Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer


“Ernst Weiss is in fact one of the few writers who may justly be compared to Franz Kafka...The book belongs to the very most interesting that I have come across in years. . . . One is filled with impressions, excited and gripped by striking existent but unforgettably cast images, characters, and events. By the way: it is all very Austrian.”—Thomas Mann

“I wonder why Weiss isn’t better known here. A doctor as well as a writer, he knew about the body as well as the heart, and you can trust him when he describes how...

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Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer

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“Ernst Weiss is in fact one of the few writers who may justly be compared to Franz Kafka...The book belongs to the very most interesting that I have come across in years. . . . One is filled with impressions, excited and gripped by striking existent but unforgettably cast images, characters, and events. By the way: it is all very Austrian.”—Thomas Mann

“I wonder why Weiss isn’t better known here. A doctor as well as a writer, he knew about the body as well as the heart, and you can trust him when he describes how each can act on the other.”—Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer is a tragicomic and harrowing portrait of a morally defective mind. Written in a highly unreliable first person narrative, this unsung masterwork is an account of a crime and its aftermath: the scientist-hero (or scientist-villain) is tried, sentenced, and deported to a remote island where he is privileged to work as an epidemiologist. He seeks redemption in science, but in spite of himself he is a man of feeling. The book came out of the same fertile literary ground between the wars that produced The Man Without Qualities and The Sleepwalkers; like those modernist classics and the works of Ernst Weiss’ friend, Franz Kafka, Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer is a prescient depiction of a profoundly unsettled society.

Ernst Weiss (1882–1940), born in Brunn, Austria (now Brno, Czech Republic), spoke and wrote in German. He was a trained physician and surgeon and served as a ship’s doctor for many years. He met Kafka in Berlin in 1913, and was convinced to write full-time. Weiss, a Jew, committed suicide in Paris when the Nazis entered the city in 1940.

Joel Rotenberg translated Chess Story and The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Vivid. . . . [With] the thrill of intellectual obsession. . . . Weiss's novels are remarkable for their ambitious conceits, stylistic variation, and unusual characters. . . . He uncovers the fear, apathy, longing and rage for which the now cliched psychoanalytic terms were invented. . . . His finest moments as a writer are when he plays the strict psychoanalyst, allowing his disturbed characters to speak their minds while he suspends judgment of right and wrong."
-The Nation

"Part medical detective story and part criminal confession. … the story addresses … justice, punishment, altruism, the fear of illness, the joy of recovery, the ecstasy of being alive, and the absolute worth of a single human life. … From a literary standpoint, readers can expect a sizeable reward."—Journal of the American Medical Association

"One of his strongest works. … One admires Weiss's skill at creating such a complex relationship between a subjective narrator who thinks he's objective and the reader who bears witness to it."—The Quarterly Conversation

"What an extraordinary writer he is!"—Franz Kafka

"Weiss … took soul-searching to its darkest depths. He is remarkably open searching and piercing."—The Complete Review

"What makes Georg Letham so fascinating is not that he is a murderer, but that he knows this and is still plagued with a compulsion to contribute to humanity … He kills for money, but when stripped of the need for money and forced to live, he becomes more of a human being."—Salonica

"A remarkable, haunting work. An extraordinary writer indeed. . . . Joel Rotenberg has done a fine job of rendering Weiss's snappily sardonic prose."—The Lancet Infectious Diseases

"I wonder why Weiss isn’t better known here. A doctor as well as a writer, he knew about the body as well as the heart, and you can trust him when he describes how each can act on the other."
Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

"Ernst Weiss is in fact one of the few writers who may justly be compared to Franz Kafka . . . This is easily one of the most interesting books I have come across in years . . . One is filled with impressions, stimulated, gripped by images, characters, and episodes that are strangely real but also unforgettably fashioned. –And, incidentally, it's all very Austrian."
Thomas Mann

Library Journal
Originally published in 1931, this is an account of a crime and its aftermath, interspersed with flashbacks that may illuminate the cause of the crime and the root of the perpetrator's moral defectiveness. The title character is the novel's unreliable narrator. Letham, who describes himself as "a physician, a man of scientific training of certain philosophical aspirations," is ever a medical researcher and taxonomist, categorizing his fellow men impassively as either frogs or rats. After murdering his wife, Letham is sent to the yellow fever-ridden penal colony C, where he is able to continue his epidemiological work and questionable experiments. The author, Jewish physician Weiss, is often compared to friend and contemporary Franz Kafka, but Weiss's work is more realistic, clearly influenced by his own life and work in the medical field. Rotenberg's translation is clean and attentive, but this is nevertheless a very slow read. VERDICT Essential reading for fans of German expressionism and of interest to readers of psychological novels but overlong for the casual reader.—Karen Morse, Univ. of Buffalo Lib., NY
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780980033038
  • Publisher: Steerforth Press
  • Publication date: 1/29/2010
  • Edition description: Translatio
  • Pages: 560
  • Sales rank: 1,497,365
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 6.80 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Like Kafka, a friend of his, Ernst Weiss was a German-speaking Jew from Prague. He was a physician as well as a novelist. Joel Rotenberg has translated Stefan Zweig's "Chess Story" and Hugo von Hofmannsthal's "The Lord Chandos Letter," both for the New York Review of Books series.

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Read an Excerpt

How could I, Georg Letham, a physician, a man of scientific training, of certain philosophical aspirations, let myself be so far carried away as to commit an offense of the gravest sort, the murder of my wife? And to commit this crime chiefly for financial reasons? Or so it would appear to the outsider. For money was in fact the one thing I could never get from that woman, who was doglike in her attachment to me. Am I revil- ing her with this word "doglike"? No. I am only attempting to explain, and so far I have not succeeded. There is a gaping internal contradic- tion here, and yet that is how it was.

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2012

    Try it

    Currently reading. Another book that is difficult to far. I shall keep at it.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 25, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Complicated yet compelling

    The classic symptoms of a sociopath are a wanton disregard for right and wrong and an inability to care about the feelings of others or the tenets of law or societal norms. Most sociopaths can be defined fairly early in life by their behavior and attitude.
    With this in mind, I began what I thought was a story about a sociopath. In Georg Letham, Physican and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, the main character Letham is a classically trained physician who specializes in research in the distasteful specialization of vivisection. In the initial chapters he confesses his role in the murder of his wife with no apparent remorse. In fact, he only did it because he needed her money and she refused to "voluntarily" die of her own volition. He complains about his wife and his father, both of whom held the key to his financial betterment:

    "Neither of them could give me what I yearned for in the depths of my soul, but there was one medicine that they could have given me to ease my suffering: the original medicine, money."

    Circumstances after the murder unravel and his perfect plan fails spectacularly. He ends up carted off as a 'common' criminal to a life sentence, a fate made more demeaning by the extremely high opinion he had of himself. As he acclimates to incarceration and is transported to a tropical prison camp, he explains more of his childhood and more of his relationship with his father. He reveals in slow and painful detail exactly what his father did to make him a strong man, and suddenly the diagnosis of classic schizophrenic becomes vague. Because while he clearly was influenced by his father's hateful and moral deficiencies, he never outright blames him or uses him as an excuse. He accepts all responsibility himself for his crime and also acknowledges his own moral failure. A true schizophrenic never accepts blame. Throughout this first half of the book to this point, the reading has been complicated and painful; the details were horrifying and unsettling.

    However, in his new location in the tropics, a change occurs in his life that confirms that Georg Letham is no sociopath. He is allowed to work in the medical field again, this time doing research to find a cure for the deadly Yellow Fever that haunts the tropical regions. A parallel is drawn between the rats his father abhorred and tried forever to eliminate with Georg's efforts to find a remedy for this similarly persistent and deadly danger. While his father was led into the depths of moral depravity because of his inability to control the deadly rodents, Georg rises morally by putting himself at risk for the welfare of others by trying to have some effect on the deadly disease. Throughout the second half of the book we see him change, yet he never transforms completely. That would be too easy and too unrealistic.

    A fascinating part of the text is the medical aspects of the study of disease, and how diseases like Yellow Fever are transmitted. This is a far more interesting way to learn about biology than high school science! No details are omitted in the search for a cure, and Weiss never dumbs down the medical language. Reading about the treatment of criminals in the early twentieth century as well as the service of military doctors and their dedication in this time period is absorbing.

    This is not an easy read. Details of the animal testing are gruesome. His own attitude is obnoxious, but changes to more of a snarky sensiblen

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