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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Der Gefängnisarzt

Ernst Weiß

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To purchase Der Gefängnisarzt

Title: Der Gefängnisarzt
Author: Ernst Weiss
Genre: Novel
Written: 1934
Length: 364 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Der Gefängnisarzt - Deutschland
  • oder Die Vaterlosen
  • Der Gefängnisarzt has not been translated into English
  • The 1982 Suhrkamp edition (republished in 2001) has an Afterword by Peter Engel and a Chronology

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Our Assessment:

B : somber story of Germany in the 1920s

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Litterära Magasin . 1935-6 Hermann Hesse
Pariser Tagesblatt . 3/3/1935 Karl Schnog
Der Tagesspiegel . 22/2/1970 Jürgen P. Wallmann

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The complete review's Review:

       Ernst Weiss completed Der Gefängnisarzt in 1934, but he first began working on it in 1922 -- "in einem ganz anderen Zeitalter" ("in completely different times"). It is a novel about the early post-war years in Germany, about a time of privations, hyperinflation, and utter uncertainty. It is specifically to these hard times Weiss returned to after he left Germany (after the burning of the Reichstag in 1933), first for Prague and then for Paris. The politically charged atmosphere of what had become Hitler's Germany was still too close, too threatening, and rather than deal with it directly (as he later would in his "Eyewitness"-novel) he turned back to the very different but also difficult recent times. The era he writes of was less than a decade past, but already terribly distant.
       The early working title of the novel was Die Verstörten ("The Disturbed Ones"). Ultimately Weiss settled on the simple title focussing on the central character, Konrad D., Der Gefängnisarzt ("The Prison Doctor"), but he felt compelled to add a broader alternate subtitle: Die Vaterlosen ("The Fatherless Ones"). And it is the novel of a generation: the fatherless and disturbed post-World War I generation.
       Der Gefängnisarzt begins as a sensational story. It begins with a murder, of a wealthy, unsympathetic man who is able to take advantage of the situation in Germany in the early 1920s. Jakob Zollikofer, known as "Rosenfinger" ("Rose-Finger") is robbed and killed. The prime suspect is a young man who has come into Zollikofer's dubious orbit, Rudolf D.
       These are rough, fast-paced times. Brutal and serial murder is almost commonplace, each day there are new horrors, and daily life is difficult enough for most citizens. Rudolf D. can't be quickly apprehended, and events cause the crime to fade quickly from the front pages, superseded by more sensational occurrences.
       Weiss presents his tale in four parts. The first details the crime and Rudolf's arrest, several years after the murder. Two others figure prominently here: Manfred von G., a club-owner and police informer, and his beloved Vera -- who is also very close to Rudolf. Manfred is a user, cleverly taking advantage of his customers and of the times, precariously balanced between helping the law (as he constantly sells people out) and breaking it. Vera is an innocent, talking in baby-speak -- and ultimately also a manipulator. They too are symbols of this fatherless age.
       The last sentence of the first part of the novel asks how one might explain how Rudolf became what he was that fateful night when he is finally arrested, and the second part looks back to his formative years.
       Rudolf D.'s father, Ludwig, was only sent to the front lines in the fall of 1918. Tragically, he is killed -- his murder, after Germany's defeat, showing war in all its absurdity and obscenity. It is a harsh, horrible scene Weiss imagines, and he presents it very well. In the world he describes there is absolutely no innocence (and thus essentially no hope for the future) left. Peacetime should offer a respite, the possibility of a better future for all. Weiss shoots all that down with Ludwig D.'s murder. It is a scene that is literally staggering -- but one that almost overwhelms the rest of the book.
       As, in some ways, it means too. The pivotal episode in the book is that day and night when the family learns of the father's death, though the unspeakable details are only revealed later. Teenage Rudolf has already gone astray -- with Zollikofer figuring ominously near, already exerting an irresistible influence, a corruptor, tempting the youth. Konrad, the oldest child, decides here to become a doctor. Sickly Hilda, the daughter, is spared the news, while the mother begins to fall into a funk that will last for years. Also present is Konrad's future wife (and Hilda's close friend), Flossie.
       It is a painful and terribly awkward episode, but it sets the scene for all their lives (except, essentially, Hilda, relegated by Weiss to the sidelines in what follows). Rudolf, always an irresponsible free spirit, becomes a cocaine addict. Konrad becomes a doctor -- a doctor in the prison that Rudolf is eventually incarcerated in.
       Rudolf's alleged crimes also taint Konrad. Professional and personal considerations come into conflict. He feels he has a duty to his brother, but society and professional standards make it almost impossible for him not to suffer for coming to his brother's assistance. His wife (and by then the mother of their young daughter) Flossie also wants him to choose between her (and the child) and his drug-addicted brother.
       A second tier of the novel follows Manfred and Vera, central in clearing up the question of Rudolf's culpability. They are devoted to each other, in love -- and then on the run.
       Der Gefängnisarzt is a book with many monologues -- set in an era of monologues, where people barely heard each other. Many of the characters go on at considerable length; while others -- notably brothers Rudolf and Konrad -- remain too silent, unable to properly express themselves. Vera and Manfred's baby-babble only fails them toward the end, as the novel finally moves towards clearer communication in its closing scenes (and in its resolution). But Weiss is clearly demonstrating that there was little give and take anywhere in this society, in which the only rule seems: each man for himself.
       Konrad devotes himself to detoxing his brother and supporting him while he is in prison, despite the personal and professional risks. Flossie diagnoses both fatherless Konrad and Rudolf's weakness, noting that the drug abuse is merely an almost irrelevant symptom as she tells her husband:

Kikain oder Kokoin, du Weißt ja doch was ich meine. Du bist seine Krankheit, du hast ihn verhätschelt und bepuppt, ist ja zu komisch ! Und er ist deine Krankheit, dein Kokain.

(Cicaine or cocoine, you know what I mean. You are his disease, you treated him too softly and forgivingly, it's too ridiculous ! And he is your disease, your cocaine.)
       It's not quite that simple, but it is part of the problem. Things get more complicated before the characters can come to terms with the situation. Flossie even appears to leave Konrad, but there is ultimately a happy resolution.

       Weiss paints a bright portrait of the sordid underworld of 1920s Germany -- drugs and sex and crime and gambling. Day to day life in the times of hyperinflation is also vividly captured in the D. household, and the reactions to the catastrophes of the time are realistically painted. There are no true heroes here: both Konrad and Flossie act nobly at the right time, but they still fail each other at significant moments. Rudolf, the widowed mother, and underutilized sister Hilda are each figures of weakness (but showing some strength by the end).
       Der Gefängnisarzt is not a perfectly structured novel, as Weiss is unsure of what to focus on. Details -- including the monologues, and the incidental figures such as the prison director and Flossie's father -- are very well done, but Weiss doesn't have everything completely under control, unable to completely fit together the pieces. It is a book of fury and impotence, with terrible sadness and flashes of bright hope. It is a very ambitious book, but it can't consistently live up to its ambition. Weiss presents the horrors of the time, but they almost overwhelm him (and his fiction). It is a well-controlled fiction -- but like the times it depicts seems ready to spin apart into utter chaos. The odd balance -- strict writerly order imposed on such subjects -- doesn't work throughout the book.
       Still, an interesting -- and in places very imposing -- effort.

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Ernst Weiß: Other books by Ernst Weiss under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature

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About the Author:

       Austrian author Ernst Weiß (28.8.1882 - 15.6.1940) was also a doctor. A friend of Kafka, Stefan Zweig, and others, he wrote numerous acclaimed novels. He committed suicide in his Parisian exile on the day the German troops marched in.

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