Blinded by ambition


Blinded by ambition

Alissa Walser

MacLehose, £14.99

Review: Liam Heylin

This German novelist brings us to mid-18th century Vienna, where a doctor, Franz Anton Mesmer, uses an unproven method to treat a young blind woman, Maria.

The daughter of a distinguished family, Maria has also distinguished herself, with her excellence as a pianist.

She is brought to Mesmer’s home and private hospital.

Maria is doted on by her parents, not least for her prodigious musical talent. However, they don’t know how to handle her blindness, which is linked to her freakish fits, and bizarre movements and bulges in her eyes.

Mesmer works to tame these excesses and restore her vision, through a series of experimental works on which his reputation depends. He craves the favour of the Austrian equivalent of the Royal Society, as he desperately hopes for recognition. While Mesmer and the girl’s parents want her vision restored, Maria has a more ambivalent attitude to sight. Without it, she has developed her other senses to a heightened degree.

Based on a real historical figure from the pre-dawn of psychiatry, Mesmer’s story is told in the manner of Peter Shaffer’s play Equus, in which a troubled young boy seeks to be released from his demons by a psychiatrist.

Mesmer and Maria get to know each other through a series of sessions in which she might also be released to see the light, both literally and figuratively.

As the treatment goes on, it appears that there is a link between her blindness and her musical talent. “He’d magicked her eyes better and now her hands were sick.”

While Shaffer’s psychiatrist is reluctant to ‘cure’ the boy of a passion that the psychiatrist will never know, it is the patient in Mesmerized who is reluctant to surrender to the awakening of her sight.

So there are interesting themes thrashing about in this novel, and there is skill in the evocation of time and place. But the story comes to the reader through a literary fog. Something prevents the novel from springing to life with literary energy and vitality.

Perhaps it is the translation, or maybe Jamie Bulloch’s work is scrupulously true to the German original. Whatever it is, what is probably intended to be condensed, poetic intensity sometimes comes across like repetitive telegrammatic prose.

The publicist puts Walser’s book shoulder-to-shoulder with Patrick Suskind’s Perfume. Unfortunately, Mesmerised doesn’t come close to the unforgettable air of eeriness and brooding vitality that oozes from Suskind’s novel.

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