Time Out New York
Perlman's Ordealby Brooks Hansen
A novel about spiritualism, the symphony, and the lost city of Atlantis. London, 1906: Dr. August Perlman--music lover, opium addict, and director of London Hospital's new department of "clinical suggestion"--is on his way to the symphony when an odd patient is brought to his office. Sylvie Blum is fourteen, catatonic, unwashed, dehydrated. It seems that another girl… See more details below
A novel about spiritualism, the symphony, and the lost city of Atlantis. London, 1906: Dr. August Perlman--music lover, opium addict, and director of London Hospital's new department of "clinical suggestion"--is on his way to the symphony when an odd patient is brought to his office. Sylvie Blum is fourteen, catatonic, unwashed, dehydrated. It seems that another girl's personality is living inside her. Perlman returns from the symphony with the spiritualist Madame Helena Barrett, who gets Sylvie to talk. As her shadow self begins to tell her story, it bears astonishing resemblance to the myth of Atlantis. The girl within the girl says she once lived there. The doctor wants to suppress her story; the spiritualist wants it told. And so they battle for the soul of the girl. Their conflict is overshadowed by the ghost of Madame's late brother, a brilliantly imagined composer. Hansen's first novel, The Chess Garden, left the reader "grateful for and almost stupefied by the sustained effort of imagination" (The Boston Sunday Globe). In Perlman's Ordeal, he has taken the world of myth and brought it to life in a novel.
Time Out New York
"Hansen draws a stunning portrait of a credible miracle . . . A remarkable narrative performance."—The Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Perlman's Ordeal takes us back almost a century to a time when science and spirituality were feuding every bit as fiercely as today."—Vogue
"Brooks Hansen's Perlman's Ordeal transports readers to surprising worlds so powerfully imagined, so meticulously rendered, that you'll believe you dreamed it all yourself."—Claire Messud, author of The Last Life
"In form and in substance, [this novel] posits art and imagination as the victors in their never-ending tussle with science and order. Indeed, art this lovely always wins."—The Wall Street Journal
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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 briefthough 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 humanby 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 contentmenta blissful stretch, in retrospectwhose 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 pressa 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 preferencessimple 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 preferenceson account of their modestywere 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 clipa perfect rhythm, as it would turn out, for disruption.
Two warning notes had sounded, truetwo 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 scenehumidity had flattened the strings slightlyand 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 aloneas he preferredenjoyed 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?"
"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 beforeyou 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?"
"How does it feel?"
"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.
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 ableas soon as he'd been let gohe ushered M. Légère out to the reception area.
Sister Margaret was at her deskidle, 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 tallertaller than Perlman, in factshe 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 wellthat 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 renownjust a parlor, a kitchenette, a dining area, and a bedroombut 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 faresome 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 bookcasean 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 werewhich 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 halfwhich 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, exhaustingthe 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 chanceprovided one can distinguish a first subject from a second, tell a rondo from a fantasiaof 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 doubtesp. To such becoming "wallpaper" as thisif 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 thator hear ithe 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 entryor Leonard hada 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 walluseless contraptionconsulted 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 gifta 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."
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 sightanother 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 stocka personal nurse or nanny. Dr. Abrams, one of the younger interns from the hospital, was standing next to her, and finallythe subject of their averted attentiona girl lay flat on a hospital carriage. She was unconscious and lanced by three separate rubber tubesone in her nose, one in her mouth, and one up between her legsall 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 irisor 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 hystericalprobably 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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