Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer: unfinished human beings in an unfinished world

In Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, both Roth and editor/translator Michael Hofmann favorably refer to Ernst Weiss which was enough to send me looking for his novels. Fortunately Archipelago Books released this translation a couple of years ago (translation by Joel Rotenberg) and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Most reviews quote the opening line: “How could I, Georg Letham, a physician, a man of scientific training, of certain philosophical aspirations, let myself be so far carried away as to commit an offense of the gravest sort, the murder of my wife?” Except that isn’t the opening line. The three-page Foreword provides a glimpse inside Georg Letham’s psyche and hints at how to read the rest of the novel. These are the true opening lines:
Whether we appear as defendant or as witness, we unfinished human beings are not spared the trials of this even more unfinished world. Cruelty and futility are what we meet with, and during our brief existence we see them ad nauseam. No one can avoid this first philosophy. Constant hardship for the individual who battles in vain in the grim war of all against all, in this best-ordered of all possible worlds, pain, affliction of mind, inconceivable physical suffering, together with an idiotic waste of the energy and means given by nature. Who could make sense of it?

Georg Letham gives it a try. The Foreword paints a depressing world full of hardship and pain. Since we can’t make sense of the world, we seek pleasure, although that pleasure is only a temporary delirium that requires greater amounts to produce the same effect. Nature produces disorder, both in the world around us and within us. “Beauty, peace, harmony—all this, too, is no more than a delirium. Only wealth and knowledge give the individual a bit of a foothold.” Sounds like an uplifting book to read, doesn’t it?

Georg tips his hand in this opening section: “Yes, to give an account of such a life—not just some of it, but all of it—this might be a task for the modern novel.” The murder of his wife and his trial comprise the first section of the novel. The remaining sections follows Georg’s attempt to make sense of what happened. His greatest concern resides in a failure to be understood but along the way another fear surfaces—not understanding himself. There are many journeys in Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer but Georg’s attempt at redemption, his journey to cure a sickly and cruel human heart, turns out to be an underlying theme. Below are my notes for the sections of the novel—I’m only going to comment on a few of them in subsequent posts but I found these abbreviated headings helpful.

I will hold up a mirror to myself. With a steady hand. With the exacting eye of a scientist. Without mercy toward myself, just as I showed none toward others. What is man, that he shows mercy toward his own kind?

This is the best I can do. Perhaps someone else will be able to create a realistic novel out of my report on these “experiments on living souls.”

One: Crime and trial
Two: Boarding the Mimosa
Three: Father’s arctic expedition
Four: March and the voyage to C.
Five: Monica, Walter, experiments
Six: Experiments, recovery, death
Seven: Birth, redemption (?), breakthrough

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