Tag Archives: insanity

Tourmaline: Adalbert Stifter

German literature month 2019

“The tourmaline is dark in colour, and the events which I am going to relate here are very dark, too; they took place in times gone by, just like the events described in the first two tales*. In them we can see, as in a letter bearing sad news, how far a man can go when he dulls the light of his own reason and is no longer able to understand things, ignores the law of his conscience–which leads him unerringly along the way of righteousness–yields completely to the intensity of his pleasures and his pain, loses his step, and falls into circumstances which we are scarcely capable of unravelling.”

(*Granite and Limestone)

With an intro like that, Tourmaline seemed to be my kind of story. I’ve yet to get used to Stifter’s pacing and his use of details, but since there’s more Stifter in my future, no doubt that will happen. Just like Brigitta, Tourmaline is a story of passion, but it’s stained with other, much darker elements.

Eight german novellas

The story opens in Vienna with a man of “about forty,” and immediately there’s the sense that there’s something a little off about this man’s domestic arrangements. It’s here that Stifter’s use of detail comes into full play as he describes the man’s home which is located on the fourth floor of a house. The details: passages, an iron grille, a clock so quiet you can’t hear it tick,  iron railings, argue for an oppressive, prison-like environment which is controlled by the man of the house who is known as “the pensioner.” The pensioner has a beautiful wife who is about 10 years younger and they have one child,  a little girl. The wife “did not maintain a great deal of contact with the outer world,” and more or less stays inside. 

A well-known actor, a good-looking, charming man named Dall visits the pensioner, listens to his stories, but eventually Dall begins a love affair with the pensioner’s wife. “This went on for a while until, at last, the wife became afraid and confessed everything to her husband.” The wife vanishes and the pensioner goes to Dall’s home three times and demands the return of his wife, but Dall has no knowledge of her whereabouts.

The pensioner and the child also disappear, the apartment is closed. Years pass and eventually the courts order that the apartment be opened, the belongings sold and the landlord paid. Money leftover from the debt to the landlord is retained in case the pensioner ever reappears. 

In the wife’s rooms nothing whatsoever had been changed, every piece of furniture was in its accustomed place and the objects were still upon them; but the minor changes which had taken place revealed how different things now were.  The heavy curtains, which had always swayed slightly when the windows were open , now hung motionless; the flowers and plants were now shrivelled wisps of brown; the clock which used to tick so quietly now ticked no longer, for the pendulum did not stir, and the clock indicated immutably the same time of day. The linen and other items of handiwork still lay upon the tables, of course, but showed no signs of having been touched, and mourned under a veil of dust. 

The story then shifts to a different narrator: this time it’s a friend of the first narrator, a married woman who becomes involved in the life of Professor Andorf and meets his reclusive concierge. …

Tourmaline is a dark fairy tale, sinister, threatening and bleak in its portrayal of the child who pays a heavy price for the folly of human passions. While the tale stands on its own, reading about Stifter’s disastrous attempts to adopt children added to its meaning. 

Jonathan likes Stifter also. 

Another fan … Tom 


Filed under Fiction, Stifter Adalbert

The Best Specimen of a Tyrant: The Ambitious Dr. Abraham van Norstrand and the Wisconsin Insane Asylum by Thomas Doherty

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fascination with mental asylums, so how could I pass up Thomas Doherty’s non fiction book, The Best Specimen of a Tyrant: The Ambitious Dr. Abraham van Norstrand and the Wisconsin Insane Asylum? I came to the book knowing nothing about the subject–just what the blurb promised. The author first learned about the Wisconsin Insane Asylum back in 1972, but it had long disappeared by that time and been replaced by “utilitarian 1950s era brick buildings.” Doherty was fascinated enough by the tale of the now vanished “palatial stone” asylum to return and research the “early hospital casebooks,” the minutes of the trustee meetings, and the annual reports from the asylum’s superintendents. The intro sealed my interest in the book:

From all that accumulated mustiness emerged an endless stream of lost souls, such as a young woman devastated by the deaths of her brothers in a Confederate prison camp: “Conceives she can feed the portraits of her brothers … by crumbling up bread and trying to make them eat it.”

While the book is a portrait of an age and its attitudes towards insanity, it’s also a portrait of post civil war America with its detritus of human tragedy.  The post civil war period saw an incredible upswing in insanity as a result of broken, bereaved families, unassailable grief, and the aftermath of an incredibly savage war.

Widows, wives tormented by returned veterans, mothers convinced that the draft was a death machine stalking their sons, fathers and mothers whose grief had driven them berserk or sucked all the vitality from them and there were the soldiers themselves.

This was an era of “the hospital Movement” with the medically held opinion that “insanity was not a curse but a curable disease,”  and with a national attempt underway to standardize the management of public insane hospitals. While the book is partially an examination of a particular insane asylum, even more than this, the book is a character study of Dr. Abraham van Norstrand, a man who served as a doctor during the civil war, a banker and an entrepreneur, who later became the Wisconsin asylum’s most notorious superintendent. According to the author, the asylum’s 1868 annual report was “as thick as a Russian novel,” thanks to testimony about van Norstrand and “months of dramatic hearings.”

Best Specimen of a TyrantThe book opens with van Norstrand firmly in place as the superintendent when a new, young patient is admitted, Reverend Romulus Oscar Kellogg (known as RO). Kellogg suffering from exhaustion, and had already experienced breakdowns when he was brought to the asylum by his brother Amherst. Just the week before, RO preached a thunderous sermon from the pulpit which didn’t end when he left the church. He lapsed into insomnia, ranted through “frenzied marathons” of preaching, and these episodes would end in exhaustion, with RO complaining of pains in his head and paranoid fantasies of “enemies [who] lurked in the house.” RO’s wife Caroline coped with the situation, but RO’s behaviour spread out to a local man, and the result was that RO was admitted to the Wisconsin Insane Asylum with the opinion of a local doctor that he would make a “speedy recovery”  from a condition labeled as Theomania. 36 hours later, Kellogg was dead. This death, called a ‘suicide’ by van Norstrand, led to a scandal and, eventually, to an unraveling of the superintendent’s life and ambitions.

From this point, the book goes back into a catalogue of cases–damaged people many scarred for life as result of the Civil War–and we understand why Kellogg’s case (and death) was so different from the norm. Then the book delves into van Norstrand’s past, his pre-Wisconsin Insane Asylum days, and we see a young ambitious man carving out a medical career and learning the benefits of Quinine. A considerable portion of the book is spent following van Norstrand’s army career as a Union doctor with the Fourth Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment, and while all this may seem a distraction from the death of Kellogg, this information allows the reader to very effectively get a sense of just who van Norstrand was, his character and his motivations, before he became the superintendent at the Wisconsin Insane Asylum.

There were just a couple of annoying intrusions when the author speculates fancifully about situations:

From time to time, in the comfort of his family’s elegant quarters on the second story of the central building, he night have stood at one of the towering windows overlooking Lake Mendota, his gaze fixed on the skyline of the distant city, and brooded upon his fate should some eminent figure rise out of that feverish undercurrent of rumor and resentment to point an accusing finger at him.

But this is just an unfortunate lapse; the book is much better than that, and reveals some remarkable facts about van Norstrand’s life–through his hardships as a doctor, as a politician behind a smear campaign, and as an entrepreneur and a banker during some very dicey times. His civil war experiences were horrendous, and the conditions the soldiers endured were shocking (thinking of the misery of Ship Island and that’s even before they fought the enemy), but even in the midst of war, van Norstrand managed to engage in some strange speculations involving whiskey.  It wasn’t all death and dying:

Like Flashman he had a gift for attaching himself to local gentry on both sides of the conflict and basking in their flattery. He delighted in recalling many a feast laid out for his pleasure and many a bottle of aged brandy or claret urged upon him in one white-pillared mansion or another. As head of the biggest hospital in the Department of the Gulf, he saw Fourth Wisconsin comrades die lingering deaths and was himself worn down by illness and exhaustion, to say nothing of the frustration of being locked into middling rank. But again and again those lavish encounters with the privileged–slave owners or not–and every favor and deference granted him as surgeon, officer, man of the world, energized him. And finally that old seductress, easy money, caught his eye.

We also see van Norstrand at his best during the Civil War. He held firm ideas about good diet as essential for health, and Doherty, mining van Norstrand’s memoirs shows him arguing with commanding officers and going “beyond government channels and local pharmacists, paying planters and other private citizens up to five dollars an ounce, often from his own pocket” for precious supplies of Quinine. Thomas Doherty does a fine job of re-creating the times and conveying the impression that van Norstrand was really an incredibly energetic and enterprising man–yet his flaws, his energy, his ego and that entrepreneurial spirit are the very things that led to his downfall in the end. The marvelously detailed section regarding the 1868 hearings make for fascinating reading, and we see how van Norstrand’s mammoth task to ‘cure’ the insane was fraught with difficulties in a chemical-less age when physical restraint and punishment seemed a viable option. Van Norstrand was battling against the odds before RO Kellogg appeared at the asylum, and this young man’s appearance and his reaction to morphine created the ‘perfect storm’ for disaster. While Doherty opens a window into a specific time and a specific incident, the book extends beyond even the study of one character into human nature itself. We see disgruntled employees given a venue for their discontent and yet ultimately, van Norstrand’s speculations and business ventures sealed his fate and underscore the argument that once one arena of unethical behaviour is uncovered, the door is open to all other accusations and suspicions. In crossing swords with Samuel Hastings, the man who led the attack against van Norstrand, the superintendent met his match and hence his downfall. Sometimes, it’s the corners of history that prove to be the most interesting. Highly recommended for those interested in Wisconsin or asylum history.

review copy.


Filed under Doherty Thomas, Non Fiction

Ride a Cockhorse by Raymond Kennedy

I bought Ride a Cockhorse by Raymond Kennedy on the strength of my faith in the consistent quality of the books published by New York Review Book Classics. Its description promised a great deal, and for its delightfully unique story and the fact it made me laugh out loud, repeatedly, it’s going to make my best of 2012 list.

The book’s setting is a small, quiet New England town, and most of the action centres on the Parish bank. Frances Fitzgibbons, a 45-year-old widow, has been employed at the bank for some years as a home loan officer,” and she’s both well-respected and well-liked. She’s also a fairly anonymous person, until one day, the inner totalitarian breaks through, and Frankie’s life begins to change drastically.

She was ordinarily very reasonable and sweet-tempered, the soul of polite discretion. Almost overnight, she had become more strident, even to the point of badgering customers on the telephone and lifting her voice to a level that was considered inconsistent with the usual soft-spoken manner of a courteous banker. She could also be quite tart and provocative with those working around her, as on the afternoon when she lectured Connie McElligot, the woman at the front desk, for fifteen minutes on the subject of how the escalating interest rates of the 1980s portended an economic crisis of global proportions.

Just as Frankie’s behaviour at the bank shifts into aggressive overdrive, her appetite for sex changes too, and a lustful interest in the high school drum major (she has “an impulse to run into the street and wrestle him to the pavement,“) develops into a nightly prowl for her virginal victim. Think Blanche Dubois meets Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, and you just about have the right image of how Frankie seduces the drum major–an awkward teen, whose girlfriend, Frankie insists, wants to “breed up.”

At work, Frankie appears to reach some sort of catharsis when she verbally attacks a customer who’s fallen behind on her mortgage payments and whines about her circumstances.

“If you’re looking for a sympathetic ear,” Mrs. Fitzgibbons had disabused the woman at once, “you’re barking up the wrong tree.”

Remarkable as it might seem, with that one line, Mrs. Fitzgibbons put behind her years of futile soft-soaping diplomacy. She was sitting at her desk in the home loan department, with Connie McElligot bent over the desk in front of her, and Felix Hohenberger at the desk behind. As Mrs. Fitzgibbons gave the woman a piece of her mind, she swiveled sidelong in her chair and looked up importantly at the pale, splintered sunlight trembling in the pretty windows of the ceiling dome  thirty-five feet above herself. She was frowning with her lips set in an unhappy expression as the woman on the line sought to explain in detail the reasons underlying her tardiness of payment.

Mrs. Fitzgibbons explodes and everyone in the bank stops in their tracks. This incident marks a new bizarre trend of behaviour in the formerly pleasant woman. With her new aggressive outlook, not only does Frankie get herself promoted but she begins an intense self-advertising campaign which includes news releases, interviews and a daily glamorous make-over by Bruce, an adoring gay hair-dresser who’s completely in her thrall. Frankie’s new-found confidence and authoritarian approach to banking and employee management increases consumer confidence, and in the shockwave of Frankie’s new Cult of Personality, the bank begins to thrive against its competitors. Frankie’s power grows. Soon any bank employee who crosses Frankie is shown the door with dramatic ceremony, and she surrounds herself with a gang of sycophants and outcasts who are willing to do whatever she demands.

As the newly promoted CEO, full of meaningless bank speak, Frankie keeps everyone in the bank on their toes by sporadic dismissals which are organized by whimsy and the spin of an index wheel. Since the dismissals are without cause and are rooted in pure impulse, these actions result in the bank employees living in imminent terror of dismissal. Here’s Frankie ranting to Jack, a bank employee when she senses that she has enemies in the ranks. She wants information about employees she just fired:

“I want to know who they lunched with while they were here, who their closest friends were, their neighbours, their doctors, their children, their wives’ maiden names, their parents, everything in the book.”

“But we don’t have information like that,” he countered helplessly.

“Because if you don’t do that for me,” she went on, “you’ll be a stock clerk at K mart. You’ll be working for the sanitation department. You’ll be peddling your body down at Race and Main to little Puerto Rican men with mustaches. I’ll fire you, Jack.” Mrs. Fitzgibbons looked genuinely scary, very even-eyed and soft-voiced, as she enunciated her threat. “You were their superior. Your neck is on the line.”

Frankie’s behaviour becomes more outrageous (and it’s a brilliant move by the author to set these scenes of excess against the backdrop of a normally staid and bloodless institution), and I found myself cheering her naughtiness on. Was I no better than one of her toadies who would love to be just like Frankie if they had the nerve? I wasn’t bowing and scraping, but this character was giving me a wonderful time. For just over 300 pages, I too lived vicariously through Frankie as she told people how pathetic they were right before telling them to take a hike. Here she is confronting her boss, Mr Louis Zabac about the many employee firings:

“You have a tender heart, Louis. I can tolerate that. You don’t want to hurt anyone. You prefer looking the other way. Et cetera, et cetera,” she said, with a dismissing wave. “I was happy to do it. I threw them out. It was a tonic. Everyone feels better. The air is cleared. The deadbeats are gone. People who couldn’t even tie their own shoelaces”–Mr. Zabac winced painfully at Mrs. Fitzgibbons’s reference to the one-armed Mr. Kane–“are scarcely qualified to cut the mustard in this new order.”

“Mrs. Fitzgibbons,” the chairman pleaded to be heard, “why are you so irritable today?”

“You don’t run mongrels in a dog race,” she added. “You use greyhounds.”

“Discrimination is illegal.”

“Please! Louis! We’re both grown-ups. I fired a bunch of mutts.” She laughed out loud as she recalled the air of innocence of Marshall Moriarty when she axed him. “I did it cleanly. The people I disposed of were either simpleminded, aging, or so inconsequential that if they dropped dead at the supper table their own families wouldn’t notice.”

As the novel continues, and Mrs. Fitzgibbon’s outrageously bad behaviour is unchecked, the novel becomes a satire on totalitarianism. If you’ve ever wondered how someone like Stalin, for example, carried on for years, then just read the book. Frankie divides people with fear and her unpredictable behaviour. Some bank employees are “cronies” who adore her (especially the mousey, the losers or the outcasts) and live vicariously through her unleashed, frequently sexually directed comments and aggressive behaviour, and are thrilled by their new-found ability to take action in Frankie’s name, while some deluded, unfortunate souls imagine that they can take her on and battle her bullying ways. Even Frankie’s son-in-law, Eddie, to his wife’s horror, defects to Frankie’s camp and becomes one of her most ardent, and enamoured fans. It’s no coincidence that Frankie’s clothing becomes more militaristic or that she has her own mini hit squad of wanna-be brown shirts. Author Raymond Kennedy shows that bad behaviour which knows no limits can carry a bully a long way, and that’s just what happens with Frankie.

Trevor at Mookse and Gripes also reviewed the novel and pointed out that it can be repetitive at times. Can’t argue with that but I can forgive this for the hours of enjoyment gained. It’s the perfect companion to another New York Review Classics book Stephen Benatar’s Wish Her Safe at Home.  Both Rachel, from Wish Her Safe at Home and Frankie are a similar age, they both reconstruct their worlds, and they both think that men are after their bods, and in all fairness to Frankie, it’s often true.


Filed under Fiction, Kennedy Raymond