Only when you are about halfway through this book do you think of checking on the cover and title page to see whether it is fiction or non-fiction. And it clearly states – “A Novel” and “fiction”. It is a feature of Enquist’s writing that he builds fascinating fiction around fairly small and obscure historical references.
In this case the reference is a painting by Andre Brouillet, entitled “A Clinical Lesson at the Salpetriere” [Hospital], that depicts a female patient of 19th century Neurologist, Dr. J.M. Charcot, in a faint, brought on by what was known at the time as “hysteria”.
There are two themes – that of Marie Curie, who was awarded two Nobel prizes for her work in Physics and Chemistry, an unheard-of achievement for a woman at the time, and the diaries of Blanche Wittman, a patient of Dr. Charcot. That is the point at which the facts stop and the reader has to suspend disbelief and the urge to do further research.
Interwoven lives of characters
Enquist weaves these lives together in such an enthralling and infuriating way that the reader wants to believe it is all fact. Yes, the story is infuriating, due to the rhythmic, repetitive, declamatory writing style and the extremely odd plot in which not much happens for quite a long time – and then something explosive does. “Blanche”‘s diaries reveal her to be the assistant to Marie Curie, and as a result of exposure to radioactive substances in the Curie laboratory, her limbs are amputated until she is no more than a beautiful one-armed torso in a box. Echoing this, Marie Curie has her career “amputated” piece by piece as she is condemned by society for having an affair with a married man, and Dr. Charcot himself loses first his acumen, then his peace of mind, and then his life due to his “amputation” from his favorite patient, Blanche, after whom he lusts, but whom he cannot possess.
Diagnosis of “hysteria”
The initial diagnoses of “hysteria” in the mid 1800s led to the victimization and public humiliation of both male and female patients. The condition has been depicted in many books and films, with varying degrees of accuracy and balance, notably the film Hysteria (2011), directed by Tanya Wexler.
While this is a novel, it nevertheless depicts more accurately than most the effects on the patient of the misdiagnoses and stigmas attached to the condition. Enquist shows the different ways in which all the characters – the doctor, Marie, her lover, Blanche and other patients, suffer from some sort of sexual repression and loss of limbs, lives, lovers or self. In short, he equates finding love and satisfying one’s sexuality with death – the ultimate loss.
The book is dense with themes and allusions, and as a result, intriguing and memorable. Enquist’s The Visit of the Royal Physician – an acclaimed international best-seller – puzzled me to such an extent that I felt compelled to research the Danish court in the second half of the 18th century, and one, even two readings, were not enough. I would have to read The Book about Blanche and Marie again many times to fully make sense of it. Enquist calls the public demonstration of a hysterical fit “La danse des Fous” – the fool’s dance, and all the characters, one way or another, with or without restraints, limbs or radioactive chemicals, dance it in this novel. In short – it is brilliant.
About the author
Per Olov Enquist, better known as P. O. Enquist, (born 23 September 1934 in Hjoggböle, Skellefteå, Västerbotten) is a Swedish author. He has worked as a journalist, playwright and novelist. In the nineties, he gained international recognition with his novel The Visit of the Royal Physician.
He was awarded the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize in 1968 with a recounting of Sweden’s deportation of Baltic-country soldiers at the end of the second world war. His recognition went on to include the Selma Lagerlöf Prize in 1977, the Dobloug Prize in 1988, and the Italian the Flaiano Prize in 2002. He also received the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize as well as the Nelly Sachs Prize in 2003 for Livläkarens Besök(titled in English translation as “The Visit of the Royal Physician”).
In 2010, Enquist was awarded The Austrian State Prize for European Literature for his great storytelling. In 2010, he was awarded the Swedish Academy’s Nordic Prize, known as the “Little Nobel”.