Tuesday, August 15, 2017

WITMonth Day 15 | Madame Curie by Ève Curie

When I found Madame Curie in a used bookstore, it felt like a sign. Not only was this a beautifully bound biography of one of the greatest scientists in history, it was written by her daughter Ève Curie in French (tr. Vincent Sheean). Marie Curie, a woman in translation. Quite appropriate.

Even so, it took me a long time to get around to reading this biography. In general, I find that I need more time and focus for most biographies (for most nonfiction overall, honestly), something that often clashes with my work demands and limited reading time. I love nonfiction, but I find myself reading less and less of it in recent years (for entertainment, that is; I read plenty for work...). Once I started Madame Curie, however, it took two focused sittings and I was done with the book. Enthralled by the life of this woman I have read so much about, yet ultimately know so little of.

Because yes, most of us know that Marie Curie was Polish. But how did she get to France? How did she fall in love with the sciences? What guided her to the places she reached, where she would eventually become infamous?

Curiously - or perhaps not, given that the biography was written by Curie's publicly adoring younger daughter - Madame Curie does not linger much on the traditional puzzle pieces or complexities one would expect from a biography. Most of the book details her personal life, rather than the professional aspect. Ève raises the sexism that Marie faced as a rare woman in her field, but doesn't really focus on it. I found this fascinating, since modern biographical pieces on Marie Curie (such as those found in almost every "Great Women in Science" or whatever types of collections) tend to emphasize this point, from an explicitly modern perspective. Ève doesn't do that. Yes, she acknowledges some of what Marie experienced, but she offers few interpretations of her own.

Overall, Ève Curie proves to be an interesting biographer, since she is also a character within the book. It is fairly odd to read a book in which the author alternates between referring to herself in the third person and a few paragraphs later, recounting the object of her book (in this case, her mother) through a personal anecdote. It creates a weird dissonance that I didn't always like.

However, I think it sort of goes without saying that Madame Curie is the sort of book you read with little regard for the technical writing. Not that it's bad, but I honestly wouldn't rank this as an especially good biography. It's a great piece of history, it's a great emotional assessment of a woman frequently reduced only to her science, and it's a lovely exploration of Marie Curie's life. There's something very warm about the way Ève writes of her mother, even if it at times feels like she's whitewashing her own history a little.

And of course... there's the content. I can't help but love this book for its content. I have admired Marie Curie for years, of course, not simply as a woman in the sciences, but also as a clear example of a woman who didn't let anything stand in her way. Yet the image I had in my mind seems to have been far from who Marie Curie really was. Rather than  the wunderkind I'd always imagined, a woman who did everything in her youth and spent years afterwards simply fighting the system, Marie Curie who got a Master's at 26 (like I expect to!) and married the great love of her life at 27 (what was once considered old!) and achieved her doctorate over several years. Instead of the mythical all-capable goddess of my imagination, Marie Curie instead appears as a totally brilliant human. A human like me, perhaps. With its focus on Marie Curie as a person and not just a scientist, Madame Curie gave me the hope that perhaps I too can someday be this sort of scientist. In this regard, I cannot overstate how emotional Madame Curie left me, feeling as though I had been given a small gift.

As I said, this isn't the most technically brilliant of books. But Madame Curie is nonetheless important. Ève's perspective is unique and at-times significant, besides which there are few full-length biographies of Curie from which to choose. Madame Curie is a lovely, if oddly informal (and non-academic) biography of an incredible woman. And it meant so very much to me.

1 comment:

  1. Like you, I've been a great fan of Marie Curie for many, many years. I've read biographies of her and her husband, watched a TV series (ages ago, can't even remember what language it was in) about her life. I particularly admired, for instance, that with her group of scientist friends they set up a sort of communal creche for their children, so that they could still go and work at the lab, but give their children the mental stimulation they believed was essential. They simply took turns to 'educate' them, in a very Montessori way, guided by the children's own interests.

    ReplyDelete

Anonymous comments have been disabled due to an increase in spam.