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City of Incurable Women

by Maud Casey

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4010554,840 (3.83)4
"City of Incurable Women is a brilliant exploration of the type of female bodily and psychic pain once commonly diagnosed as hysteria--and the curiously hysterical response to it commonly exhibited by medical men. It is a novel of powerful originality, riveting historical interest, and haunting lyrical beauty." --Sigrid Nunez, author ofThe Friend andWhat Are You Going Through "I would follow Maud Casey anywhere. InCity of Incurable Women, she has given us her best work yet. This is a song for the forgotten, full of voices that will stay with you and guide you--an astonishing portrayal of rage and hope. What a glorious work of art and what a true gift to us." --Paul Yoon, author ofSnow Hunters andRun Me to Earth "Where are the hysterics, those magnificent women of former times?" wrote Jacques Lacan. Long history's ghosts, marginalized and dispossessed due to their gender and class, they are reimagined by Maud Casey as complex, flesh-and-blood people with stories to tell. These linked, evocative prose portraits, accompanied by period photographs and medical documents both authentic and invented, poignantly restore the humanity to the nineteenth-century female psychiatric patients confined in Paris's Salpêtrière hospital and reduced to specimens for study by the celebrated neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot and his male colleagues. Maud Casey is the author of five books of fiction, includingThe Man Who Walked Away, and a work of nonfiction,The Art of Mystery: The Search for Questions. A Guggenheim Fellow and recipient of the St. Francis College Literary Prize, she teaches at the University of Maryland.… (more)
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    The Book About Blanche and Marie by Per Olov Enquist (susanbooks)
    susanbooks: Both novels explore the lives of Charcot's patients. Blanche is in both.
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In the second part of the 19th century, Jean-Martin Charcot was a known figure in Paris while working and teaching in the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital. A lot of his methods sound barbaric and abusive today but in the days he and his colleagues practices, the knowledge of neurology, psychology and psychiatry was essentially zero. His name remains known and the current state of a lot of these sciences owes him and the men who came after him in the same hospital a great debt. Some of their patients, all of them women for certain diagnoses, were popular enough in his days because of the demonstrations they had to do; some of them remained just case studies.

So Maud Casey decided to give the voice to these women - the ones that were admitted for hysteria and were deemed incurable. I am not sure if the book is supposed to be a novella or a collection of linked stories (it can work as either) but in both cases, reading it in order helps. Casey mixes truth and invention (her notes at the end explain each of the elements) and gives us the portraits of a few of these women, interspersed with real and invented images and documents. At the start of the book, the narrator tells us the stories but then the women themselves take over. And that's where the book goes off the rails.

Most of what the women have to say had already been said in the previous stories/sections. And even if we ignore that, there is no real differentiation between the voices of the narrator and the women - if it was not for the change from the third to the first person, you would not know something changed. So what was the point of the change?

It was a nice idea and I found some parts of the text lyrical and horrifying at the same time. But it did not really deliver to its main purpose - it may have given some kind of backstories to some of these women but it never gave them back their voices (invented or not). Still - I am not sorry I read the novella - it made me look up a lot of things I had never read about before and some of the prose was beautiful. But it could have been so much more. ( )
  AnnieMod | Oct 24, 2022 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
City of Incurable Women is a sadly beautiful book in which Maude Casey imagines the inner voices of women institutionalized for hysteria in Paris's Salpetriere under the direction of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot at the turn of the last century. Well-populated, the hospital had all the necessities that make life livable in any city. This is fiction, but it's not a novel nor a series of short stories. In fact, I can't classify it, but the dream-like juxtaposition of the women's memories and thoughts. made even more dream-like by Casey's elegant language, with their actual pictures and copies of doctors' papers, profoundly affect the reader.

The first and last speaker is Augustine, who was admitted to the hospital when she was fifteen and lived there until her escape fifty years later. She was one of the doctor's "best girls" who was much-photographed and was given a private room until she fell out of favor. She was beautiful and her pictures validate this. She was also troubled and in trouble for her short life in her before. The treatments for hysteria were macabre and include scratching patients' names or malady or the hospital name on their skin to see how much scarring remains (pictures included) and something called "ovarian compression." If I have it right (and I may not), the best girls were trained to reproduce the typical positions of other patients and then photographed in the stages of hysteria: supplication, eroticism, hallucinations, mockery, ecstasy, etc.

Other speakers include Genevieve, a plain woman lost in religious wanderings, who was transformed into beauty by the lighting on her up-turned face illustrating ecstasy, and Jane Avril, who danced her way into the Salpetriere and saw the whole world dancing. There is the unnamed patient, whose life as a seamstress in Paris is distressing but normal until we read that she spent her time sewing "the eyes and beaks of birds" onto hats. All were lost and in pain. Yet there was life, and in Maud Casey's hands, there was beauty.

My thanks to Early Reviewers for a copy and to Bellevue Literary Press that cannot publish an uninteresting book. ( )
  LizzieD | Jun 29, 2022 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
*I received this book through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.*

This brief volume is centered around the fictionalized women who were psychiatric patients at the Salpetriere hospital in Paris. One of the most interesting things included in this book are the 19th-century photographs and snippets of documents which add layers to the stories and a visual sense of what the world was like for the women depicted. I can't say I really liked this book, but it did provide insight into a world I had rarely encountered previously. ( )
  wagner.sarah35 | Apr 17, 2022 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
It's a very short book but it took me a long time to read because I kept stopping and thinking, wow, that is so gorgeously put...and so is this...and so is this...and anyway it's marvelous. Read it. I will add here that I am never disappointed by Bellevue Literary Press--each of their books is consistently like nothing I've ever read before, and yet completely entirely exactly the book I want to read. ( )
1 vote poingu | Mar 8, 2022 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Author Maud Casey's novella in short stories, City of Incurable Women, reveals the lives a few of the many female “hysterics” who populated Paris's Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in the 1870s. Under the potent influences of religious fervor, mental instability, and hypnosis, these institutionalized women experienced flights of quasi-sexual ecstasy. As the vulnerable women writhed, bled, and assumed strange poses, the male gaze, as embodied by the “great doctor” Jean-Martin Charcot, rested firmly upon them. He had his photographer take pictures, some of which illustrate this slender volume.

These vignettes, each narrated by a hospital patient, emphasize literary expression over linear storytelling. This book will be most appreciated by those who are already familiar with the Belle Époque phenomenon of female hysteria. ( )
  akblanchard | Feb 28, 2022 |
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"City of Incurable Women is a brilliant exploration of the type of female bodily and psychic pain once commonly diagnosed as hysteria--and the curiously hysterical response to it commonly exhibited by medical men. It is a novel of powerful originality, riveting historical interest, and haunting lyrical beauty." --Sigrid Nunez, author ofThe Friend andWhat Are You Going Through "I would follow Maud Casey anywhere. InCity of Incurable Women, she has given us her best work yet. This is a song for the forgotten, full of voices that will stay with you and guide you--an astonishing portrayal of rage and hope. What a glorious work of art and what a true gift to us." --Paul Yoon, author ofSnow Hunters andRun Me to Earth "Where are the hysterics, those magnificent women of former times?" wrote Jacques Lacan. Long history's ghosts, marginalized and dispossessed due to their gender and class, they are reimagined by Maud Casey as complex, flesh-and-blood people with stories to tell. These linked, evocative prose portraits, accompanied by period photographs and medical documents both authentic and invented, poignantly restore the humanity to the nineteenth-century female psychiatric patients confined in Paris's Salpêtrière hospital and reduced to specimens for study by the celebrated neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot and his male colleagues. Maud Casey is the author of five books of fiction, includingThe Man Who Walked Away, and a work of nonfiction,The Art of Mystery: The Search for Questions. A Guggenheim Fellow and recipient of the St. Francis College Literary Prize, she teaches at the University of Maryland.

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