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Perlman's Ordeal

Perlman's Ordeal

by Hansen

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New York Times Notable Book of the Year

One evening in London in 1906, Dr. August Perlman—classical music lover, hashish devotee, and a scrupulously scientific pioneer of "clinical suggestion" (or hypnotism)—is about to leave for the symphony when a hysterical teenage girl is brought into his office. It seems that another girl's


New York Times Notable Book of the Year

One evening in London in 1906, Dr. August Perlman—classical music lover, hashish devotee, and a scrupulously scientific pioneer of "clinical suggestion" (or hypnotism)—is about to leave for the symphony when a hysterical teenage girl is brought into his office. It seems that another girl's personality is living inside her. Eventually, in a time just before the age of Freud, a charismatic imposter (Madame Barrett, a "spiritualist") and the pioneering doctor must fight a heated battle over this teenager's soul. This novel, as The New York Times Book Review so aptly put it, is "extravagantly, even bewilderingly inventive . . . [and] crammed with the stuff of dreams."

Editorial Reviews

Perlman's ordeal began at 6:50 p.m., September 24, 1906, a Monday. It ended the following Sunday, late. So begins Hansen's challenging, very good novel.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Hansen (The Chess Garden) has a particular talent for otherworldly effects, and this account of the experiences of an Austrian doctor in Edwardian London offers a dazzling array of them, from hypnotism to possession to table-tapping to mythical visions. The title refers to Dr. August Perlman, a skilled hypnotist who can often "heal" suggestible people at his clinic attached to a London hospital. One day Sylvie Blum, a young girl in a starved, catatonic state, is brought to him; hypnotism instantly brings forth a dominant, healthy secondary personality, Nina. While embarking on her treatment, the music-loving Perlman meets, at a symphony concert, Madame Helena Barrett, a spiritualist whose brother was a young composer, dead much too young, whose music Perlman much admires. He gets to know her somewhat eccentric, half-Russian circle, and when Barrett takes an interest in Sylvie/Nina, Nina insists on being taken to visit her. Much against his better instincts, Perlman agrees, and thus begins his ordeal: a long and harrowing struggle for the spirit of the girl, who is deeply immersed in a previous life apparently lived as a handmaiden in Atlantis. Hansen shows undeniable skill in upending Perlman's self-confident, rational mindset in a welter of play-acting, s ance shocks and mythic visions. But oddly, despite the dramatic fireworks of the concluding chapters, what lingers is the loving evocation of the period's musical life: London audience hearing Mahler's First Symphony for the first time, a chat with George Bernard Shaw in his capacity as music critic, Perlman's excitement over the new Welte-Mignon mechanical piano. These details bring setting and character to life in a way the rather high-flown plot fails to accomplish. (Aug.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Perlman is a medical doctor specializing in hypnosis--quite a new thing in 1906 London. He's never had a patient quite like Sylvie Blum, brought to him unconscious and dehydrated because she has developed a terror of water. After she is dumped on him, the disgruntled Perlman rushes to a concert--for he is obsessed with music. He's not religious, though, so it is perhaps surprising that he is drawn to the spiritualist Helena Barrett, whom he meets at the concert. Soon he and Madame Helena are wrestling for the soul of young Sylvie, who has awakened from her stupor as someone else. In a complex, playful passage at Madame's house, Sylvie--who now calls herself Nina--reenacts strange, mythological scenes with Madame's famed actor uncle. There are hints that Sylvie is recalling these scenes from her previous life in soon-to-be-flooded Atlantis. The opening pages of this novel are especially compelling, and though the story gets too convoluted to be truly satisfying, Hansen (The Chess Garden, LJ 9/1/95) has powerful material here and a swarm of interesting if not entirely digested ideas about music, spirituality, history, and the clash between reason and religion. Ambitious readers with the time to savor will enjoy. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/99.]--Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Island Magazine
Surely Brooks Hansen has stuffed Perlman's Ordeal with too much for one novel: The protagonist, Dr. August Perlman - a pioneer of hypnotic suggestion in turn-of-the-century London - is painfully achieving respectability for his new form of therapy. A colleague dumps into Perlman's lap an unwanted patient - a catatonic girl whose apparent multiple personalities include a princess of the lost island of Atlantis. Perlman's suspicion is heightened when a spiritualist appears, eager to explore the girl's story. The complicated plot could go in any number of directions, and this one does - but it's a splendid, if dizzying, tour de force.
Kirkus Reviews
A richly embroidered tale, the second from Hansen (The Chess Garden, 1995), about a doctor, a hypnotherapist by profession and an amateur musician and opium addict by inclination, whose well-ordered life and belief system are rendered meaningless by a young patient's claim to be the demigoddess daughter of the high priest of long-lost Atlantis. Dr. August Perlman has a respected clinic at a London hospital in 1906, but in the common view his practice of "suggestive therapy" is too easily associated with quack hypnotists for his comfort. When the teenaged Sylvie Blum is brought to him, sedated and dehydrated from an uncontrollable elimination of bodily fluids, Perlman thinks he can cure her easily. But when the morphine wears off, he faces not Sylvie but Nina, whose story is altogether different from the one he expected. He doesn't give credence to what he assumes is a phantom personality and keeps his patient isolated while he attempts to put Sylvie back where she belongs. These efforts fail, and a stalemate ensues. An encounter with Helena Barrett, the free-spirited sister of Perlman's favorite composer, who died tragically young, distracts the doctor for a time•especially when she gives him one of her brother•s handwritten songbooks. But when by chance Helena meets Nina and hears a piece of her Atlantis story, she believes her, and a new form of therapy starts to unfold. Perlman is prevailed upon to bring Nina to Helena's house, against regulations and his professional judgment, whereupon a drama in several acts begins and the doctor, smitten with Helena and befuddled by illness and too much opium, slowly acknowledges he's out of his depth. His participation in the final act,however, is the key to effecting Sylvie's cure. The boundary between reason and madness shifts subtly in this psychodrama doubling as a love story. The result is a well-told, heady mix of enchantment and intellectual challenge.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.36(w) x 9.32(h) x 1.29(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Perlman's ordeal began at 6:50 p.m., September 24, 1906, a Monday. It ended the following Sunday, late.

    A discrete event, then, and brief—though not by comparison to other coups, he supposed, or attempted coups, which this had been, a bid at overturning everything the man had based his life and practice on. For such a radical siege to succeed, it would have to be quick, and thorough, and this was both. For seven days, everything from the weather outside to Perlman's own most private compulsions had seemed to play their parts in perfect concert, so much so that a man of a more credulous temperament might well have construed the hand of an All-Powerful, All-Knowing Being. Perlman, not being so credulous, saw no such sign, but for that same reason was at pains throughout to unmask this thing, expose it for what it was, what it could only have been: a triumph of unlikelihood, in which perfectly commonplace threads of circumstance and coincidence had been woven together by influences all too human—by manners, manipulation, gullibility, hope, shame, desire, hysteria don't forget, and then of course outright idiocy, mostly his.

    How long this web was in the making, why it should have chosen him or this moment to descend, all were good questions. Unfortunately, every time Perlman thought he might have hit upon some clue, some insight, he'd turn the next corner to find another explanation waiting, another potential culprit rearing its head to smile and chide him for the presumption. And so in the end he was left with the one impression which had denominated all the othersall along, like a keynote striking steadily and repeatedly beneath a wandering melody: He did not know. He did not know. Had no idea with what, or whom, he was dealing. And that had been the real ordeal, hadn't it?

    At least one element no one could deny. Requisite to any good storm is the lull that precedes it. In Perlman's case, a lengthy stretch of bland contentment—a blissful stretch, in retrospect—whose wellspring and centerpiece was his own clinic, the London Clinic for Suggestive Therapy, located on the ground level of 38 Little Britain, just across from the East Wing of the four pavilions that comprised St. Bartholomew's Hospital. The clinic was five years old and doing well. That very month, in fact, it had received its first noteworthy press—a feature piece in The Pall Mall Gazette which could not have been more glowing, or useful, if Perlman had written it himself, which, owing to his talents for subtle persuasion, he basically had.

    On the private front, the doctor's life was just as safely squared away. He had long ago determined his personal preferences—simple matters of what he liked to do, with whom, and when. He kept these few enough and distinct enough that they could be satisfied without compromising too much of his time or reputation. Another way of saying those preferences—on account of their modesty—were liberally served, and by the steady succession of their observance, and the running of the clinic, August Perlman's life had been proceeding at what seemed a pleasing clip—a perfect rhythm, as it would turn out, for disruption.

    Two warning notes had sounded, true—two spikes, which stood out in hindsight as having maybe prepared the way. First was the revolt in Moscow the previous December, the riots and subsequent strikes, all of which Perlman had tracked through the Times with what even then seemed an unwarranted pang of pity. Second was a thunderstorm which descended on London near the beginning of autumn; September 10, to be exact.

    Perlman himself had been at Covent Garden at the time, at a performance of Don Giovanni. That evening's principals, Maurel and Lussan, were both in good enough voice that Perlman, settled in his seat like a cat in a basket, remarked the storm outside only passingly. A few thunderclaps had intruded on the wedding scene—humidity had flattened the strings slightly—and then of course there was the inconvenience of being trapped inside the lobby with the rest of the audience for another half hour after the performance had ended. For the delay, he indulged himself in a third brandy until the heavy rain passed. Then, as was his custom, he took the Underground to the Southwark flat of his mistress, Samantha Ronan. There he spent the night, awoke alone—as he preferred—enjoyed an unaccompanied breakfast of tea, toast, and the morning Times, and was back home at the clinic by 7:30.

    All things considered, not a bad evening. Or hardly the stuff of portent.

Fifteen days hence the fury of the summer's final storm did finally reach Perlman's attention, sounding as a set of cautious taps against his office door.

    Again, they'd found him in a contented place. His last appointment for the day had been with a Belgian patent clerk named Félix Légère. A relatively simple case, M. Légère had come all the way from Brussels, complaining of a chronic skin rash. Perlman had prescribed a standard regime of counter-suggestion, had eliminated the rash in less than two weeks, and now was working on preventative maintenance.

    As always, the metronome was ticking: a standard allegro (?? = 120) had proven to work best for Légère.

    "Now, for a third time, Monsieur." Perlman was speaking in the slightly deeper register he invoked for professional use only, at a slower, even cadence. "Do you recall the irritation on your skin?"

    Légère gave a willing nod. His eyes were closed, his head was pressed against a small pillow, though he was sitting up in the chair.

    "A burning. Itching. An army of red ants, you said."

    Légère's face grimaced.

    "You can feel it?"

    Légère nodded.

    "On the inside of your arm, the rash has spread."

    Légère grew more agitated and started moaning pitifully.

    "It's covering both arms now, a colony of red ants."

    "Ooooh." Légère squirmed in the chair.

    "Don't scratch them, Monsieur Légère. You know it only makes them angry. You remember what to do."

    Légère nodded. "The sun."

    "That's right, the sun. They cannot bear the sun, and you can feel it now, shining down in waves. How many waves?"


    "That's right. Eleven waves of sunlight, and you will make them go away, burn them away, as you have proven all this week and the week before—you will make the ants retreat. Even now it has begun. Ten. Breathe ... Nine."

    Perlman let the metronome sound four ticks unaccompanied. Légère's face calmed.

    "They are burning away. Seven ..."

    Légère's body relaxed.

    "Six ... Your skin is smooth and cool. You can feel the air. Do you feel?"

    Légère nodded.

    "How does it feel?"

    "Smooth. Cool."

    "Good. There's four ... three ... two"—he paused—"and all the irritation is gone."

    He waited an extra moment to let Légère enjoy the relief. "Very good, Monsieur Légère. Now you will awake." Perlman leaned over and touched him on the shoulder.

    Légère's head gave a slight shake, and the pillow fell from behind his neck. His brows lifted and a luxuriant smile stretched across his face, as though he'd wakened from a long nap.

    "Well rested?"

    Légère took a deep, loud breath. "Comme toujours, Dr. Perlman." A child-sized man, he hopped down from the chair and gave his chest two crisp pats. "Très bon."

    "You're doing very well."

    Légère looked down to inspect the soft undersides of his arms. His sleeves were rolled so he could see the skin, smooth and clear. "Mmm," he toned happily. "Mmm." He kissed his arms, the right and then the left. "Merci, Dr. Perlman. I cannot say."

    "You needn't." Perlman stood. "It is you, Monsieur Légère."

    Légère gave a sly grin. "It was not `I' with Dr. Arnot. It was not `I' with Dr. Parent and all his ointments." He looked down at his arms again in wonder. "Mm." He kissed them twice more, then in a fit of gratitude clasped Perlman around the shoulders. "Thank you, thank you, thank you, Dr. Perlman."

    Perlman did not protest this time, but as soon as he was able—as soon as he'd been let go—he ushered M. Légère out to the reception area.

    Sister Margaret was at her desk—idle, but dutifully posed. She had been with him for two years now and was the best of the nurses the hospital had sent him. Older than most, and taller—taller than Perlman, in fact—she had a long and lean visage that might once have passed for fair but which age had turned more knowing and severe. A bit like a Great Dane, her mere presence served him well—that so commanding a figure as she should nonetheless be answering to him.

    Légère presented his arms for her to see. She gave a suitably, but not overly, impressed nod.

    "Sister Margaret, I'd like to schedule Monsieur Légère again for Wednesday. Is that all right, Monsieur Légère?"


    "Morning. Shall we say ten?"

    "Ten. Bon." Légère clicked his heels.

    "Then I think we may be done."

    Légère gave a slight swoon, then shot a sly glance at the Sister. "But then when will I see the mademoiselle?" He rounded the desk and kissed her impassive hand.

    "That I leave to you."

    "Aha, Doctor." He wagged a finger at him, clasped his hand, his wrist, then left with a flourish, sweeping his coat from the stand and bursting out the door, proclaiming his relief to the night air.

    Perlman and the Sister shared a quiet smile. "And how much longer will you be holding the fort?"

    "Till seven," she said.

    "Good. I'll be changing. If I don't see you, Sister Margaret, good night."

    "Good night, Dr. Perlman."

    Perlman closed the office door behind him and crossed through to his flat, which lay the other side. A modest space for a man of his renown—just a parlor, a kitchenette, a dining area, and a bedroom—but Perlman rarely entertained, and was happy to trade space for the convenience of being so near his place of business. He went straight to the loo to begin his usual ablutions, soaping his cheeks and neck.

    Once again he planned to close the day with music, this time the symphony, and this time in the company of Dr. Benjamin. The program was one he'd been looking forward to ever since noting it in his fall subscription letter, an evening of Scandinavian fare—some Nielsen, some Grieg, and as a special treat the London premiere of a tone poem by the Finn, Jean Sibelius, called The Swan of Tuonela. Perlman had heard the piece once before, last year in Denmark with Leonard, and he remembered liking it. He couldn't quite recall the themes, though, and so as soon as his hands and face were clean, he returned to his office to consult his Chroniks.

    The "Chroniks" stretched across the two top shelves of Perlman's office bookcase—an assortment of journals, cahiers, scrapbooks, folders, and such, more uniform in recent years; he'd found a sturdy black notebook when he first came to London, red-spined, well-bound, and a snug fit in all his coat pockets. In one form or another, he'd been keeping them practically since he was at Gymnasium, recording his impression of every musical performance he attended, every letter he sent or received on the subject of composers, halls, conductors, and so forth. Perlman was filling three or four per year now, and each new entry stoked a quiet hope that when all was done, perhaps when the clinic had passed to the hands of another, he'd go back over the whole collection, clean them up, and publish them for what they were—which was, he trusted, as comprehensive a record of European musical life as probably existed.

    He had found the Sibelius notes. June 26 it had been, and he had liked it. Four stars. His brother's ranking, two and a half—which was hardly surprising. Wallpaper, Leonard had called it. August was more forgiving. More difficult to listen to, certainly, read the evening's entry:

In fact, exhausting—the stamina required. One is never certain, in such a subjective piece, where one is. This, as opposed to the Bruch, where even if one had never heard the thing before, there is still the chance—provided one can distinguish a first subject from a second, tell a rondo from a fantasia—of knowing how close one is to the finish. Not so the Swans.

A concern? L frets as ever that less formal music invites the incursion of dilettantes, charlatans. Perhaps. Still, I think one should give the benefit of the doubt—esp. To such becoming "wallpaper" as this—if only because the impulse is inarguable: to let the content of the music dictate the form, and not vice versa. That is all. If Leonard cannot see that—or hear it—he has been in school too long.

    Perlman agreed with himself, and rather liked the last bit. Still, it was a point in Leonard's favor that now, a year later, Perlman's recollection of the music itself was foggy. Fortunately, he'd noted one of the themes in his entry—or Leonard had—a little handwritten

    He took the book back to his parlor, straight to his upright, a third-hand Broadwood. He removed the player mechanism and propped it against the wall—useless contraption—consulted his Chronik, and played the Swan theme, standing.

    He winced at the sound. It had been a humid summer, like living in a bowl of soup. The middle G was sticking, but still he recognized the theme, or thought he might.

    He went to finish changing, and ponder the phrase. Shirt first, then pants. He poured himself a glass of brandy and fixed his cuff links at the piano. Three more times he played the theme, standing, then opened the teakwood smoking chest on top. He removed a small clay pipe, an old gift from Dr. Parisot, and then from a smaller interior box, an even more recent gift—a whittled brick of hashish.

    He wondered if he should smoke yet, though, or wait. This was a potent batch. Probably he should go ahead. His pocket watch showed 6:30; ten minutes till the carriage would arrive, but this would last the trip. There were no more matches in the chest, so he returned to his office and was rooting through his drawers when the tapping, the aforementioned rapping, sounded the other side of the clinic door.

    It was Sister Margaret. "Dr. Perlman?"

    Perlman stuffed the pipe into the pocket of the blazer hanging over the back of his desk chair. The drink he kept in his hand. "Yes?"

    She cracked the door open. "There's a patient."

    "To admit?"


    He lifted the watch from his pocket, by way of demonstration. "Did you tell them there are hours?"

    She nodded. "They've come over from hospital."

    The hospital? That wasn't right. They weren't supposed to do that. He closed the desk drawers firmly. "I'll be right there." He returned his drink back to his flat, swept all the stray papers from his desktop, then headed out to Reception.

    There were four figures in the waiting area. A tall, heavyset Jewish man, nervous, holding his hat by the brim. Perlman knew on sight—another Wiener, like himself. The suit looked as if he might have gotten it at Kundhoffer's. Beside him was a slightly older woman of a lower but more pure German stock—a personal nurse or nanny. Dr. Abrams, one of the younger interns from the hospital, was standing next to her, and finally—the subject of their averted attention—a girl lay flat on a hospital carriage. She was unconscious and lanced by three separate rubber tubes—one in her nose, one in her mouth, and one up between her legs—all leading back to a ten-gallon jug of water, which for the time being had been propped on one of the waiting-room chairs.

    Perlman approached her first. An early pubescent. Dark brunette; pale olive complexion; expressionless. The Jewish man's daughter. Perlman felt her forehead, which indicated no fever. He pulled open her lids. Hazel-brown iris—or so it appeared; her pupils were button-sized. They'd given her morphine. Perlman fired Abrams an openly contemptuous glance, then turned to the father.

    Abrams introduced. "This is Mr. Blum, and Miss Bauer. Mr. Blum, Miss Bauer, this is Dr. Perlman."

    Only the man extended his hand. "You were heading out." He indicated the collar of his dress shirt.

    "Just a concert. This is your daughter?"

    The man nodded. Small eyes, small glasses, even a dainty nose, but still characterized by the downward hook. A tidy crop of curly black hair and delicate lips like a bow. A rather exquisite set of features, all bunched together in the middle of a massive head, broad jowls and neck, well shaven but shaded blue.

    He was sweating, breathing heavily. Mr. Blum had been angry not long ago, but the fury had given way to shock and the customary shame people tended to feel by association with a condition such as his daughter's, which Perlman had already concluded was hysterical—probably a mild case exacerbated by idiotic care, as it appeared their own Dr. Abrams had recently administered.


Meet the Author

Brooks Hansen is the author of The Chess Garden (1995) and Caesar's Antlers (1997), a novel for young adults. Together with Nick Davis he wrote the novel Boone (1990). He lives in New York City.

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