Book Review: The Greatest Horror Novel of the 20th Century
German author Ernst Weiss’s nightmarish vision of science gone mad in his 1931 novel Georg Letham is not rote Freudian; it is firmly in the social critique/ apocalyptic Darwinian mode.
Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss. Translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg. Archipelago Books, 560 pages, $13.50.
By Bill Marx
You wouldn’t know it from the myopic reviews, at least the ones that I have read, but Georg Letham is one of the greatest horror novels of the 20th century. (Probably the greatest—name the contenders.) Not horror in the adolescent Stephen King/ H. P. Lovecraft mode of rampaging monsters but in the scientific romance genre, a modernist version of the Gothic, mythopoetic imagination found in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and H. G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau. It sits proudly with those wonderful books, daring to go to hallucinogenic extremes when linking the sadistic depths of the scientific mentality with the amorality of modern life.
Because it was published in 1931 by a Czech-Jewish writer and deals with a “mad,” homicidal doctor (a bacteriologist) who wants to benefit a mankind he feels nothing for, the critical tendency has been to see the story as a expose of the fascist mentality, which it is, and as a Freudian nightmare, which it isn’t. Or that is the least interesting reading of this jaw-dropper of a book, as exemplified by the dreary Nation piece that reduces Weiss’s fascinating narrative into a mirror of the process of psychoanalysis.
Weiss’s vision in Georg Letham is not rote Freudian; it is firmly in the social critique/apocalyptic Darwinian mode. “Can man triumph over nature?” asks Georg. “Never. He, man, is only an experiment on the part of nature, the terrible.” Thus evolution (or God) may be experimenting with pitiless objectivity on us, generating humans out of animals. And the terrible is woven into everything we think and do: the central metaphor in the novel—repeated to the point of saturation—is the degrading/violent transformation of humans into animals (rats and frogs dominate) and animals into humans (a “feminist” retelling of Adam and Eve stars two rats in a pit and ends with the female gobbling up the male). Tossed into prison for killing his wife (because she nauseates him), Georg ends up looking for a cure for Yellow fever in the tropics (Fire), with a memorable flashback to his brutal father fighting an army of rats during a hellish expedition to the North Pole (Ice).
Some warnings before tackling Georg Letham—its structure is lumpy, little more than a series of set pieces that are of novella length. And if you have an abnormal fear of rats and love dogs, you will have a very hard time, though the victims dish out some payback to their not-so-fittest tormentors. Adventurous readers with stout temperaments will find this gruesome diagnosis of modernity worthy of Nietzsche (“herd mentality”) and sociologist Max Weber. The latter summed up Georg’s dissociated type perfectly: “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart,” though as an unreliable narrator Georg is self-consciously (and poignantly) aware of his lack of humanity.
Weber also refers to alienated civilized men as souls trapped in “the polar night of icy darkness.” Georg Letham is a demanding but magnificent deep freeze of a novel, classic horror served zero to the bone.