At a time of life when others would be enjoying their retirement, former doctor Peter Berczeller was busy pursuing a book deal. And at 86 he has published his debut novel, a startlingly raunchy tome about a mad, obsessive, Jewish doctor.
“Am I an obsessive myself? Perhaps a little,” he says, tracing his dark imagination to a recurring nightmare which started when he learned how his father was put up against a wall by Austrian Nazis in 1938, was offered a last cigarette and blindfolded and prepared himself to die.
“Only as he stood awaiting the bullets did they tell him they were only kidding,” says Berczeller, who could not shake off an image of the chief perpetrator, Weissensteiner. “He was my real-life bogeyman, and I did not change his name in my book. He was the head honcho and deserves forever to be called by his right name.”
Berczeller’s semi-autobiographical black comedy, is the revenge fantasy of a child who survived the Holocaust, although in his novel the father is executed. In real life, Berczeller senior was released on agreement he would leave the country immediately: “And I have been too grateful that we got out to have had any real revenge fantasies of my own,” admits the son.
Berczeller claims an intense zest for life alongside a scholarly obsession with the possibility of an involuntary suicide instinct, the main topic of his book. This kind of faulty switch within the brain may have willed his a close relative of his mother, an apparently cheerful soul, to kill himself while his family were out at the movies. “And my interest was really piqued when I found out this was not uncommon, that other people with no signs of depression had killed themselves, often quite young, in particularly gruesome ways. Research on the brains of a sample of suicide attempters revealed they all had abnormal electroencephelograms.”
Thus was born Max: It Should Only Be, a forensic page-turner in which Berczeller includes colour from his teaching days at New York University Hospital School of Medicine, where he is still a professor. He researched the theory of a suicide centre within the brain which could be activated by a seizure, a mechanism Max vows to induce in the men who killed his father.
He revisited his home town of Mattersburg —“St. Marton” in the book— and was shocked to find no trace of the desecrated synagogue or any memorial to its community apart from the street name Judencasse, which was never changed. He tried to resettle in Austria in 2012. “I knew people there and wanted to enjoy Vienna’s cultural life, but certainly the man on the street looks unaffected by what was done in his name,” he explains. “It was that undercurrent rather than any overt episodes of anti-semitism which prompted me to leave. I was conflicted; I felt at home in my native country, but at the same time I felt like a stranger.” Instead, he lives in France, which is where his family lived after escaping from Vienna. Later, via brief stops in French West Africa and Casablanca, they moved to New York — with the exception of Berczeller’s uncle Paul, who is presumed to have died in Auschwitz.
They enjoyed a close family life in the USA, where Berczeller junior practised medicine for 32 years. and with his wife Adrienne raised sons Paul, now a London-based television producer-director, and John. Now living with his second wife Helen in a French 17th century manor house, Berczellar presides over family seders.
He may delve into family history for his second novel, but it will be a comic novel, because the author, who packs his prose with Yiddishisms, believe it’s the Jewish way to find wry humour in however tragic a life story we may have to tell.
Max: It Should Only Be is published by Repeater Books, £8.99