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Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer (1931)

by Ernst Weiss

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This book, the latest in my Archipelago Books subscription, is remarkable: equal parts compelling and horrifying. In it, Georg Letham tells the stories of the murder of his wife, his father's struggles on an Arctic expedition, and his own transport to a tropical penal colony and his medical work there in the midst of yellow fever epidemics. Throughout it all, Ernst Weiss's amazingly vivid writing made me visualize these disparate worlds, the people in them, and Letham's unending obsessiveness and capacity for self-delusion. Some of the material, in fact, was so vivid, that I found it a little hard to stomach, in particular extensive sections involving rats and some of the medical horrors in the penal colony Originally published in 1911, the book captures the expressionism and psychological interests of the era and really leaves me somewhat at a loss to describe what it is really "about" It was also slightly marred for me because the geography seemed a little confused and I found the narrator's occasional offhand racist comments more jarring than his other offensive behavior, perhaps because it seemed less an expression of his character and more a comment on prevalent attitudes at the time.
  rebeccanyc | Apr 14, 2010 |
Ernst Weiss (1882-1940) was an Austrian surgeon of Jewish descent who gave up his medical career to become a writer, after contracting TB and working as a ship doctor and a military physician. He became close friends with Franz Kafka, and eventually moved to Paris in 1934 to escape from the Nazis. There he lived in poverty, with support from Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig, until he committed suicide as the Nazis invaded the city. His novel Georg Letham. Arzt und Mörder was written in 1931. It did not appear in English translation until Archipelago Books published it in January of this year.

Georg Letham is a physician and bacteriologist who finds himself in a state of desperation, as he is trapped in a marriage to a wealthy woman he does not love, and he is out of money, as he has neglected his clinical practice to focus on his reserach of the toxin that causes scarlet fever. In an act that is both planned and spontaneous, he murders his wife, but is soon caught, after he confesses to his father.

Letham seems to lack remorse during his trial, and is quickly convicted of his crime, but is spared the death penalty thanks to former colleagues who spoke on his behalf. He is given a life sentence of hard labor on an island off the coast of Brazil, and is transported alongside other prisoners on a steamer. He bribes an officer on the ship, and is permitted to treat other prisoners in the ship's sick bay that have become afflicted with typhus. After an arduous journey, the ship arrives at the unnamed island, and he is designated for work at a hospital that specializes in the care of those infected with yellow fever. The cause of yellow fever was not known at that time, and Letham soon learns that several of his physician colleagues from Vienna have also come to investigate this plague. He is permitted to assist the researchers, and soon becomes a member of the team. The researchers hypothesize that the illness is transmitted from bites of infected mosquitoes, but it appears that only monkeys and humans are affected by the disease. The researchers decide to undertake a risky research study, by infecting themselves with mosquitoes that are allowed to bite patients hospitalizaed with yellow fever, which is an untreatable and often fatal illness.

Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer is told from the view of Letham, a most unreliable narrator, whose motivations and rationale for his actions reveal his depravity. He claims that his father, a despicable man whose story is described in detail, is the cause of his amoral character and personal failure. He seems to be unable or unwilling to care about anyone else, except for a young girl who succumbs to yellow fever under his care. His decision to participate in the study of yellow fever initially seems heroic and noble, but this is not the case. The story is a frame for the study of a man of medicine and science in the early 20th century, a time in which ethical behavior and the compassionate care of the patient were of little or no importance, and greed, egotism, and personal recognition or reward were sought instead. Letham's behaviors and motivations may seem extreme to our modern sensibilities, but the history of medicine is filled with similar and even more depraved men. Highly recommended! ( )
8 vote kidzdoc | Mar 11, 2010 |
The classic symptoms of a sociopath are a wanton disregard for right and wrong and an inability to care about the feelings of others or the tenets of law or societal norms. Most sociopaths can be defined fairly early in life by their behavior and attitude.
With this in mind, I began what I thought was a story about a sociopath. In Georg Letham, Physican and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, the main character Letham is a classically trained physician who specializes in research in the distasteful specialization of vivisection. In the initial chapters he confesses his role in the murder of his wife with no apparent remorse. In fact, he only did it because he needed her money and she refused to "voluntarily" die of her own volition. He complains about his wife and his father, both of whom held the key to his financial betterment:

"Neither of them could give me what I yearned for in the depths of my soul, but there was one medicine that they could have given me to ease my suffering: the original medicine, money."

Circumstances after the murder unravel and his perfect plan fails spectacularly. He ends up carted off as a 'common' criminal to a life sentence, a fate made more demeaning by the extremely high opinion he had of himself. As he acclimates to incarceration and is transported to a tropical prison camp, he explains more of his childhood and more of his relationship with his father. He reveals in slow and painful detail exactly what his father did to make him a strong man, and suddenly the diagnosis of classic schizophrenic becomes vague. Because while he clearly was influenced by his father's hateful and moral deficiencies, he never outright blames him or uses him as an excuse. He accepts all responsibility himself for his crime and also acknowledges his own moral failure. A true schizophrenic never accepts blame. Throughout this first half of the book to this point, the reading has been complicated and painful; the details were horrifying and unsettling.

However, in his new location in the tropics, a change occurs in his life that confirms that Georg Letham is no sociopath. He is allowed to work in the medical field again, this time doing research to find a cure for the deadly Yellow Fever that haunts the tropical regions. A parallel is drawn between the rats his father abhorred and tried forever to eliminate with Georg's efforts to find a remedy for this similarly persistent and deadly danger. While his father was led into the depths of moral depravity because of his inability to control the deadly rodents, Georg rises morally by putting himself at risk for the welfare of others by trying to have some effect on the deadly disease. Throughout the second half of the book we see him change, yet he never transforms completely. That would be too easy and too unrealistic.

A fascinating part of the text is the medical aspects of the study of disease, and how diseases like Yellow Fever are transmitted. This is a far more interesting way to learn about biology than high school science! No details are omitted in the search for a cure, and Weiss never dumbs down the medical language. Reading about the treatment of criminals in the early twentieth century as well as the service of military doctors and their dedication in this time period is absorbing.

This is not an easy read. Details of the animal testing are gruesome. His own attitude is obnoxious, but changes to more of a snarky sensibleness as events progress. His father's heartlessness is painful, and many events are described so brutally that you may cringe and have to put the book down for a few minutes. One thing is constant: Georg is honest even when it would suit him to be less so. And despite the difficulties, this book is something you can't put down and certainly won't want to. ( )
3 vote BlackSheepDances | Feb 25, 2010 |
To say that I wasn't expecting how this story unfolded would be an understatement. Georg Letham was a respected doctor with a passion for scientific research. All it took was a series of small mistakes one fateful night and his life spiraled into a hell he could not have imagined.

This book takes the reader onto a sensory and emotional rollercoaster. Written in the style of a memoir, my first impression of Georg was that of a man who was bored with his wife, desperate for money and afraid of his father.

The murder that takes place is almost incidental. What takes centerstage are the events that lead up to it, and the events following the murder. What could drive a man, a respected doctor and scientific researcher, to take a life, and once that life is taken, does he feel remorse and wish to atone for the crime, or is he emotionally detached as to not feel anything other than regret that he made a few mistakes leading to his arrest and subsequent punishment?

As Georg faces exile on a steamy tropical island where many have died from yellow fever, memories of his father flit through his mind.... his father's deep hatred of rats, his father forcing him to watch his method of exterminating them, his father's attempts at removing an officer in the department and his father's unsuccessful expedition to the North Pole as their ship is besieged with rats (yes, there is a lot about rats in this book). I don't quite get the horrible experiment with his father's dog on the ship, which left me with a very nasty taste in my mouth.

Once on the island, all convicts are assigned duties. Georg and another is initially assigned to clean out the morgue and there meets an old colleague who's trying to study how the disease is spreading. There is a very detailed study of mosquitoes and before long, a team is gradually formed to engage in a secret experiment ........ on themselves.

Drama abounds in this book and some very interesting details on how experiments are conceived and implemented. What's equally interesting is Georg's evolution or perhaps the emergence of his true self.

My main gripe though is that it was unclear Georg and his fellow convict managed to recover from their bout of yellow fever after so many before and after them died from it.

I'd recommend this guardedly. I can see how some will be put off by the vivid descriptions of the rats, the convicts and their condition on the ship, details of patients suffering from yellow fever and even a baby's birth. But for the less squeamish, this is a pretty riveting read. ( )
6 vote cameling | Feb 6, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0980033039, Paperback)

“Ernst Weiss is in fact one of the few writers who may justly be compared to Franz Kafka...The book belongs to the very most interesting that I have come across in years. . . . One is filled with impressions, excited and gripped by striking existent but unforgettably cast images, characters, and events. By the way: it is all very Austrian.”—Thomas Mann

“I wonder why Weiss isn’t better known here. A doctor as well as a writer, he knew about the body as well as the heart, and you can trust him when he describes how each can act on the other.”—Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer is a tragicomic and harrowing portrait of a morally defective mind. Written in a highly unreliable first person narrative, this unsung masterwork is an account of a crime and its aftermath: the scientist-hero (or scientist-villain) is tried, sentenced, and deported to a remote island where he is privileged to work as an epidemiologist. He seeks redemption in science, but in spite of himself he is a man of feeling. The book came out of the same fertile literary ground between the wars that produced The Man Without Qualities and The Sleepwalkers; like those modernist classics and the works of Ernst Weiss’ friend, Franz Kafka, Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer is a prescient depiction of a profoundly unsettled society.

Ernst Weiss (1882–1940), born in Brunn, Austria (now Brno, Czech Republic), spoke and wrote in German. He was a trained physician and surgeon and served as a ship’s doctor for many years. He met Kafka in Berlin in 1913, and was convinced to write full-time. Weiss, a Jew, committed suicide in Paris when the Nazis entered the city in 1940.

Joel Rotenberg translated Chess Story and The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:39:57 -0400)

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