he regularly suffered from depressions. The fact that he starved himself to death because of a paranoid fear that someone wanted to poison him is well known. He met Einstein in 1933 and they became good friends ever since. Gödel was teaching in Vienna, but after the German Anschluss in March 1938 he married his wife Adèle in September and they left for the USA via the Trans Siberian Express, then crossed the Pacific, and took the train to the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton where he joined Einstein and other famous scientists since the IAS was a worldwide attraction pole for the brightest minds of those days.
His wife Adèle had no higher education, and she met her husband in a nightclub in Vienna where she was a dancer. Because of her reputation, being a divorced woman and six year older than Kurt, she was at first not very welcome in the Gödel family. When in Princeton, Gödel was intensely occupied by his work, she, at first, did not feel at ease among all those scientists and she barely spoke any English. The couple lived in a small flat, and Adèle was homesick. Kurt had an obsession to open the windows, no matter what temperature. Adèle gets some pleasure from the visits of Kurt's colleagues. She enjoyed especially Einstein, who is characterized as the complete opposite of her husband: a nonconformist in his clothing and knowing how to appreciate a good meal and a glass of wine. Only after they could buy a larger house, the situation improved a bit. However Kurt's character is very demanding and the couple went in therapy. A visit of the family from Austria is another stressful situation and Kurt is sinking away in paranoia, locking himself up in his room, yammering all the time. Adèle is the only one who can convince him to eat something. When Adèle gets sick and has to be hospitalized, he refuses all food and starves to death. Adèle died in a retirement home in 1981, three years after her husband.
Grannec wrote her novel in French in 2012, and she wanted to tell the story from the viewpoint of Adèle. She did her research properly and has woven many stories about Kurt Gödel that are known to be true into her book. Of course it is fiction and not a biography, and there are certainly elements that are required for the construction of a novel that is still agreeable to read, but it is not unlikely that things actually happened as described.
In fact the novel has a list of references for further reading, which is rather unusual for a fiction novel, and there is a long list of notes at the end. Moreover, in some afternotes, the author explains what is fiction and what are the facts, and what can reasonably be accepted to have happened as described in the book.
The technique that Grannec used to tell the story is an alternation between chapters in which Adèle's story is told and a chapter about a fictional Anna Roth. Anna is a research librarian at the Institute of Advanced Studies who is visiting Adèle in the retirement home. Her assignment is to convince Adèle to leave the Nachlass of her husband to the IAS library since it is suspected that it contains some proof or disproof of the continuum hypothesis. Anna is divorced and is the daughter of two mathematicians so that she can understand well what Adèle has gone through. The young and the old woman gradually cultivate sympathy for each other and become friends. Towards the end, the novel concentrates more on Anna's problems. Sometimes the strict alternation between the two parallel plots feels a bit artificial. Anna attends for example parties where topics such as Turing and cryptography, public key encryption, RSA coding, quantum physics, number theory, etc. are discussed. Turing's machine can of course be linked to Gödel's theorems, but many of the other subjects are of course not needed for the story of Adèle.
This is a very entertaining novel about some less known and very human aspects of Gödel and obviously even more so of his wife. It is a very female vision from the outside looking in. The outsiders are Adèle of course who is somehow excluded from her husband's world of logic and mathematics, but also Anna, who is getting all this information from Adèle, and ultimately by the author Yannick Grannec, who is a graphical designer, with only an outsider's interest in mathematics. So, this is clearly not about Gödel's mathematics, but we learn about Gödel's tragic personality or at least we can see its shadow like in Plato's cave. A human interest novel that I can heartily recommend.