Friday, June 22, 2012

Mesmerized by Alissa Walser

In a colourful, chaotic private hospital in 18th Century Vienna, whose corridors echo with the screams of hysterical patients, Franz Anton Mesmer is developing a series of controversial cures for body and mind. When he is asked to restore the sight of a blind musical prodigy favoured by the Empress, he senses that fame, and even immortality, is within his grasp. Mesmer knows that he will have to gain her trust if he is to open her eyes. But at what cost to her fragile talent? And will their intimacy result in scandal?

Celebrated scientist and egotist, Franz Anton Mesmer is summoned to the house of the Vienna Court Secretary and set the task of curing 18-year-old Marie Theresa Paradis. Marie hides from the world in silent darkness and a huge wig, and I am not sure what the parents expected of Mesmer – after all, isn’t blindness physical? However, Mesmer installs her in his 'magnetic hospital'. He embarks upon a programme of treatment, and in exchange for her co-operation, Marie is given access to Mesmer’s own piano.

Mesmer holds the opinion that the planet is affected by tides, thus they must also alter the magnetism inside the human physiology which could be harnessed to heal by positioning magnets on the patient's body. His method became known as 'mesmerism', refined over time into hypnotism, which is now recognised as a valid therapy. However this is 18th Century Austria and Mesmer is either a genius or a rogue.

His ability to put his patients into a trance-like state during treatment brings him attention from the medical and scientific world as well as a certain notoriety. I didn’t much like the ‘lunatic’ scenes, which only reinforced all my nightmares of bedlam in the 17th century. But then mental illness was a grey area in the 1700’s. And in some ways it still is.

Mesmer start to show success when he is able to restore Marie’s sense of dark and light. Soon he is inundated with new patients, and he becomes convinced he is destined for glory. However, as Marie’s sight improves, her musical genius diminishes and her ‘doctor’ is branded a charlatan. Worse, he is accused of inappropriate intimacy with Marie.

Mesmer’s fascination with his patients also causes a degree of jealousy in his wife, Anna, especially when she provided the money for his hospital and then he neglects her in favour of his damaged subjects. Anna is a changing character in the novel, as is the melodramatic Mistress Ossine, and a maid who knows all Mesmer’s secrets.

Alissa Walser's writing style is difficult to judge as the version I read was a translation of the German original, with multiple and deep first person PoV’s.  These changing viewpoints, though distracting at times, help the reader see what is going on in the heads of his patients, and critics.  We know about Mesmer's opinion of himself, thus the egotistic label, and the angst he experiences when he is misunderstood.

Mesmer is driven away from the glory he assumed would be his, and here the story jumps in time and ends with a nice little twist I wasn’t expecting. In fact this is an unexpected story altogether and will certainly appeal to those interested in emerging mental health medicine. 

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