Fiction: A Novel That Delves Into the Mind of a Famous Schizophrenic

PLAYTHINGS
By Alex Pheby
249 pp. Biblioasis. Paper, $14.95.

When a writer casts a historical figure as the subject of a novel, the intrepid reader may ask why an element of nonfiction is needed to create a work of fiction, and how that work of fiction may expand or complicate a biography. This is the challenge Alex Pheby has set for himself in composing his second novel, “Playthings.”

Daniel Paul Schreber, a prominent German judge of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, suffered three yearslong bouts of paranoid schizophrenia. Schreber documented the first and second breakdowns in his book, “Memoirs of My Nervous Illness,” but he never recovered from the final one — the premise of Pheby’s skillfully rich novel.

A close third-person voice situates “Playthings” in an eerie place between a lived account of insanity and a careful observation of a mind’s unraveling. “Coal dropped through the chute, sending a hint of black rising up the stairs into the hall,” the book opens. “Nothing to be concerned about. Quite the opposite, really. Some coal dust mingling with the scent of fresh flowers.”

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Playthings

“Just a normal day, like every other,” the judge repeats to himself in the dawn of his madness, insisting on what is not true. His wife, Sabine, has had a seizure and is incapacitated on the floor. “That is not my wife,” he says before rushing out in search of her, shoving a maid “too roughly, much too roughly, clumsy brute, knocking vases over, was he a child? Was he incapable of looking where he was going, like all men? And they call themselves civilized, traipsing mud through the house.”

He soon lands in an asylum, where a doctor tells him, “It is felt that your treatment might be best carried out under close observation.” Schreber objects: “Who feels it? I do not feel it.” He begs for his wife, demands to be sent home, or to be cured. Agile and wily, Pheby’s sentences flit in the weather of Schreber’s sanity, yet they are always buoyed by the judge’s half-hampered intellect and rationality. It’s the most torturous variety of mental illness — one that almost understands itself.

Schreber is physically abused by an orderly whose brother was executed under one of the judge’s rulings. The orderly justifies his brutality as obligation, saying: “You understand that, right? Just following the law? Right, Judge? Nothing personal. Blind justice.”

Hierarchies and judgments — past and present — tortuously strip bodies of their autonomy; in “Playthings” only children seem to notice these cruelties. When Fridoline, Schreber’s daughter, objects to her father’s inhumane treatment, even he defends it. “My sweet girl, you mustn’t upset yourself! Silly thing! It’s all perfectly fine and normal. … A little holiday, nothing more!” Yet in a childhood flashback to what seems to be the revolution of 1848, Schreber accepts the lie of his white superiority and tells his Jewish neighbors, “If you were set fire to in your beds then that would be no one’s fault but your own.” The Jewish boy he bullied as a child is one of the visions that now haunt him.

In the fiction of Schreber’s madness, every person is, as he puts it, a “plaything of the Lower God.” In the reality that Schreber lived, the mentally ill were playthings of the “well,” children were playthings of adults, and minorities were playthings of the state. It is this economy of cruelty — not repressed homosexuality, as Freud suggested in an essay on Schreber’s memoir — that is the seed of Schreber’s suffering. Pheby illustrates this point with compassion and subtlety in “Playthings”; the book’s hybrid position between the historical and the fictional makes it all the more potent.

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