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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Principle

Jérôme Ferrari

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To purchase The Principle

Title: The Principle
Author: Jérôme Ferrari
Genre: Novel
Written: 2015 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 135 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Principle - US
The Principle - UK
The Principle - Canada
Le principe - Canada
Le principe - France
Das Prinzip - Deutschland
Il principio - Italia
El principio - España
  • French title: Le principe
  • Translated by Howard Curtis

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Our Assessment:

B : odd structure and presentation, but Heisenberg's history -- and some of these questions -- enough to hold anyone's interest

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express . 2/3/2015 Baptiste Lige
NZZ . 17/11/2015 Matthias Hennig
Die Zeit . 23/4/2015 Jutta Person

  From the Reviews:
  • "Précise et lyrique, l'écriture de Jérôme Ferrari cherche à restituer la complexité et le mystère d'un génie s'efforçant de regarder "par-dessus l'épaule de Dieu". Dans une construction aussi précise qu'un théorème, Le Principe dépasse la simple évocation d'une vie et ses zones de flou, pour mieux interroger les fondements de toute vérité." - Baptiste Lige, L'Express

  • "Diese Verbindung von Rahmensituation und Binnenhandlung wirkt auffällig unelegant -- und so unmotiviert wie die skizzierten Parallelen zur Person von Ernst Jünger, der hier und da durch den Text geistert. All das wird auch nicht dadurch gerettet, dass der Erzähler unbeirrt und unironisch seine Kompetenzmängel in den Fächern Roman-Schreiben und Quantenphysik-Verstehen hervorhebt. (...) Intellektuell gesättigt fühlt man sich nach der Lektüre jedenfalls nicht, vielmehr hat man Hunger auf kräftigendere Bissen." - Matthias Hennig, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "(D)er Roman will die Schönheit des Denkens feiern und ist den Entschuldungsstrategien der deutschen Atomphysiker auf der Spur. Die Frage, warum Heisenberg nicht emigrierte, wird in immer neuen Anläufen umkreist." - Jutta Person, 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:

       German physicist Werner Heisenberg is a two-for-one source for fictional-philosophical debate that's been utilized by a variety of writers over the years. One the one hand there's his famous 'uncertainty principle', which says we can't know it all: the more precisely we know the position of a particle, the less we (can) know about it's speed (well, actually: momentum), and vice versa: uncertainty remains, and at best we can choose about what we want to be more un/certain of. Then there's the fact Heisenberg remained in Germany after the Nazis came to power, and was involved in the German efforts to design an atomic bomb, raising all sorts of ethical issues and questions (in part also because it's unclear exactly what role Heisenberg played in all this, and what his intentions were; he was no supporter of the regime, but was active in the program ...; among others, Michael Frayn recently explored this, in his popular play, Copenhagen).
       Ambitiously, Jérôme Ferrari tackles both, in a loosely auto/biographical twin-track narrative -- talk about not being able to pin down position and momentum at the same time ..... The novel is divided into four parts: 'Positions', 'Speed', 'Energy', and 'Time', and Heisenberg's major stations are covered more or less chronologically, beginning with him seeing his father off to war and his precocious student days, through his great discovery, Nobel Prize, and then the Nazi era, his internment at Farm Hall, and finally a return to Germany.
       Yet this is not, for the most part, your usual biographical fiction: the narrator begins by addressing Heisenberg personally -- yes, much of the novel is written in the second person --, as if trying to engage directly with the subject (despite knowing that the dead guy can't answer back). Observation affects measurement is one of the ways of seeing the uncertainty principle -- that's not quite right, but there's enough overlap that you can see how Ferrari means to use it -- and the writer engaging with his subject in this direct manner naturally can also be seen to affect outcomes. It's an interesting fictional-theoretical idea, and Heisenberg an ideal subject, and one might wish Ferrari had gone all-in with that; unfortunately, his focus seems to waver. So for example, there are parts which are more traditionally generically biographical, accounts of parts of Heisenberg's life that are recounted from a(n apparently) more neutral perspective, rather than the intimate second person -- the narrator backing of, as it were.
       Further complicating matters is the narrator himself, and his own stations. He remains in the background for much of the novel, but does come to the fore to reveal himself and some of what he's going through on occasions. Somewhat oddly, the (quite short) narrative extends over decades, beginning with a young narrator in the summer and fall of 1989, a student apparently first beginning to engage with the subject(s) of the scientist when he is to be called on to comment on Heisenberg's Physics and Philosophy. A later part comes from 1995, when he is idling away time not long after being released from his military service, while the final sections find the narrator in 2009.
       There appears to be an obvious autobiographical streak here: the narrator's age matches Ferrari's, and he has writer-ambitions, from early on dreaming: "of the novel I will soon write" (while soon(er) becomes later ...).
       Ferrari does make his way through (much of) Heisenberg's unusual life well -- The Principle can serve as solid, quick biographical introduction to and overview of the man -- and dwells reasonably well on some of the major issues, such as the treatment of 'Jewish' science and scientists under the Nazis (baffling to Heisenberg, who understands that science is removed from such considerations) to some of the issues surrounding remaining in Germany during the war years. Secondary figures -- Otto Hahn, Hans Euler, and then the whole gang at Farm Hall, in that unusual situation -- are also usefully employed. Less successful is the repeated appearance of author Ernst Jünger, presumably meant to be a contrasting form of German nationalist -- but that, and he, are a whole other chapter, and Ferrari doesn't devote nearly enough space to developing much about that.
       All in all, it makes for an odd book, Ferrari ultimately focusing on Heisenberg's life (and quandaries) even as he vacillates about creating a more theoretically-applied fiction, and bringing his narrator more into the story. There's too much of the subject (Heisenberg) and too little concerning the observer and the process of observing for the novel to really work in the Heisenbergian terms Ferrari seems to be aiming for (but not quite following through with). A somewhat overwrought style, especially when the narrator is more youthful (when it is perhaps appropriate), is also somewhat wearing.
       Yes, Heisenberg alone can carry the slim volume -- but there's more trying to get out (or in), and it's a shame that doesn't work better here.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 February 2017

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The Principle: Reviews: Werner Heisenberg: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Jérôme Ferrari was born in 1968.

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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