Martin Yeoman illustration - Richard Platt on Hans Zinsser

An Extraordinary Ordinary Man

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Hans Zinsser is stalking a murderer. His quarry has terrified hapless victims for centuries, coming upon them suddenly, by stealth, with overwhelming power and agility, sending whole cities into panic, pushing empires to the edge of extinction, then vanishing, only to reappear thousands of miles away. Dr Zinsser’s story is not an ephemeral romance of vampire kitsch but a true tale of blood lust, life and death. Dr Zinsser is a bacteriologist. The murderer he hunts is typhus, an adversary he respects as Holmes respected Moriarty. So deep runs his feeling that after decades of struggle, he comes to love it ‘as Amy Lowell loved Keats’, and even to write its biography. His life is so intertwined with that of his enemy that his ‘biography of a bacillus’, Rats, Lice and History, may be read as a long and entertaining digression from his incomparable memoir, As I Remember Him: A Biography of RS, which he disguised as a third-person narrative, the RS of the title being his own Romantic Self.

Dr Zinsser was first introduced to me by a bookseller friend. (Most of my friends are booksellers. Imagine.) He had been glancing through As I Remember Him, entranced, as I walked into his shop. He placed the book atop a precariously stacked pile of dusty volumes as he greeted me, still smiling to himself, his eyes a-glitter. I knew that look. I was on The Hunt. I reached for the good doctor with greedy hands, blew the dust from the top, and read the table of contents. It began at once: the fluttering sensation that shouts to every booklover, announcing he has A Find. Twenty minutes later I was still reading.

We are informed by Dr Zinsser with deadpan, professorial dignity that Rats, Lice and History, first published in 1934, is inspired by Plutarch and is loosely modelled on Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. It begins in appropriately eighteenth-century fashion with a subtitle of more than a hundred words,

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About the contributor

Though lice make him uneasy, Richard Platt holds neither them nor the brown rat accountable for their pestilential reputations. His own species is more problematic.

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