I love my monthly novella instalments from Melville House. My only criticism of the series is that I wish the books, since they are classics, had introductions. Of course I can decide for myself whether or not I like a story, but with authors who are unfamiliar to me, a little added insight is always welcome. I find in reading books like these I often miss important things, so reading a bit more about an author, his work or his style makes the reading experience richer.
The Alienist is the only Brazilian novel I can think of that I have ever read. Machado de Assis, or Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, was born in 1839 and died in 1908 and is considered the greatest writer of Brazilian literature. Apparently he is not often translated into English, and while I have a feeling this slender little novella isn't his best or most important work, it was an interesting and entertaining read. Perhaps a little anticlimactic in the end, it was still a perfect pairing for Guy de Maupassant's The Horla, which I loved. Both authors look at the question of what constitutes sanity, though in both these stories it is more apt to say insanity, since it is madness that the characters are dealing in.
Published in 1882, it's interesting to think of this story being a product of the Victorian era, as it's this period (if I understand correctly) that saw the rise of psychology as a science. How does one person judge the sanity of another is the theme explored by de Assis. One of the great doctors of the period, Simão Bacamarte, decides to return home to Itaguai in Brazil. After a most successful European career he decides to become an "alienist" and turn his attention to psychopathology.
"The health of the soul!" he exclaimed. "The loftiest possible goal for a doctor."
In the town of Itaguai the mentally ill, the violent madmen were locked up at home and the peaceable lunatics were simply left to their own devices and no one was offered treatment of any kind. Bacamarte decided to change all this. He created an institution known as The Green House where insanity could be studied in depth. He doesn't have to look far to find patients to fill up his asylum. Within just four months the Green House was a community unto its own.
And so Bacamarte begins an exhaustive study of his patients. He spends many hours studying, inventing and experimenting with therapeutic methods and observing all that is around him. Through his observations he believes that many more people around him suffer from insanity than first thought.
"Till now, madness has been thought a small island in an ocean of sanity. I am beginning to suspect that it is not an island at all but a continent."
Pretty soon there are more people confined to the Green House than not including some of Itaguai's most prominent citizens. While Bacamarte assures all that only the mentally ill are admitted, there are rumors and accusations that admittance comes as a result of revenge, greed or even punishment. And then the citizens of Itaguai begin to rebel.
"I know nothing about science, but if so many men whom we considered sane are locked up as madmen, how do we know that the real madman is not the alienist himself?"
Maybe it's those who appear most sane and normal who are really the mad. And so the thinking comes full circle. Who's really mad and who isn't? Anyone could fit the type. Who decides and how does one decide. Bacamarte has lots of questions and not so many answers. Has he cured his patients perhaps? Or were they never really insane to begin with. So many questions, so few concrete answers. Such a roundabout story. It all verges on farce. An amusing and satirical farce.
With my latest (May) novellas, I am now fully four books behind in my reading. Five if you count Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room, though reading is underway (I'm reading along with Stefanie by the way). My novellas got put aside temporarily as I concentrated on my NYRB subscription, now I guess it's time to change tack once again. I was hoping to keep up with the books but life's just been too busy of late. Maybe this week all my energies will go towards novella reading.
My latest parcel of books included (yay another woman author) Jane Austen's Lady Susan, which I read several years ago but look forward to revisiting and Nikolai Gogol's How the Two Ivans Quarrelled. I like the theme for this next pairing: purple covers! Purple for spring. And they are cheery.