His life story itself is the stuff of novels. Born in 1882 to a well-to-do Jewish family in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire—now the Czech Republic—Ernst Weiss spent his youth in some of central Europe’s most agreeable cities: Prague, Brno, Litomerice, and Berlin. He studied medicine in Vienna and later became a surgeon. 1912 saw Weiss take up a berth on a ship bound for India and Japan. When he returned to Europe, the storm clouds were gathering. He served with distinction as a military physician in the Great War: they awarded him the Golden Cross for bravery. Afterwards, he settled in Prague, but he didn’t want to be a doctor anymore.
Before the war, Weiss had struck up a friendship with Franz Kafka, who said of him “what an extraordinary writer he is”. Not everyone agreed: 23 publishers turned down Weiss’ first novel The Galley (1913). He moved to Berlin—where he wrote Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer—but by 1934 things were looking dangerous for central Europe’s Jews, and Weiss fled to Paris. There he lived an impoverished existence, eased by handouts from literary supporters such as Thomas Mann. In 1938, Weiss wrote The Eyewitness, his last novel, which contained a thinly veiled portrait of Hitler; a final act of defiance perhaps, for as the Nazis invaded Paris, Weiss drank poison. He died the following evening.
Astonishingly, it has taken until now for Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer to be translated into English. Joel Rotenberg has done a fine job of rendering Weiss’ snappily sardonic prose. It is presented in a handsome binding by Archipelago books. The eponymous antihero is a bacteriologist who murders his wife. He does so partly for money, partly because she repulses him, but mainly, you can’t help but feel, because he wants to spill blood. Letham is condemned to spend the rest of his life on a far distant penal colony, known only as C, where yellow fever is rampant.
It’s a distinctive and vivid work. Weiss has a remarkable facility for conjuring up chilling scenes of desolation and decay. There’s an eerie account of a doomed expedition to the North Pole that brings to mind Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. Here, the sailors are forced to give over their vessel to the insatiable horde of rats that have overrun the ship. “The ship does not understand the rodents in its belly. They merrily go on living. They are not looking for any pole. They are not interested in meteorology, not in dialects, not in Eskimo folktales, not in Christianity. Food to be taken is all that exists for them. If a weaker, good-tasting creature is alive and they can catch it, then they kill it”.
The descriptions of the yellow fever patients are a uniquely piquant mixture of cold medical terminology and visceral human suffering: “the conjunctivae were yellow, shot through with distended scarlet venules. He gave off the foul carrion-like stench that is characteristic of the disease. The tongue and oral mucosa were unspeakably raw, as though the top dermal layers had been removed with a grater, taken down to the bare meat”.
The author questions whether scientific detachment be brought to bear outside the laboratory. “I will hold up a mirror to myself. With a steady hand. With the exacting eye of a scientist” Letham explains in the book’s foreword. In reality, of course, this is a man in thrall to his passions, though he despises himself for it. This novel, it should be noted, was first published in 1931 in a Germany not yet immersed in the terrible collective mania of the Nazi era, against which reason was no match.
There’s more than a hint of Dostoevsky to the book: murderous, itchily neurotic characters, scenes of animal maltreatment and human degradation; indeed, the passages concerning the prisoners’ voyage to C are more brutal and hopeless than anything in Memoirs from the House of the Dead. And like Crime and Punishment, Georg Letham reads in places like a thriller. But there’s none of the Russian’s religiosity: Letham looks to science for his salvation.
Freud’s influence also looms large: there are dream sequences and lengthy passages concerning formative incidents from the protagonist’s childhood. It adds up to a heady journey into the recesses of a tortured soul. But it’s the imagery that stays with you—a remarkable, haunting work. An extraordinary writer indeed.