Mesmerized by Alissa Walser and Jamie Bulloch (translator)
|Mesmerized by Alissa Walser and Jamie Bulloch (translator)|
|Genre: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: A stylistically narrated novel based on historic events surrounding 18th century scientist, eccentric and fascinating oddity, Franz Anton Mesmer. As 21st century readers view it from a position of knowledge, the ideas and 'medical' treatments seem a little left field but that just adds charm and novelty.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 256||Date: June 2012|
|Publisher: MacLehose Press|
Celebrated scientist (at least in his own mind) Franz Anton Mesmer is called upon to cure the blindness of 18 year old piano virtuoso and courtier's daughter Marie Theresia Paradis. Despite the unease of her parents, Mesmer installs Marie into his 'magnetic hospital' where, alongside his other patients, she settles in to a regime of treatment, including free access to Mesmer's beloved piano. Mesmer is the Paradis' last resort and so they're happy to pay for success but they come to realise that the final cost may not be entirely financial and he realises that the result may not be beneficial to all parties.
German author Alissa Walser paints a fascinating picture of Mesmer's household, patients and work, centring, understandably enough, on Marie and her somewhat overwhelming parents. Can Mesmer change her from a silent waif, hiding behind darkness and a hideously huge wig? Looking at the scientist's methods it seems that any improvement his patients' condition was wrought more by luck than judgement.
Mesmer believed that, as the planets affect tides, they must also alter the magnetism within the human body; an effect that he believed could be used to heal and be replicated by placing magnets on the patient's body. This was questionable, even amongst his contemporaries; however the by-product of his treatment, the ability to put his patients into a trance-like state during treatment brought him both fame and notoriety. His ideas and methods may appear quackish to the modern world, but as we read of Marie's barbarous experiences endured while under the care of her previous doctors, Mesmer seems relatively harmless. (His method became known as 'mesmerism', eventually modifying to become the remedial hypnotism as we would recognise it today.)
The main problem that 18th century Viennese society had with Mesmer (and the reason he eventually had to flee despite being the Austrian royal family's physician) was that his methods included a lot of unchaperoned touching. I don't know about magnetism, but it certainly attracted scandal.
Alissa Walser's writing style (and therefore Jamie Bulloch's translation) is interesting. The point of view changes from character to character almost in a first person style with a difference. We're looking through their eyes totally and yet without any usage of 'I' or 'me'. There are also a lot of short, jerky sentences, a common method for transmitting suspense and excitement in action novels but seeming a little unusual in historic fiction as a general narrative approach. To begin with this was refreshing, but after a while it irked a little although not enough to put me off. (I'm just contrary!) By the way, it's refreshing to see Jamie Bulloch's achievements listed in the book notes alongside those of the author. Translation is often the Cinderella service of literature, whereas the necessity of a working partnership between translator and author should earn the art's practitioners higher recognition than they sometimes receive.
Meanwhile back at the novel... It benefits hugely from the changing viewpoints. We learn of Mesmer's opinion of himself, professional pride and the pain he bears from being misunderstood. It's also written in a way that ensures his fascination with his patients becomes our fascination. His wife, Anna, is able to communicate her jealousy, taking second place to a hospital that she financed. We witness Marie opening like a flower, despite the presence of screaming hysteric Mistress Ossine (not the most charismatic character, but I'm sure that's intentional). Then there's the maid: witness to and receptacle of Mesmer's secrets. As we go through the story we're almost encouraged to make assumptions and extrapolations from cleverly positioned unspoken nuances, but then there's a bold story twist and suddenly we need to reassess. Nice touch!
All in all Walser and Bulloch have succeeded in interpreting and reanimating a lost world where science was waiting to be discovered and scientists like Mesmer appear more outlandish than the theories they constructed... and that's saying something.
I would like to thank MacLehose Press for providing Bookbag a copy of this book for review.
If you have a penchant for eccentric scientists, then we suggest Tesla & Twain by Debbie Elliott.
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