Professor Hieronymus, by Amalie Skram

Amalie Skram isn’t much mentioned in the English-speaking world (if you type her name into Amazon, it asks you: Did you mean “amelie scream”?). My own 2014 review of Betrayed makes it onto the second page of a Google search (which is always a good sign of a writer’s obscurity). Norvik Press have a few novels of hers available. This is a two-parter called Under Observation, by a publisher called Women in Translation.

The novel is about a woman who agrees that she is suffering from mental issues (she is agitated, can’t sleep, has hallucinations, takes opium), and agrees with her husband to have herself committed to an institution. However, while she imagines at the institution she will find the peace and quiet she needs to recover, once there she is in fact subject to a torture of sleeplessness because she has to listen all day and night to the insanity of the other patients. She finds herself at the same time tormented and incarcerated, and there is no way she can persuade the doctors that this world they’ve provided for her is the last thing she needs to make her recover; the doctors, naturally, just taken her recalcitrance as a sign of her insanity. The only option, as the nurses who sympathise with her explain to her, is to be quiet and peaceful, and most of all uncritical, and then maybe she’ll be let out.

The novel is designed to make you very angry, and to this end it is very effective. You feel yourself trapped in the woman’s mind, unfairly imprisoned and with no way out. As with Antonio Lobo Antunes’ Knowledge of Hell, which we read only a month ago [ed. it is longer than that now], the psychiatric profession is again shown as only torturing its patients and adding to their insanity, having no idea in its pride of how to cure them – or even bothering to listen to them.

All the foregoing story actually happened to Amalie Skram, so as with ALA, she’s at least speaking from experience; and she certainly bears a grudge. I like her books, which portrays unusual worlds / unusual slants on situations. This was written in 1895: – I’m not sure I can think any other books from that time quite so unflinching in their portrayal of asylums.

The introductory waffle makes this out to be a feminist text: how women are disregarded as artists (the character is an artist), and oppressed (held captive) by men. Yes ok, this can be read into the text, if you like: but I’m not sure really Skram is so narrow: – her view of oppression is more universal: the oppression of one individual by another – not necessarily on account of sex. The doctor doesn’t listen to her (but does he listen to anyone? he is far too convinced of his own certainty). Nor is her pursuit of art seen as pejorative. The only person who expresses an opinion on it is her husband, who is entirely in favour of it. (Perhaps the psychiatrist does, but of course, if he does, it only serves to confirm his view of her – he’s not really interested in her art at all). – On the other hand, it does contain this feminist slant, in that the only people who understand that she is not insane are the nurses (who, of course, are all women); but because of their subordinate position, no one listens to their opinion (they are dismissed often without even a hearing), and all they can advise her to do is on what strategy to adopt to get around the (male) doctors.

In the end, this book actually becomes quite repetitive, since every day in the asylum is much the same, and it doesn’t really have anywhere to go. (Other books by Skram are much better from this point of view. I think I might leave the sequel for ten or so years).

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