Clare Dudman’s second novel was published in 2004 and, because it was set in my onetime home of Frankfurt am Main, I purchased it. I finally read it this summer because I was travelling back to the city. I’m now kicking myself for leaving the book to collect dust for so long. It introduced me to Heinrich Hoffmann of Struwwelpeter fame. The focus, however, is not on his career as a children’s author, but on his day job – that of a nineteenth century psychiatrist and founder of the magnificent Frankfurt asylum, Am Affenstein.
Grand, isn’t it? Dudman’s novel charts the fight Hoffmann had to secure funding to build an asylum that was just that – an asylum in the green belt, a refuge from the cramped and unsanitary conditions of the town (as it was then) centre. It documents too other struggles in Hoffmann’s life: troubles at home with his socially ambitious wife; with his eldest son, Carl Heinz, the son for whom he wrote Struwwelpeter, who ironically had undiagnosed psychological issues of his own (possibly ADHD?). Struggles too with the limitations of nineteeth century psychiatric treatment or should that read psychiatric torture? One patient is given a cold bath which continues until she enters a state of hypothermic shock. A nineteenth century transvestite is driven to suicide by the lack of understanding when all his worldly goods are confiscated and he is locked in a room deprived of anything that gives him pleasure. That said Hoffmann is not uncaring. This suicide is a devastating blow for a doctor whose patients are his 98 Reasons for Being. No wonder he was afflicted at times by bitter experience and self-doubt.
The catalyst for improvement in Hoffmann’s skill is a young Jewish girl, Hannah Meyer. She is admitted suffering, allegedly, from nymphomania. She’s in a deep depression, withdrawn. In the asylum she is subjected to a variety of treatments (including the previously mentioned cold bath) although nothing is effective. It is only when Hoffmann begins to talk to her of his own troubles that she begins to respond by revealing her own story. Thus, by accident, does Hoffmann discover the foundation stone of modern psychiatric treatment.
When I visited the Struwwelpeter Museum in Frankfurt last month, I discovered the links between Hoffmann’s practice and the Struwwelpeter stories. For example, Kaspar who refuses to eat his soup inspired by cases of anorexia. Dudman cleverly inverts these connections by structuring her plot quite unobstrusively around the Struwwelpeter poems. As the poems pop up as epilogues to each of her chapters, this structure becomes clear and her novel becomes a celebration of Hoffmann as both pyschiatrist and author.
There are as many pages devoted to the asylum assistants as to the inmates. While this is , at first, surprising, it soon becomes clear that the assistants have their own issues. That the transition from assistant to patient is only a step away. It also allows the novel to focus on other social issues, ones that force these people to take the jobs in the first place. So too, the creation of the Jewish girl, Hannah, permits Dudman to include the history of German anti-Semitism.
The novel is written using a variety of styles. There are newspaper cuttings, excerpts from council meetings, third and first person narratives and, of course, the inclusion of the Struwwelpeter poems. Each chapter subdivided into unnumbered sections and, with the exception of Hannah’s voice (which is italicised) I did find it difficult to keep track for the first 3 chapters. Of course, it didn’t help that I was reading in snatches during my bursts of sightseeing around Frankfurt. Eventually, though, the pieces of the jigsaw joined together and I found myself thoroughly absorbed. Emotionally attached and in places quite tearful. This novel works as a story and is a fine example of historical fiction.
98 Reasons for Being is now, unfortunately, out of print. However, I’ve secured a very special giveaway. Come to tomorrow’s Sunday Salon for more details of that and a interview with Clare Dudman herself.