It’s almost seven years since I read and reviewed Alex Pheby’s debut novel, Grace. (A must read for those who love modern takes on the fairy tale.) I enjoyed it so much that Pheby became the first author interviewed on the blog. In that interview he revealed he was writing a novel about Daniel Paul Schreber, a high-ranking judge whose Memoirs of my Nervous Illness have become mandatory reading for psychologists and psychiatrists through the intervening decades. They’re fascinating, horrifying and heart-rending said Pheby as he promised to make his novel equally good.
Playthings was published in November 2015 and has already been dubbed “the best neuronovel ever written” by the Literary Review. This suggests that Pheby has succeeded in meeting his objectives, and if you’re looking for a second opinion, I would concur. You won’t find anything more fascinating, horrifying and heart-rending in the 2015 fiction releases.
The novel fascinates from the first paragraph.
Coal dropped through the chute, sending a hint of black rising up the stairs into the hall. Schreber stopped. Framed in the archway into the drawing room, he swallowed and took a deep breath. Nothing to be concerned about. Quite the opposite really. Some coal dust mingling with the scent of fresh flowers. The post laid in a fan on the hall table. Dim light. The opaque mist of bacon fat heated past transparency on to smoking and spitting. Simple matters.
Indeed but even in this everyday scenario, there are hints of consternation. A third person narrative but from Schreber’s point-of-view. Broken sentences. A man trying to retain his balance when there is nothing to worry about. Just waiting to fall off the nervous edge. So when he finds his wife lying prone after suffering a stroke, over the edge he goes.
Following a distressed meander through the Dresden suburbs, during which he does something obscene, he is apprehended and committed to a lunatic asylum.
It’s here that the horror truly begins.
At first the regime is benign. He is a gentleman. His room is comfortable and he has a personal attendant. But he is bewildered. What has happened to his wife? Why is he not allowed visitors? He becomes bellicose and difficult, even as he tries to prove his reasonableness and sanity. Each incident leads to a tightening of the regime, and Schreber is no novice. The novel is set during his third and final incarceration. He knows that patients deemed incurable eventually end up in the isolation cells below from which most never return.
It matters not. He is a sick man unable to control his inexorable downward spiral. (And indeed, given the details of the conditions in that place, that’s entirely unsurprising.)
More horrifying than the physical circumstances are his tormented memories – the cause of his dementia praecox (paranoid schizophrenia in C21st speak). The sensitive son of Moritz Schreber, a famous child-rearing expert of his day, Daniel Paul Schreber appears to have been damaged by the totalitarianism of his father’s harsh edicts. A tendency to effeminateness and transvestitism will not have helped either in those times. Freud, in his analysis of Schreber’s case made much of this. Pheby makes mention of it but emphasises more the culpability of his father’s cruelty as an explanation for the son’s mental fragility.
As Pheby said, Schreber’s circumstances are heart-rending. But not only his. A series of rare conversations with his relatives make clear the impact on Schreber’s illness on their lives. His wife is ashamed of her husband’s erratc behaviour and mortified by the publication of the afore-mentioned Memoirs. (OK this may not be the most sympathetic stance but it is entirely understandable.) His step-daughter, who adored him, loses him at a tender age and grows up without him. It is clear that Schreber had broken the mould, was not going to repeat the pattern of his own childhood and had formed a truly loving bond with her. Unfortunately fate, and the inefficacy of early C20th psychiatric care, were to rob them both.
So how much of Schreber’s psychotic drug-addled point-of-view can we believe? Where is the line between fact and hallucination? How many events and motivations in Pheby’s novel are imagined? Where are the gaps (the chronology isn’t always clear). I decided not to bother myself with any of that, and I still haven’t read Schreber’s real memoirs. I decided simply to experience events from inside Schreber’s fictionalised head. It’s surprising how rational it seemed …. Not all of it, but most of it. Is that a cause for worry? Probably but like Schreber I prefer my own spin, and choose to see it as evidence of authorly ambition well realised.