Alissa Walser: Mesmerized – Am Anfang war die Nacht Musik (2010)


I so wanted to love this book. I liked the premise, the first sentences were evocative and descriptive but then, a few pages later, I just couldn’t stand the style anymore. Admittedly, it’s artful but also quite lifeless and tedious. The whole book contains only indirect speech and a great majority of the sentences are only fragments. Very staccato and after a longer period of reading, very repetitive. I’ve read mostly positive reviews of this book on English blogs, but they were all based on the translation while I read the German original. Maybe it reads better in English? The German critics were either impressed with the style or they called it artificial.

The story as such, which is based on true events, is fascinating. It’s set in Vienna in 1777  and in Paris in 1784. Franz Anton Mesmer was one of the most famous doctors of his time. A controversial figure who invented a treatment method involving what he called “animal magnetism”, in which he applied magnets to his patients or applied some sort of energy therapy. Some of the cases were quite miraculous, the most famous being the cure of the blind musician Maria Theresia Paradis. Maria lost her sight at the age of five and it was never clear what caused it. Still she was an accomplished musician and protégée of the empress. Mesmer moves her away from her family and treats her in his hospital. After a few weeks the girl can see again. Unfortunately it affects her music. Seeing makes her less of an accomplished musician. Her parents and doctors come running and in the end, nobody really knows why, she loses her eyesight again and Mesmer is called a fraud. After these unhappy developments Mesmer flees to Paris where some see him as a charlatan, others think he’s a miraculous doctor.

The book clearly underlines that Mesmer has found a relationship between body and mind and in removing Maria from her family he indicates that the surroundings were toxic. Maria’s blindness has a lot in common with some of the hysterical symptoms Freud will describe later.

What I really liked in this book is how music and energy are paired. Nobody denies the effect of music, the wonder of it, despite the fact that you can neither touch nor see music, still most people around Mesmer, don’t believe in energy fields in the body. Mesmer is a musician as well and the bond he forms with Maria, a bond her parents and his wife equally fear and hate, is strong because they understand each other on a deeper level. They communicate through their love of music. His understanding of her personality is much more intuitive than rational and that may have been a reason why the therapy worked so well. Until the parents turned up and Maria was dragged in front of a critical public who was hoping she wasn’t cured.

There are tragic elements in the book. Many quacks tried to cure Maria before she was brought to Mesmer and some of the brutal treatments left scars on her. Even in 18th Century Austria there were a lot of physicians more interested in money than the cure of an ill person.

The translation of the title is a bit surprising. In German the book is called “In the beginning the night was music”, which is a very rich, lyrical and biblical sounding title.

If I had liked Alissa Walser’s style, which reminded me a bit of Elfriede Jelinek, I would have loved the book, but since I found it tiresome, I didn’t.

A few more positive reviews

TBM (50 Year Project) 

David (Follow the Thread)

Iris on Books

Here’s the author reading the beginning of the novel:

31 thoughts on “Alissa Walser: Mesmerized – Am Anfang war die Nacht Musik (2010)

  1. Wonderful review, Caroline! Sorry to know that you didn’t like the book as much as you had hoped to, because of the author’s style. But glad to know that you liked the other elements in the book. The relationship between Mesmer and Maria seems to be beautifully portrayed in the book. I found it interesting that Maria’s music suffers after she starts seeing. Can beautiful art be created only if there is a deep loss? Is that what happened to Maria? It makes one think. The German title is definitely beautiful and lyrical. I don’t know why the translators didn’t just translate the original title and gave it a new one.

    • Thanks, Vishy. The topic is really fascinating on many levels. I think Maria was too distracted after she saw. When she was blind, she was inside of herself, only living for the music, all of a sudden, she felt all those eyes on her.
      At least that’s how I explained it.
      This could be a book for you. It’s not bad at all, just not my style but if you like her writing, then it’s rich and thought-provoking. I’ve seen that Per Olov Enquist also wrote a book based on Mesmer The magnetist’s fith winter.

      • I agree with you, Caroline. That distraction must have been very hard and difficult for Maria. I will keep an eye for this book. Thanks for telling me about Per Olov Enquist’s book on Mesmer. I just checked Wikipedia and discovered that it was published in 1964. It makes me wonder whether Alissa Walser got inspired by Enquist’s book and decided to write her own version of Mesmer’s and Maria’s story.

        I remembered why the plot of this story looked so familiar. I had read TBM’s review of the book earlier. I just read that ‘Mesmerized’ has been longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin award this year. Did you know that?

  2. I am very interested in Mesmer and would love to read a novel about him, so it’s a shame this didn’t work. But I wouldn’t like that style either. I much prefer writing that gets out of the way of the story.

    • It felt like stumbling through the text, the whole time but maybe you’d like it. It’s been highly praised by many, critics and readers alike.
      Mesmer is an eniterely fascinating man. He laid the griundwork for so much that came later.

  3. I hope German Lit Month goes well! It’s great to see that it’s happening again. I hoped to join in but I haven’t managed to get organised this time. I am enjoying reading everyone’s reviews very much. Sorry to see this one didn’t work for you. I’ve actually got this book on my to read pile and would still like to give it a try one day.

    • Too bad you couldn’t join. You reaction to this one might be very different. Mayn people love it and TBM for example had a problem with the style and the beginning and then she loved it. There’s a chnace you might enjoy it.

  4. Too bad you found this tedious, especially if the story in itself appealed to you.
    I wonder how it sounds in French. (miracle, it has been translated) Did you have a look at the English translation?

    • I didn’t check but TBM’s reaction was similar although she ended up loving the style. I think she didn’t want to write a genre novel but a very literaray novel and that way it reads more authentic than contemporaray dialogue put into the mouth of 18th Century people.

  5. I can see the story’s appeal, but I also would have been annoyed by the fragmented speech. yes I know that some people talk like that, but it doesn’t exactly enhance the reading experience.

    • It’s very cold and distant but that way she avoided much of the “historical novel” pitfalls in which people sound like 21st Century people populating a 18th Century setting.

  6. I have to say that I’ve always been a bit suspicious of this one, and I’m glad I didn’t get sucked into reading it. Sometimes there’s a lot of buzz around books, and I really should know by now that these are the ones for me to avoid 😉

  7. Very interesting subject, so it’s a shame the writing style put you off. If the writing is truly good, I can take fragmented sentences, but it would take me a while to get into it. Not sure if I want to invest the time and energy when there are so many books in my pile.

    I can believe that suddenly having sight would throw off your music. It’s a completely different approach. Seeing and reading the notes is an extra step, kind of like translating in your head before you think in a foreign language.

    • That’s definitely how I interpreted her inability to play well after she saw.
      Funny enough the style didn’t need any getting used to but it put me off after a while. I found it cold and boring.

  8. When I saw a comment on another blog that you weren’t enjoying it I wondered if it had to do with the translation. I really enjoyed this one, but have to wonder if the translator made it “easier” to read.

    • I didn’t find it difficult at all. I found it tedious and annoying. In a way it’s brilliant in its consistency but it got on my nerves big time. I didn’t have achnace to look at the translation. Maybe it’s more readable in English. But German critics and readers had the same reactions. Some loved it, some hated the style.

  9. The story sounds interesting…I ahven’t read many books with music theme (I know this isn’t exactly music theme) … music and eyesight are a nice combination.

    I do understand why you find it hard to finish, I am worse than you as I usually stopped reading when I don’t like the writing style

  10. The story sounds really interesting but the style of writing sounds a little tedious to me as well. It’s interesting how much translations can differ so much–they almost become entirely different books really. And that is a problem/issue all in itself. I have read Elfriede Jelinek and she is a challenging author for me–not sure (even with the differences) that the Walser would work for me–but the cover is beautiful (how shallow is that?!).

    • Not shallow at all. 🙂 I’m drawn to beautuful covers as well.
      The choice of topic makes Jelinek far more challenging, still, there was a similarity in the tone and style. It overshadowed everything I might have liked otherwise. But does it mean the original German is drier?

  11. Pingback: German Literature Month III – Author Index | Lizzy's Literary Life

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