Memoirs of My Nervous Illness by Paul Schreber

Memoirs of My Nervous Illness was an important work in the development of modern psychiatry.  Sigmund Freud based parts of his study of psychoanalysis on the book, though he never met Mr. Schreber.  Mr. Schreber was a judge in late 19th century Dresden–married with no children.  He had three bouts of “nervous illness,” each landing him in an asylum.   Eventually, he became well enough to live in society and to write a memoir.  It was published over the objections of his family who tried to buy up all of the copies.  Fortunately for Sigmund Freud, they failed.

Little was known about mental illness during Mr. Schreber’s lifetime.  Mr. Schreber hears voices and sees hallucinations, but he does not understand them as such.  To him, they are all real.  He does not seek to convince himself otherwise at all. Instead, he seeks to understand how the voices and hallucinations work, who or what is behind them and how must he deal with what they do to him.  He creates an entire cosmology consisting of two levels of gods at war with each other through him.  They seek to control his soul by controlling his nerves, which he understands as functioning through vibrations and as connected to forces outside of himself.  He describes one method of attack on his nerves:

Further, in the time I am discussing attempts were repeatedly made to cover my nerves with some noxious matter; it appeared as if the natural capacity of nerves to vibrate were thereby impaired, so that even I myself had at times the impression of becoming temporarily stupid.  One of the agents concerned was called “poison of intoxication”; I cannot say what its chemical nature was. From time to time also the liquids of the food I had taken were by miracle placed on the nerves of my head, so that these were covered with a sort of paste, and the capacity to think temporarily impaired; I remember distinctly that this happened once with coffee.

He is not speaking of a metaphorical paste covering his nerves, but of reality as he understands it.  Clearly he is mad, but at no point does he doubt the reality of his delusions.  He does not understand why he is the only one who can see the strange things he sees, but this does not disprove the miraculous events he experiences. Instead it elevates his own status, making him more important in the grand scheme of things.  The fact that he is the only one who knows that the coffee he drinks is turning into a paste that attacks his nervous systems rendering him temporarily dumb makes it no less a fact.   His doctors try to tell him otherwise, but how can he deny the evidence of his own senses?  He never does.

Reading Memoirs of My Nervous Illness one can’t help but wonder about other people who have claimed to see visions and to have experienced the miraculous.  Mr. Schreber’s cosmology explains his world.  There are no events that happen to him that cannot be explained through his theory of vibrations and the forces that try to stop or control them.  Is what makes him crazy the same thing that makes someone else a saint?  When does the madman become a visionary?

While Memoirs of My Nervious Illness is an entertaining and englightening read, it is not an entirely easy one.  I don’t think it can be read as a novel, but it can be read as a character study.  There’s no plot arc to it, but as the book progressess the reader grows to understand Mr. Schreber to the point where he almost becomes believeable as though his life were a novel.  File this book in the fiction section, and his story of forces trying to control his actions is as believeable as any told by an unreliable narrator.  File it in the non-fiction and he becomes a paranoid schizophrenic.  In either case, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness is fascinating reading.

I first published this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in the summer of 2010.  This was one of the books I found in the Yale library while I was taking a summer course for teachers on Canterbury Tales.  I read all sorts of obscure literature, some of it very obscure, even more obscure than Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.  

The Duel by Heinrich Von Kleist

duel kleistThis is the first of Melville House’s “Duel” series to feature a serious duel.  The others were life or death situations, but they were part of an overall comic or satirical structure that made fun of dueling or at least critiqued it.

In Heinrich Von Kleist’s novel, translated by Annie Janusch, the duel is taken seriously by all involved, author included.

Set in the late fourteenth century, The Duel concerns a noblewoman whose husband has been murdered under circumstances that cast her in a very bad light.  Her honor in ruins, she has no one to defend her against the charges brought by her brother-in-law who has an airtight alibi for the night of the murder.  She begs for sanctuary from an old friend, a knight who at one time was in love with the noblewoman.  He agrees to take her in and defends her the only way he can, by challenging her accuser to trial by combat, a duel to the death.  Let God reveal the truth.

The reader knows that the noblewoman is innocent as does just about everyone else involved.  However, her knight is wounded in the duel so badly that he is unable to continue the fight.  So it appears that God has ruled in favor of the brother-in-law.

Except there’s a twist.

The knight quickly recovers and asks to carry on with the duel the following day.  The brother-in-law becomes infected from the slight wounds he received and begins to die.

Just what was God thinking?

Heinrich Von Kleist wrote The Duel in 1810, just one year before his own suicide.  I’m not expert enough on Germany in the early 19th century to say, but I expect the puzzle presented by this duel’s outcome was one that would have interested readers in a sincere way.  None of the characters are unbelievers.  The noblewoman and the knight both believe themselves to be guilty due to the results of the duel.  They are as confused by the message God has sent them as faithful readers must have been.  Everybody believes God has rendered his verdict through the duel, but just what was that verdict.

It’s just the sort of conundrum Medieval scholars would have loved: what if the loser of a duel survives but the winner dies?  Who then has God revealed to be guilty.

It was a fun read, one that I enjoyed and one that I hope to read again some day.

 

Come Sweet Death by Wolf Haas

come sweet deathI enjoyed the first two Simon Brenner novels, I’m sure of it.  I remember loving the way they were narrated–a third person narrator who referred to himself in the first person, making little cracks about the characters as the plot went along.

They were good books. The narrator was funny.

So what happened this time around.

Come Sweet Death has Simon Brenner still trying to get as far away from detective work as an ex-cop can get.  He’s taken a job as an ambulance driver with a small time company, the number two company in town.  But even here he finds himself confronted with a crime his boss asks him to solve.

It was interesting to see how ambulance services work in Austria.  Apparently, they compete with each other; whoever shows up to the scene first gets to take the patient to the hospital and collect the fee.  The drivers Brenner works with all try to run as many red lights as they can, just to see who can set the record.

They even dare each other…….speaking of dares, have you taken The TBR Triple Dog Dare yet?  Go here to sign up. 😉

Sad to say, but the inside look at the Austrian ambulance industry was what I liked most about Come Sweet Death.

This time around, the narrator whom I found so much fun last time proved to be more irritating than innovative.  Last time I enjoyed the narrator’s comments, came to see him as another character in the novel one I would have liked to take out for a beer.  This time he just went on and on in a way that interrupted without adding anything of value.

I began estimating the ratio between digressive narration and action.  Some pages ran four fifths digression.

Too much for me.

I liked the earlier Brenner novels so much that should another one come my way I’ll probably read it.  I’ll probably even re-read The Bone Man someday.  It could have just been my frame of mind this time around. Maybe I just have to be in the mood for digression.

When it works well, it’s Lawrence Sterne writing Tristram Shandy.

 

Suspicion by Friedrich Durrnematt

Suspicion is the second of two novels featured in The Inspector Barlach Mysteries by Friedrich Durrenmatt published by The University of Chicago Press.  Getting your hands on a copy probably won’t be easy, but it will be worth the effort.  Both feature cynical, ailing Inspector Barlach, diagnosed with a terminal illness in The Judge and His Hangman, with just a few months left to live in Suspicion

While in the hospital recovering from a heart attack, waiting to get well enough to undergo surgery, Inspector Barlach receives a visit from an old friend, a Jewish man who survived the Nazi concentration camps.  His friend tells him about a particular doctor infamous for performing experimental surgery without anesthesia.  Barlach’s friend is the only prisoner known to have survived treatment at the hands of the notorious Dr. Nehle.  Dr. Nehle escaped the invading Russian army only to commit suicide a few years after the war.  The only known photograph of the living Dr. Nehle was taken during surgery while the doctor was wearing a surgical mask.

Except Inspector Barlach’s friend insist that Dr. Nehle is still alive and is practicing under the name of Dr. Emmenberger at a nearby health spa where the very wealthy go to receive his special treatments.  Inspector Barlach will let neither ill health, forced retirement, nor impending death keep him from investigating the case, and he is soon convinced that his friend is correct, that the successful Dr. Emmenberger is really the notorious Dr. Nehle.  To prove he is correct, Inspector Barlach arranges his own transfer to the health spa where he will be cared for by Dr. Emmenberger/Nehle and where he will have the chance to interrogate the doctor about his past.

As pure thriller, seldom have I found anything as hard to put down as Suspicion.  Imagine a laconic Hercule Poirot crossed with the urgency of Sorry Wrong Number.  At just over 100 pages Suspicion is a detective thriller stripped down to its essence.  There are no McGuffins here, no quirky characters diverting our attention into subplots, no forays into local color for the sake of travelogue.  Every action, every character serves the purpose of developing the plot as Inspector Barlach rushes into danger in spite of confinement in his own death bed.  He practically solves the case from beyond the grave.  As a police procedural, Suspicion works quite well, but here even Inspector Barlach eventually reaches the limits of police work.

In the end, he has just about nothing to go on but his own suspicion.

I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2010 and I really hope that I kept my copy.  I’ve been thinking about this book lately, I think becuase the most recent German mystery thriller I read was a bit flat.  I hope to have a brief review of that one up later this week. As for the Inspector Berlach books, read them. They are both wonderful.

This book counts for German Literature Month.

 

Berlin Now: The City After the Wall by Peter Schneider

berlin nowI confess–I’m secretly pleased with myself for having a book that counts towards Non-fiction November and German Literature Month at the same time.

Good for me.  😉

Peter Schneider’s 2014 survey of Berlin life, translated by Sophie Schlondorff, is a perfect read for anyone who is interested in Berlin or anyone who already loves the place.

C.J. and I have been there twice; we’re big fans.

Mr. Schneider starts his book with the question of why Berlin has become one of the most popular cities in the world.  It’s not a particularly beautiful city, many would argue that it’s kind of ugly.  The people who live there are not famous for being friendly. It doesn’t have the immediate, more romantic appeal many European cities have nor is it one of those historical sites everyone longs to see.  There’s no Eiffel Tower, no London Bridge, no leaning tower.   But Berlin has an energy that no other city I’ve ever been to has, a kind of creative, let’s get building sensibility that I associate only with Berlin.  In spite of not really having anything to offer at first glance, it’s a wonderful, exciting city.

Mr. Schneider’s book includes chapters on night clubs, the construction at Potsdamer Platz, love and sex in the city, what happened to the wall itself, the Stasi legacy…all of the usual suspects.  But there are also unexpected things like a chapter on Vietnamese Berlin, Turkish Berlin, Berlin’s monuments and cemeteries, and just how Nefertiti came find a home in Berlin.

It’s all a very entertaining, very breezy read.  While Mr. Schneider is certainly opinionated and may not cover the exact topics you’d like to have covered, there is no chapter on gay life in Berlin for example, he is a knowledgeable tour guide, someone who has spent his adult life in Berlin and knows what he is talking about.  He’s a bit like your slightly cool great uncle who can get you into certain places you’ve always heard about but never been able to visit.

Reading his book has made me think about visiting Berlin again.  Turns out, there’s still more Berlin to experience.

 

Suspicion by Friedrich Durrenmatt translated by Joel Agee

Suspicion is the second of two novels featured in The Inspector Barlach Mysteries by Friedrich Durrenmatt published by The University of Chicago Press.  Getting your hands on a copy probably won’t be easy, but it will be worth the effort.  Both feature cynical, ailing Inspector Barlach, diagnosed with a terminal illness in The Judge and His Hangman, with just a few months left to live in Suspicion

While in the hospital recovering from a heart attack, waiting to get well enough to undergo surgery, Inspector Barlach receives a visit from an old friend, a Jewish man who survived the Nazi concentration camps.  His friend tells him about a particular doctor infamous for performing experimental surgery without anesthesia.  Barlach’s friend is the only prisoner known to have survived treatment at the hands of the notorious Dr. Nehle.  Dr. Nehle escaped the invading Russian army only to commit suicide a few years after the war.  The only known photograph of the living Dr. Nehle was taken during surgery while the doctor was wearing a surgical mask.

Except Inspector Barlach’s friend insist that Dr. Nehle is still alive and is practicing under the name of Dr. Emmenberger at a nearby health spa where the very wealthy go to receive his special treatments.  Inspector Barlach will let neither ill health, forced retirement, nor impending death keep him from investigating the case, and he is soon convinced that his friend is correct, that the successful Dr. Emmenberger is really the notorious Dr. Nehle.  To prove he is correct, Inspector Barlach arranges his own transfer to the health spa where he will be cared for by Dr. Emmenberger/Nehle and where he will have the chance to interrogate the doctor about his past.

As pure thriller, seldom have I found anything as hard to put down as Suspicion.  Imagine a laconic Hercule Poirot crossed with the urgency of Sorry Wrong Number.  At just over 100 pages Suspicion is a detective thriller stripped down to its essence.  There are no McGuffins here, no quirky characters diverting our attention into subplots, no forays into local color for the sake of travelogue.  Every action, every character serves the purpose of developing the plot as Inspector Barlach rushes into danger in spite of his confinement in his own death bed.  He practically solves the case from beyond the grave.  As a police procedural, Suspicion works quite well, but here even Inspector Barlach eventually reaches the limits of police work.

In the end, he has just about nothing to go on but his own suspicion.

I first ran this review back on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., in 2010.  I saved my copy to reread once I’m in retirement, but I don’t know.  Maybe I should give it another go for German Literature month in November.  It was really, really good.

The Drinker by Hans Fallada

Hans Fallada, a German author who survived World War II by only a few years, wrote The Drinker while imprisoned in a German insane asylum following a drunken altercation with his wife that ended in gunfire. (No one was injured.)  While in the asylum, Fallada agreed to write an anti-semitic novel based on a court case about corrupt Jewish financiers in the 1920’s. However, instead of writing the novel Joseph Goebbels expected, Fallada used the pencils and paper he was given to secretly write The Drinker, an autobiographical account of a respectable man whose life is ruined by alcoholism.

The Drinker is of interest on two levels. The novel stands on its own as a work of fiction. Its narrator, a successful, happily married business man, tells the story of his descent through drink to lower and lower rungs of society to his end in a psychiatric asylum from which he will never escape. As he sees it, he is the victim of a society that stacks the deck against him and of a wife who is out to get all his wealth and then abandon him. Every step of the way, the reader is aware that the narrator is unreliable, that what he tells us, how he sees events, is determined by his alcoholism. The narrator does not realize that he provides his readers with a case study in the effects of uncontrolled addiction to drink.

The Drinker is never a glamorous story. Hans Fallada is a realist, one who could stand toe-to-toe against Zola any day of the week. The narrator frequents neighborhood bars until he is banned from them. Then he frequents dive bars in worse parts of town. Eventually he is reduced to begging for drinks, until his wife agrees to take him back. He swears he will stop drinking, he will get the business back on its feet, he will be a good husband again. The moment things don’t go his way, success doesn’t come easily, he returns to the bars, steals his wife’s money, falls in with a more criminal element and ends up in prison.

The Drinker is not just an excellent novel, it is a historical document. The account of alcoholism Hans Fallada presents is a record of what that experience was like in 1930′s Germany. There was no 12-step program in place, no enlightened approach to treatment for alcoholics. The only option the narrator’s wife has is to press charges against her husband as soon as she can, have him imprisoned, and determine whether or not to divorce him. He can’t get help because there is none to be given. The asylum where he is eventually imprisoned for life, is not a place of treatment, nor one of refuge, but a dog-eat-dog world where each man struggles daily just to get enough food to keep himself alive another day. I’d like to think that asylums in Germany were much worse than other places, but I imagine they were probably on par with the rest of the world in the 1930’s.

Alcoholism is certainly still a serious problem, but things have improved over time. There has been progress. The disease itself is still as serious as it ever was, and those who suffer from it still find themselves losing everything like the narrator of The Drinker does. Fortunately, now when someone finally hits bottom, there are people and programs who can help with recovery.

Hans Fallada died in 1947. Hans Fallada’s The Drinker is translated into English by Charlotte and A.L. Lloyd.

 

I first reviewed The Drinker for my old blog, Ready Whey You Are,C.B. back in 2009 shortly after I discovered Hans Fallada.  I don’t recall how I came across Each Man Dies Alone, the first of his novels that I read, but I was impressed enough by it to seek out more.  I still have What No Little Man on my TBR list so I’ll have something “new” by Hans Fallada to read in retirement.