February 18, 2010


Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer. By Ernst Weiss. Translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg. Archipelago Books. $17.

     This is a strange, compelling novel about a strangely compelling – if scarcely admirable – protagonist. A novel that is at once of its time (1931) and beyond time, Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer, never before available in English, is the first-person narrative of an unstable doctor who does not blanch at vivisection (although he much later says it gave him a “vague guilty feeling”); who marries for no good reason and murders his wife, also for no good reason; who has a prototypically Oedipal relationship with his father, who in turn goes so far as to try to change his own name to distance himself from this son; and who is not to be trusted – not even when writing his own story.

     Ernst Weiss (1882-1940) – physician, ship’s doctor and author – keeps the reader thoroughly off balance in this peculiar, mildly surrealistic novel that on the one hand reeks of between-the-wars sensibility and on the other delves deeply into timeless motivations and personality flaws – in some ways along the lines of Dostoevsky. Recurrent themes march through the book’s pages like Wagnerian leitmotifs. Two of the most important are rats – dealt with in grotesquely loving detail and with elements of horror reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” (1923) – and the phrase “loving hearts” (almost always given with quotation marks). Themes frequently interrelate, spilling over each other, as when Letham relates the failure of his father’s Arctic expedition, which was overrun by shipboard rats. An elaborate attempt to poison the rodents has this effect, described with medico-scientific care, on the crew: “Then someone begins to breathe with difficulty, to groan, he vomits, someone else croaks, racked with terrible throat irritation, tears gush from his eyes, his nose, his oral mucosa begin to be awash, twenty men complain of headaches, burning in their throats, choking, nausea, anxiety, fear of death, fear of darkness, fear of the northern lights, all throng to the gangplank, but this is no orderly retreat like that of the children of nature, the Eskimos and their animals; instead the civilized men stumble in the darkness, the steel hawsers slice the palms of their hands, they bump into each other, two of the scholars slip on the icy gangplank, slide sideways under one of the slippery steel hawsers and lie whimpering on the ice at the foot of the ship, all are as though gripped by madness.” After this torrent of words comes the brief analytical comment: “So this was the result: only thirty-two animals had met their maker.”

     This sort of boldly striking stylistic contrast pervades Weiss’ book. Letham is a most peculiar but highly engaging narrator – in the sense that he engages the reader, not in the sense of being a pleasant person. He writes of relatives of convicted criminals, “Possibly the ‘loving hearts’ had forgiven and forgotten all our misdeeds. They thanked thanklessness with thanks and presented their cheeks to be struck as my poor wife had once done. But had the crimes been undone on that account? You who are entirely free of conscience, step forward! I am not among you.” These rhetorical flourishes – one must assume they have been well rendered, since Joel Rotenberg’s translation reads so smoothly throughout – occur at irregular intervals, as Letham’s recounting of his story wanders hither and thither, wherever he chooses to take it. “I am the son of well-to-do, unpunished parents (or is it a punishment for the old man to have a son like me?), I was educated in good schools – but life was my best teacher, as my father was the first to prove to me. Once he made me spend the night with rats in a locked, pitch-dark room, to teach me not to be afraid of animals.”

     Mixed in with Letham’s memories and very imperfect introspection are a series of proclamations about grand human endeavors, often mingling elements of religion and science: “I have never believed very deeply in prayer or making the sign of the cross. Where ultramicroscopy, where microbial culture, where pathologic physiology rule, traditional religion usually has no crucial role to play. Sad, but true. Tragic, but that is the fact.” Yet Letham retains some sense of what is right and proper in medicine, as shown in the revulsion he feels for the prison doctor who examines him: “I am like a head of livestock to this wrinkly old fellow pawing me with his greasy hands… – this gray-haired, gold-braided oaf is prodding at my face, my ocular conjunctivae, with his dirty, sticky, rubber-gloved paws as though I were a low-grade steer. And if the old scoundrel touched a trachomatous conjunctiva a moment before, which is only too likely, or if Professor Hansen’s leprosy bacterium is still clinging to his rubber gloves, endangering not his but my epidermis, there’s not a thing I can do about it.”

     And where does all this remarkable – if overwrought and remorselessly self-centered – thinking take Letham? Spared from death because of his wartime service, instead sentenced to exile on a tropical island, he does good work as an epidemiologist in an area ravaged by yellow fever. And he engages in fairly complex human relationships as well as trenchant scientific observations: “Anything that can be found without difficulty today, now that science has already discovered the easy things, is usually wrong.” Yet it would be overstating and simplifying this lengthy novel to say that Letham somehow seeks redemption in his work, much less finds it, for he is neither sure that he needs redemption nor that there is any to be had. As it turns out, the book itself is Letham’s attempt to make his mark in the world (and in his own mind) by providing an analytical case study of…himself. Thus, Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer becomes self-referential to the point of navel gazing; but there is no peace to be found in it, and what insights it provides are strictly at the “meta” level – available, that is, to readers of Letham’s book, which is Weiss’ book, which becomes, finally, a reader’s journey to harrowing places, both within and without, to which, thankfully, few people will ever have to go in their mundane lives.

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