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