Medical Muses: Hysteria in 19th-Century Paris, By Asti Hustvedt
Burning Bright, By Ron Rash
Rilke in Paris, By Rainer Maria Rilke and Maurice Betz (trs Will Stone)
The Blue Death, By Joan Brady
Childish Loves, By Benjamin Markovits

Paperback reviews of the week

Medical Muses: Hysteria in 19th-Century Paris, By Asti Hustvedt

Bloomsbury £8.99

*****

Jean-Martin Charcot, mentor to Freud and follower of Philippe Pinel (the man who famously severed the chains of the inmates of Paris's notorious madhouse, the Salpêtrière, at the beginning of the 19th century), was both a gifted neurologist and a master showman. His interest in hysteria combined with the arrival of Blanche Wittman, who would become the most famous of his hysterics and whom he would regularly put on display, along with later arrivals Augustine Gleizes and Genevieve Legrand.

Hustvedt's fascinating account of these three women, who were drawn and photographed repeatedly while in the midst of often terrifying hysterical fits, reinforces the sense of an uneasy relationship between doctor and patient. Blanche and Augustine were both young women when they arrived at the Salpêtrière. They weren't insane – hysteria wasn't diagnosed as insanity – but they were both from poor backgrounds, and had both been victims of sexual abuse. Their hysterical fits began shortly after the abuse took place.

As Hustvedt points out, there is a troubling "literariness" in the accounts by Charcot and others of these hysterics, with the use of "flowery, metaphorical language". The "female system" was considered frail enough, but that didn't stop many from accusing Charcot and his hysterics of faking the fits for the benefit of the public. Blanche's fits stopped, most noticeably, after Charcot's death. Was he a charlatan? Hustevedt doesn't think so, but his methods were often unprofessional. This account of psychiatry in its infancy is unforgettable.

 

Burning Bright, By Ron Rash

Canongate £8.99

*****

What superb stories come from Ron Rash's pen, the kind that truly put all others in the shade. His stories buck the trend for "moments" in a life that go unexplained: Rash wants you to understand, urgently and fully, what has taken place. In "Hard Times", set during the Depression, a little girl sneaks in and steals raw eggs to eat – shell and all – because she is so hungry and her father is too proud to take charity; in "Back of Beyond", a middle-aged pawnbroker has to rescue his brother and his wife from their meth-addicted son; in "The Ascent", a boy steals from two dead victims of a plane crash to help his impoverished parents, but both parents use the money to feed their drug addiction. This is backwoods America, the anti-American dream.

 

Rilke in Paris, By Rainer Maria Rilke and Maurice Betz (trs Will Stone)

Hesperus £9

****

Rainer Maria Rilke wound up in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century because he was chasing his hero, Rodin. He met him, even worked for him for a short while, then they fell out and he was dismissed. He stayed on in Paris, though, struggling to put into words his feelings about a city that left him feeling both energised by its crowds and art, as well as horribly isolated. Paris threatened him. He hated its hospitals, its "legions of the sick, armies of the dying", but felt compelled to stay. Rodin taught him to give everything over to his art, to "work", and it was in Paris that Rilke found he could do that, living only occasionally with his long-suffering wife, Clara. (He would later begin a lengthy and peripatetic affair with Lou Andreas-Salomé.) An often beautiful account of the relationship between a city and an artist.

 

The Blue Death, By Joan Brady

Simon & Schuster £7.99

***

Joan Brady has an efficient writing style and a convincing sense of the bigger picture, which make up for her lack of narrative tension or psychological depth. Her novel opens with the identification of a killer, David Marion, who is quickly revealed to be a card-carrying psychopath: he served time in prison for murder and has somehow married into the upper echelons of one of the most powerful families in Illinois, the Freyls. Brady's descriptions of prison are not for the squeamish, and with the early identification of David, narrative tension relies on what this killer will do next. This hardly comes close to what prisoners do to each other, thus diluting his impact, even against his nemesis – his new wife's ex-husband, corrupt mayor (is there any other kind?) Jimmy Zemanski.

 

Childish Loves, By Benjamin Markovits

Faber £9.99

*****

The final volume of Benjamin Markovits's superlative trilogy about Byron is a metafictional tour de force. The author places "himself" in a narrative about a man – named Benjamin Markovits – who tries to breathe new life into his literary career by publishing a set of novels about Byron, written by his old school teacher. Markovits's excellent impersonations of Byron in these scripts offer a softer, more vulnerable side to the sadistic monster who appeared in the second volume, A Quiet Adjustment, married to the unloved Annabella Millbanke, and sleeping with his sister, Augusta. So much of this is about what we can know of a life, even a life as minutely covered as Byron's, and why we feel compelled to try to know it.

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