Last September, I was invited to take part in a book-lovers’ week in Catalonia, as one of four guest authors. (And if you think you’d enjoy a week in a manor house in a beautiful part of northern Spain, eating extremely well and talking about books and life in general with a lovely bunch of people, I suggest you contact 7 Day Wonder yourself.) While I was there, I was lucky enough to meet two of the other writers, Ann Cleeves and Adam Nevill, but the fourth, Clare Dudman, had already left when I arrived. This was a pity, because I was very impressed by her novel A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees, set in the first Welsh colony to be established in Patagonia. It’s a book that combines research and imagination to great, and frequently deeply moving, effect, and it made me want to read more of her work.
I decided to start with the intriguingly titled 98 Reasons for Being. The novel is set in Frankfurt in the mid-19th century and tells the story of a young Jewish woman, Hannah Meyer, who is admitted to the town’s asylum after having been diagnosed as a nymphomaniac. The asylum is run by Heinrich Hoffman, now remembered primarily as the author of Struwwelpeter. The novel begins with Hannah’s arrival at the asylum and describes the course of treatment prescribed for her by Hoffman, who becomes increasingly involved in the case, at a professional and personal level. It was a period in which notions of madness, its cause and treatment, were unsettled and it’s to the novel’s credit that the disagreements of the time, between those who believed that insanity had a purely physical cause and those who considered it to be a sort of moral disorder, are presented with such vividness, although this won’t surprise anyone who’s read the author’s most recent book, where fact and fiction are woven together with similar artistry. Some of the fictional ‘extracts’ ostensibly taken from contemporary documents that are used to introduce the chapters are worth reading in their own right, as insights into the beliefs and prejudices that animated the period. The descriptions of some of the cures adopted – ranging from the application of leeches to that of electrodes – are particularly graphic, and their inefficacy only seems to reinforce Hoffmann’s own bitter observation towards the end of the novel:
All I can do is watch as the people I am trying to save perish before my eyes.
This isn’t always the case, of course, although the novel does have its fair share of casualties, despite the efforts – not always consistent – of Hoffmann and his assistants, whose own lives provide a fascinating backdrop to the main story, as well as a sense of depth to the cramped, institutional but nonetheless recognisably human world the book creates. One of the assistants, Hugo, says, at the end of the novel:
I thought I knew the difference between a mad man and a sane one. And there isn’t. We are, all of us, mad … and all of us sane.
This might make the book’s achievement seem a little too easily won, but it shouldn’t: the conflict between what we mean by sanity and insanity is anything but clear-cut, as Dudman makes clear in her presentation of the central character. To give too much detail here about Hannah’s cure would be to give the game away, so I’ll just say that one of the many strengths of the novel is the way in which her story is presented, through inner monologue and in her relationships with both the other patients and the staff. It’s a story that touches, inevitably, on the social condition of Jews in 19th century Germany, but also on ideas of family, sexuality and the role of women, as well as, in an interestingly prescient way, the power of the talking cure.
One of the other great pleasures of the book is the links it makes between Hoffmann’s experiences and Struwwelpeter, the poems and illustration of which are used to conclude several chapters of the book and to throw back light on what they contain. The final section makes particularly neat use of Hoffmann’s double role as scientist and teller of tales, a double role that Dudman also seems to have made her own.