The Washington Post
The Birth of Love: A Novelby Joanna Kavenna, Stephen J. Rose
From the winner of the Orange Award for New Writers, an epic novel of childbirth—past, present, and future
The year is 1865. In Vienna, Dr. Ignasz Semmelweiss has been hounded into an asylum by his medical peers, ridiculed for his claim that doctors’ unwashed hands are the root cause of childbed fever. In present-day London, Bridget Hughes juggles her… See more details below
From the winner of the Orange Award for New Writers, an epic novel of childbirth—past, present, and future
The year is 1865. In Vienna, Dr. Ignasz Semmelweiss has been hounded into an asylum by his medical peers, ridiculed for his claim that doctors’ unwashed hands are the root cause of childbed fever. In present-day London, Bridget Hughes juggles her young son, husband, and mother as she plans her home birth, unprepared for the trial she is about to endure. Somewhere in 2135, in a world where humans are birthed and raised in breeding farms, Prisoner 730004 is on trial for concealing a pregnancy.
Through three stories spanning centuries, acclaimed novelist Joanna Kavenna explores the most basic plight of women, from the slaughterhouse of primitive medicine to a futurisic vision of technological oppression. Poised at the midpoint is Bridget, whose fervent belief in the wisdom of nature is tested in one of the most gripping accounts of labor to appear in fiction.
Original, powerful, and played out against a vast canvas, The Birth of Love is at once a novel about the creation of human life, science and faith, madness and compromise, and the epic journey of motherhood.
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Monday August 15th, 1865, Vienna
Dear Professor Wilson,
I am sorry to disturb you from your work; however, I must ask your advice about a most distressing series of meetings I had today at the asylum. As you know, I have been visiting the asylum in Lazarettgasse for some years now, examining the inmates of this accursed place, better to understand the conditions which cause the individual to discard the faculty of reason. Today I met an inmate in such a terrible and perplexing condition, as to question every notion of lunacy I have thus far elaborated. I have— with reference to the many visits I make to “lunatics”— been developing a theory that what we call madness is often simply a rearrangement of the human personality, or an arrangement which in some way offends more ordinary sensibilities. If we were to abandon the notion of sanity as strictly distinct from madness we would save many from suffering. We would perceive that madness is a lunar condition, a condition of revelation and vision, and thereby we who have allowed our perceptions to be veiled by conventional observance can sometimes learn from those we refer to as lunatics. There are many forces within the human soul which we refuse to acknowledge, many ancient presences we have turned away from, and I suspect that these often command those we call lunatic, and cause them to behave in a way we cannot understand. This is my unpop u lar theory; yet I discovered today a case as resistant to my theorizing as to more pop u lar theories of madness. The man is in dire need of help.
I arrived at the asylum this morning at 9:00 a.m. and rang the bell. The door was opened, as usual, by one of the burly orderlies, who ushered me into the anteroom. The room is intended to appear homely; there are some armchairs and bookshelves with innocuous books of the hour upon them, and at the center of the room, above the fi replace, is a mediocre painting of the Alps. Everything is superfi cially nondescript; yet I always think as I stand there, it is the room in which so many of the inmates are committed by their families, and are taken away wailing and pleading, in horrible fear.
Herr Meyer soon arrived, who is in charge of the asylum. He is always very smart and efficient, yet over the years I have come to regard him as an unpleasant man, quite brutalized by his work, or perhaps drawn to it precisely because of the vicious elements of his nature. He smells of cruelty, and his eyes are sharp and vigilant. His manner is sly, and I generally acknowledge him with a cursory good day and proceed to my business. This morning, however, he was rather excited— licking his lips, even, with a thick pink tongue— and he said, “A very interesting case, the case of Herr S. Came here two weeks ago. Consigned to our care by some friends. A violent and incontinent man.”
“What manner of lunatic is he?” I asked.
“Well- spoken. Clearly once an educated man. Accuses himself of murder. And others, too. He cannot give you precise names, however; he finds it hard to recall specifi c details. This is an aspect of his madness. You should see him for yourself,” he said, nodding in his insidious conspiratorial manner.
“I should be glad to. Do you have any more information about him?”
Herr Meyer adopted his most self- important tone. “Oh, I cannot reveal the further details to you, my good man. The family has asked me to maintain the strictest secrecy around Herr S. His identity must remain obscure to outsiders such as you. You surely understand, that my first concern is the protection of my patients and their families?”
I responded with the briefest of nods, and he, smirking a little, led me through the asylum, where there were rooms furnished with the damned, and then dark corridors lined with cells. There may be worse places on earth than Vienna’s public asylum but at present I cannot imagine what corner of the globe might hold them. Its corridors echo with a ragged chorus— each madman finding his own discord, some of them little more than whoops and cackles, others strident and jangling. They rail, oh how they rail against those who sent them here, and those who have not come for them, and they know— at one level I believe they know— that they have been abandoned. The ones who do not talk, they turn expressions of such despair upon you, it is hard to think that they are beyond all comprehension. As we entered the communal rooms I was briefly held back by the smell of feces and decay— but I have long been visiting these mad houses, and have sadly grown accustomed to this noxious atmosphere and all the suffering to which it attests. (Indeed I believe these poor individuals are hastened to their ends by the severity of the atmosphere in which they exist, that it is quite impossible for any human to be cured in these conditions, and the asylums in their present state must only ever be a prison for the lunatic. I have been campaigning along these lines for a few years, but my efforts have so far been in vain.) As we walked I recognized a number of the long- term residents— an aging man in a grimy black suit, a tattered handkerchief in his pocket, one boot off and one boot on. He would meander around, saying very little, and then he would stop on one leg, or he would take ten skipping steps and then two broad strides, like a child playing a game. He was hesitating in the middle of the room, until Herr Meyer pushed him roughly aside. We passed another fellow I had seen many times before, a prematurely aged man with matted blond hair, who talked incessantly, mostly of colors, as if he were the author of a meticulous system—“And there is the red. And there is the black and the blue. And there is the purple. And now the red once more . . .” and so on. I have talked several times to this man, hoping to discern his system, if one exists, but I have not yet understood it. He sounded as if he came from Salzburg, and I had been told that no one came to visit him. He, too, received the rough edge of Herr Meyer’s shoulder, because he presumed to approach us, and thus rebuffed, turned away. “Now the black, and then the blue . . .”
Herr Meyer kept giving me odious smiles, as if we were sharing a marvelous joke. “I demand a hearing, I demand a hearing,” said one of them as I passed, while Meyer snorted as if this was a sublime quip and ushered me on. His absolute and abiding assumption was that these people were worthless, subhuman, simply because their reason had failed. Men such as Meyer perceive their asylums as private kingdoms, governed by their own brutal laws, and they treat the inmates like animals, for the most part, as if madness has deprived them of all humanity. Despite all the reforms in our legislation this continues to be the orthodoxy in many such places. I sometimes suspect that were Herr Meyer deprived of his fi efdom, he would himself fall out of the realm of the “sane” and be instantly confined himself. Indeed one must observe that it is a very debased civilization which allows Herr Meyer to be grand arbiter over such fragile human souls!
Water trickled down the walls, a steady drip, and I thought of those lunatics with this constant noise in their ears, and all the remorseless ways in which they were stripped of dignity and deprived of any hope of recovery. We entered an area in which the inmates were confined to cells, and everything was cast into shadow, the sounds indistinct, though no less miserable. Now Herr Meyer stopped at a cell, and with a sardonic flourish, opened the door. A man was sitting in the corner, in chains. The cell was so dark I could hardly distinguish his features. He seemed from what little I could discern to be blunt- featured and stocky, and he was sitting very quietly, staring into space. Herr Meyer rattled his keys, and said in his leering way, “Herr S, there’s someone to see you.” He addressed the patient as if he had no claim to any form of kindness, and Herr S refused to respond. I wondered if he could not endure the nature of his confinement, and thereby refused to acknowledge his keeper. Or if his madness took him in the catatonic way and made him mute.
“Oh Herr S,” said Meyer, in a taunting tone, and I said, “That is enough, I will speak to this man alone, thank you.”
“He’s chained up and cannot trouble you,” said Herr Meyer, unabashed and still presuming to be conspiratorial. Then he removed himself, and I turned to consider the man before me.
For the first few minutes Herr S did not look up. He seemed to be deep in thought and I hesitated to disturb him. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom I perceived his hair had fallen out in clumps, and his skin was drawn tight, like that of a reptile. His hands were covered in scratches, and there was a livid bruise on his forehead, a swelling on his mouth; testifying— I imagined— to the rough treatment he had already received from Herr Meyer’s attendants.
After a time I said “Herr S” again, and he lifted his head. Even then he stared into space, as if he did not see me.
“Herr S, as it seems I must call you, my name is Robert von Lucius,” I said. “From time to time I visit the occupants of this asylum, the better to understand their conditions. I do not believe that the mad are beyond redemption and must be sequestered and ruined. I believe that many of those described as mad have greater access than I to the most profound mysteries of the human spirit, if only I could understand them better. For this reason, I am regarded with suspicion by some of my contemporaries. I do not care for their good opinion, except where their censure prevents me from doing my work. I would like to talk to you, if that is acceptable.”
Once more he said nothing, and I was unsure if he had heard me or understood my words. I said, “Is there anything you need?”
At that, his eyes fixed on me. I must confess that I was briefly unnerved by his gaze. It expressed such hopelessness, such a terrible absence of joy. It was horribly eloquent, though all it invoked was macabre and vile. There was a chaos to his limbs, which dismayed me, too. It was as if his bones had been broken, and had mended strangely. Everything about his posture was ugly and awkward; everything about his gaze was desperate and beseeching. He opened his mouth to speak but no sound came. He sat in this way for some time, opening and shutting his mouth, and then he grabbed his hair— I now saw one of the causes of his mottled baldness— and began pulling frantically at a clump. I was obliged to look away, feeling that he should be permitted to pass through this fi t without being observed. For some time, I examined the dank wall, with its patterns of mold and grime, and when I turned toward Herr S again I saw he had slipped into his former stupor.
I said, “I would like to ask you how you came here, if I may. Herr Meyer told me you have been here for two weeks now.” At the name of his keeper, Herr S experienced another spasm. His body convulsed, he gripped the chains and opened his mouth as if to howl. There was fear in his face, and urgent entreaty.
“Is he here?” he said, in a whisper.
“No, he is not here. He will not return while I am with you,” I said.
“How long will you be here?”
“I do not know.”
“Please stay as long as you can,” he said.
“Are you afraid of Herr Meyer?”
“I am very afraid,” he said to me, still in this almost inaudible tone, so I had to lean forward to understand him.
“Of what are you afraid?”
“He will kill me. Perhaps he has already. The injuries I have sustained are in themselves life- threatening. I do not think I have much time left.”
“What are the injuries you have sustained?”
“I fear I must have internal bleeding of some fatal sort,” he said. “They beat me very badly and though I was barely conscious by the end I believe they stamped on my chest. I felt something crack and puncture, and since then I have experienced acute abdominal pain and I fear hematemesis may develop.”
“You are certain they beat you in this way?” I said.
“I am quite certain they beat me, though as I said I was confused by the end and so perhaps there are omissions in my account.”
His speech surprised me. He was wretched indeed, but the rancid Herr Meyer had assessed him correctly in one matter; he was clearly a man of education and former rank. This further piqued my curiosity, and I said, “I should discuss this with Herr Meyer, demand an explanation.”
“Oh please do not. Do not tell him I said anything,” said Herr S.
He really was in fear of his life. Even in his damaged state, even with his mind hanging in tatters, he wanted to live. This has always interested me about those we define as mad, this residual life urge most of them possess. They do not regard their lives as finished. If you were to offer them a pistol they would generally refuse the opportunity to take arms against their sea of troubles. Once more, this suggests to me that these confi dent distinctions we forge are fundamentally useless, and that if we are ever to advance we must pay more attention to the revelations of those we currently ignore. In this instance, Herr S was evidently afraid, and had no desire to end his suffering, or to have it ended by the ministrations of Herr Meyer.
I said, “I will say nothing to him, I solemnly swear.”
At that he became a little calmer.
“I am told you arrived here two weeks ago,” I said. He nod
ded faintly. “Where did you come from?”
“I am not sure,” he said. “Where are we now?”
“We are in Vienna.”
“Vienna? I think I know that city well. I am not sure. When they beat me I perhaps sustained an injury to the brain. Something is wrong with my memory.”
“Do you think you might have been living in Vienna?”
“I believe I was on a train. I left my home . . .” He stopped, shaking his head.
“And where is your home?” I tried again.
“I have such headaches, as if a weight is clamped to my skull. There are great gaps in my memories. I think I was on a train— I remember the noise of a station. Trains hooting, smoke rising toward a great arched roof. There were many people there; I remember I was upset by the crowds. I think I shouted at a man, ‘Get away from me!’ He had approached too close, and I feared contagion. Then there was someone I remembered from the past, a good friend. I was so pleased to see him. I stretched out my hand to greet him. But you are here! How marvelous! How have you been? I think I was wearing a suit. I was well dressed, not like this”— he gestured to his soiled and ripped clothes. “I was not ashamed of myself at all, as I should be now, if this friend came to see me here. I cannot remember what happened after that. There are many things I cannot remember. You say I have been here two weeks, but I have few memories of recent days. Just a grave sense of coursing regret. A feeling as if I am descending into thick black night and shall never see the dawn again.”
“You are not Viennese by birth, I assume.” I said this because the man’s German, though impeccable, was Magyar in inflection and emphasis. I meant it to be a benign inquiry, yet the question seemed to anger him, because he stared suddenly toward me, and clenched his fi sts.
“Forgive me, but I believe you come from the Hungarian Lands?” I persisted.
“I do not know. If you say so, perhaps it is true.”
“You do not remember this either?”
“I think I do not. It is as if . . . there is a barrier standing between me and the past. A wall. A forbidding wall— grown over with ivy. I see the wall, and I note that it is high and I cannot scale it. Beyond that, I am confi ned.”
He stopped and rubbed his forehead, frenetically. He continued this action for some minutes, until I thought I must distract him. So I said, “Do you have any idea why you were brought here?”
“I believe I am an incon ve nience to someone,” he said. “Someone has finally tired of me. I am not sure who that is. There are many who might have grown tired of me by now.”
“Why is that?”
“Because of what I have said. Because of the charges I bring against them.”
“Oh, countless numbers of them. Murderers, all of them,” he said. And he leaned toward me and said, “Because of this I have my suspicions they are trying to destroy me. They are watching me and trying to destroy me.”
Excerpted from The birth of love : a novel by Joanna Kavenna.
Copyright © 2009 by Joanna Kavenna.
Published in 2009 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
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