6th Sep 2012
Mesmerized by Alissa Walser
Alissa Walser‘s debut novel Mesmerized – originally published in Germany in 2010 – won her the Spycher Leuk Literaturpreis.
Thanks to an elegant translation by Jamie Bulloch, it is available for the first time to an English-speaking audience.
The novel’s female protagonist, the 18-year-old blind pianist Maria Theresia Paradis - a contemporary of Mozart, who composed a concerto for her - is sent to the famous Dr Mesmer in an attempt to restore her sight.
Despite initially taking on the case to win favour with Vienna‘s elite, Mesmer soon finds himself as compelled by his young patient as she is by him.
An early developer of psychology, Mesmer focused on what he called ‘animal magnetism,’ a process enhanced by placing magnets upon his patients’ bodies.
Though a somewhat laughable method by 21st-century standards, his theories nontheless showed a remarkably prescient understanding of mental illnesses.
In comparison with his peers, who used methods such as electro-shock therapy as standard, Mesmer’s cures concentrated far more on talking processes.
But with his physical approach to therapy, and his dealings with ‘hysterical’ female patients, he prompted as much scandal as acclaim.
The action is kept deliberately vague: whilst Maria at one point describes Mesmer’s therapeutic methods as akin to an orgasmic experience, the reader is allowed to decipher just how (in)appropriate the doctor/patient relationship is.
With the eyes of Vienna upon them, the two are quickly thrown apart by the gossip their relationship gives rise to.
Whilst Mesmer is undoubtedly the focus of the piece, we see him through not only his eyes, but also those of Maria, his wife and his maid.
Mesmer’s wife is presented as a particularly strong character, torn between her love for her husband and her envy of the work that takes him away from her – and towards an array of beautiful and vulnerable women.
Unlike many historical novels, Walser eschews more elaborate storytelling in favour of what seems a more modernist approach. With short choppy sentences and constant changing of perspectives, what is initially a slightly jarring prose style provides an excellent insight into her many characters.
The language reflects the theme of music that runs throughout the novel. Walser’s prose rises and falls with the plot, with Bulloch’s skilled translation providing a depth and beauty.
With readers kept guessing right until the end, Mesmerized is compelling and lyrical – a refreshing take on the historical novel and fascinating look at a crucial formative period of Western medicine and psychiatry.
Recommended for: Lovers of historical and contemporary fiction alike, and those with an interest in psychology and psychiatry.
Other recommended reading: For more sensuous German literature try Patrick Suskind‘s Perfume. Asti Hustvedt’s Medical Muses provides another fascinating look at the precursors to modern understandings of mental illness, this time from the hospitals of Paris.