Mesmerized by Alissa Walser

Stories are invented and untruthful. At least most of them are. Anybody could come up with anything. But some, he says, convey a sort of primeval idea. And become true simply through the aptitude of those who understand them. It’s not about concepts or whether something actually was like that. Stories like these come from an unconscious drive. Which ultimately only needs to be aroused.
This is not the book for readers who are plot oriented, not much happens for the longest while, and even when it does, it’s not altogether exciting. But if what I’m saying makes you think I didn’t like this book, then I guess I’m not saying it very well. I loved Mesmerized, the idea of the book, the story it actually is based on, the odd writing style and the ruefully ironic musings on people and life, in general. In German, the sentence structure would have annoyed the hell out of me. I’m glad I read the English version, because here it was absurd and interesting.
People refuse to understand something that they cannot see.
I had no expectations from the book. I found it on a website about German books and bought it soon after reading just the description on Amazon. The reviews on the German Literature Month review site caught me wholly by surprise, but I was already done reading the book by then. I don’t suppose I would have liked it as much, if I had read them before diving into the story. I just have a vague feeling that this is the kind of book you’d really appreciate, when it surprises you.
So what is the book about, anyway? The only thing I read before I started the book was that the word ‘mesmerized’ comes from a certain Franz Mesmer, a German physician who treated patients with an occultish technique using magnets and hypnosis. Mesmerized by Alissa Walser is about one of Doctor Mesmer’s famous cases, a scandal, actually; the patient was a blind composer, called Maria Theresia von Paradis, whom he managed to cure (or so it goes), for whom Mozart is supposed to have written a concerto. The German title Am Anfang war die Nacht Musik has a charming, poetic quality to it; but I find the English one just as fitting. The book is as intriguing as its cover, and quite quotable.
Thoughts, he thinks, are like medicine. Take the wrong dose and you perish.
Here’s the summary from Goodreads: Mozart’s Vienna. A crucible for scientific experimentation
and courtly intrigue, as Europe’s finest minds vie for imperial favour. In a
colourful, chaotic private hospital that echoes with the shrieks of hysterical
patients, Franz Anton Mesmer is developing a series of controversial cure-alls
for body and mind. When he is asked to help restore the sight of a blind
musical prodigy favoured by the Empress herself, he senses that fame, and even
immortality, is within his grasp. Mesmer knows that he will have to gain her
trust if he is to open her eyes. But at what cost to her fragile talent? And
will their intimacy result in scandal?
The only other book dealing so wholly with music that I have read is Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music. Mesmerized by Alissa Walser was so much better, so inspired. I loved the descriptions, they were beautiful without there being purple prose. The apt and vivid imagery made me smile, of a soupy fog, or someone being “whirled around by her anxieties like a snowflake in the wind“, of Mesmer’s wife as a dormant volcano, which could erupt at any moment, and of the dog’s nose. I have mentioned the strangeness of the writing style far too often not to elaborate. It does have the potential to be irritating, somehow I’m just fond of that the sort of writing, the repetitive, short sentences hardly bothered me, they read like spoken language. Nor did I mind the frequent shooting off on tangents. I was mildly surprised by the flow that the translation had. Case in point:
All officials are the same. The more punctual and perfumed you are when you meet them, the more graciously they receive you. And what more could you wish for than to be received graciously? More graciously than graciously. Most graciously.

The style simply completely fascinated me up to the very end. Despite the strikingly similar writing throughout the novel, the characters, strong and life-like, magically retained their uniqueness. I loved Maria’s point of view, it was subtly different from Mesmer’s, though I couldn’t tell you just how. Mesmer, of course, was just this delightfully eccentric creature.

As soon as Mesmer has to explain what he’s doing, people misunderstand him. He’s not fond of explanations.
What Maria goes through was described wonderfully, and her experience raised questions; so many about art, and science, especially around the time when it was considered so bizarre, about music, success, and also about how we see the world; not to mention, relationships and what society does to you, or to him. I am glad I bought this book. It’s like no historical fiction I’ve read. Give the book a try, if only to get to that twist at the end.

6 thoughts on “Mesmerized by Alissa Walser”

  1. I've seen mixed reviews of this one, but I do have a copy and I definitely intend to give it a try when I can. It was nice to read your reaction to it and I'm glad you found it interesting.


  2. Priya,
    Yours is an incredibly thought-provoking and thought-full review! I liked it immensely. You brought out the aspects I liked most about the book.
    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)


  3. Viktoria – I think you will, too.

    Lindsay – Thanks for stopping by, it's great that you already have a copy, hope you do get around to reading it!

    Judith – Thanks, glad you stopped by!


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