Best Translated Book Award 2011
This is a post I ran in 2010 for Ernst Weiss’ Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer. This is definitely one of my favorites for the shortlist.
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 this crime of the gravest sort, the murder of my wife?
And that is Ernst Weiss’ opening sentence to his 560 page novel, Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer. Weiss was an Austrian born Jew, a physician, a ship’s doctor and longtime friend of Franz Kafka. A man who witnessed enough of life’s harsh realities, he settled into writing as a search for the meaning of life and it’s unpredictable challenges to our ethics as individuals. When you begin a novel with a crime, or admission to a crime, you know that you are in store for a psychological journey into the heart and mind of the character. Highly influenced by the Expressionist movement, Ernst Weiss places under the microscope the emotional life of Georg Letham for us to examine. With this microscopic eye, the reader is presented with a reductive persona, a sketch in black and white, who morphs into a complex character full of emotional variegation and contradictions. Pulled in by Weiss’ imaginative prowess, each character introduced seems to be the beginning of novel that is equally compelling as the one we are reading. The rich characters and their association with Georg gives us a constantly changing perception of an unreliable narrator. What isn’t more compelling than the unsteady voice of a murderer who suppresses his guilt complex? Whose arrogance is so overwhelming at the onset that we are once repulsed and fascinated? A character so indifferent to his own fate that we are forced to care about it for him? Characters like this throw down in front of us the literary gauntlet – can you read about my egregious behavior, quickly learn to hate me and still stick with me until I have told my side of the story? We certainly can. True, Weiss’ work could have been edited and trimmed of a hundred pages. But the novel in the end doesn’t suffer from the narrative fat because of the strength of Weiss’ narrator.
Weiss paints Georg in the beginning as a non-emotional bacteriologist who is focused solely on his lab work. He makes a somewhat decent living as a doctor in a small community, he marries a woman older than him, and he has a woman on the side for pleasure. He begins gambling and he spirals deeper and deeper into debt. His intellect is no match for fate and he begins to lose patients at his clinic, his mistress becomes distraught and his lab work suffers. The only way out seems to be to kill his wife for her money. Of course he does, and of course he gets caught. This is a man who knows nothing of love or ethics:
I was happy. But not at ease. In the bedroom I turned on the light once more and got a clean hand towel from my wife’s small bathroom, which was charmingly done in almond green and pale pink. I spread it over the still uncovered part of my dead wife’s face. Then I turned back the coverlet and spread the towel over her throat and chest as well. The window was still open, the hot, moist breeze caught in the dry, bright linen, lifting it where it swelled over the curves of the chest. Rhythmic rising and falling. But I knew what was what. I turned out the light. In a built-in wardrobe, the wood suddenly contracted with a sharp crack.
But how did he get this way? With a cargo ship full of father issues, Georg is set up to easily be steered down the road of deviant behavior. His mother dies early and his left with his older brother and sister, his oppressive father(also a physician), and a desire to connect with someone. During his childhood, he doesn’t find anyone who piques his interest until he meets Walter, a handsome and intelligent fellow student in his medical classes. He has a old-fashioned man crush on Walter, who figures more prominently later in the novel:
In the strangest way, for which there are no words, I felt attracted toward this student Walter. As the patient beyond saving is to the doctor, perhaps. But what does one have to do with the other? Nothing. Beyond saving…doctor. God could not make sense of it.
Many times in the novel, Georg is faced with and often plays with homosexual leanings. He doesn’t condone it and he doesn’t condemn it and perhaps even exploits it. Weiss doesn’t emphatically make it known that this is a psychological reaction to the cold indifference exhibited by his father, but the equation that Weiss lays out definitely offers this as a possible answer. Frequently, he is empathetic towards March who is homosexual and his closest friend during his prison term. Since this novel was written in the early 20th century, the frankness with which Weiss deals with homosexuality is daring. March, whom Georg nicknames Gummi Bear(!), is in prison for accidentally murdering a cadet that he loved. Georg then becomes the object of his affection and his devoted servant. Georg accepts this and even canoodles with March, admitting that it makes him feel better. Georg also makes derisive comment about March and his proclivities, but then immediately feels remorse for doing so. This highlights the contradiction in his character, a cold and calculating physician and murderer, and also shows the evolution of Georg’s capacity for emotion.
It would be faulty to feel completely manipulated by the plot…and Weiss tells us so:
I will now be extremely brief, despite the fact that what follows, what I wish to get out of the way in this chapter, the eleventh, is the bread and butter of that literary genre considered the most enthralling in our era, namely, the detective novel. What I am actually concerned with is facts, facts such as the facts of the “torpedo,” which date back at least fifteen years now and which my father plays a starring role, and then facts that did not come to light until after my sentencing, and those later facts surrounding, the figure of that friend (as I have actually only been able to call him since he ceased to be one) of my youth, Walter.
Most of the novel is about Georg’s prison life on colony ‘C’ where yellow fever kills many of it’s inhabitants. Put to work in the hospital to treat yellow fever patients, Georg is works under the direction of Dr. Carolus and strangely enough, his old friend Walter. Georg gets March to work alongside him as the team of four tries to figure out the destructive nature of the virus. Even with the horrific settings he is forced to live in, he is unfettered in his desire to work in the lab and to find the cure for the virus:
A stench for which there is no name, so nauseating and intolerable that the demonic imagination of a Dante could not have conceived it, assaulted us from the small, electrically lighted, relatively cool underground room. March clutched me with a low cry. Even the leathery, phlegmatic Carolus trembled all over. Only Walter and I did not lose our composure.
Through the unrelenting battle to figure out this disease, many things happen in the lives of these men, and obviously, particularly Georg. There are not tremendous external events, but mostly shifts in his emotional life that allow the reader to consider granting redemption to Georg Letham. Thematically, we are bombarded with the presence of rats and ethics. Not only using rats as a subject of experimentation, but even providing a story in which rats rebel against humans and only Georg’s father (and two others) survives. All the characters ethics are challenged and in such a way that it becomes difficult to discern right or wrong. Even when we know they have done wrong, we are led to believe that their ethics are still basically in tact and that their behavior will change.
Weiss fled to Paris to escape the Nazis, but killed himself once the city had been invaded in 1940. And perhaps because Weiss couldn’t escape who he was, a Jewish man, then that is why his novels seemed to mirror the struggle for the character to escape who they are. What makes Georg Letham so fascinating is not that he is a murderer, but that he knows this and is still plagued with a compulsion to contribute to humanity by curing the yellow fever virus. He kills for money, but when stripped of the need for money and forced to live, he becomes more of a human being.
This novel belongs with the luminaries of Expressionist literature, namely Kafka. Amongst the riches of life, Georg Letham murders. Amidst the miserable poverty of life, he discovers his soul. We are challenged to believe or not believe, but in the end it doesn’t matter because we are convinced he deserves to live.