Back to German Literature month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy, and this time it’s Ernst Jünger’s A Dangerous Encounter (Eine Gefährliche Begegnung). I don’t usually read historical fiction as I am annoyed by modern sensibilities that tend to creep into the narrative all too often. A Dangerous Encounter is historical since it was published in 1985 but it’s set at the end of the nineteenth century. In the case of A Dangerous Encounter, this was a book I couldn’t resist, and I’m glad I didn’t. Jünger shows us a decadent, glittering wealthy Parisian society full of unhappy people, but underneath it, in the substrate, “meanness, ugliness, even crime were smouldering beneath the varnish.” In a world plagued by fears of Jack the Ripper, two valiant, dedicated detectives re-establish order in the chaos caused by infidelity, violence and murder.
The book begins with a young, very handsome and very innocent young man named Gerhard, an embassy employee, strolling in Paris on one Sunday in Autumn. Gerhard’s walk takes him into unknown territory deep into the seedy side of Paris. Gerhard isn’t comfortable there; he’s so innocent that people find him “childlike.” This innocence, of course, extends to women–creatures he regards as unapproachable beings. Gerhard is so innocent that he even fails to notice that women find him very attractive and send signals that they’d welcome his attention.
Gerhard heard the rustle of silk, when their skirts nearly brushed against him, like the murmur of a distant tide carried on the breeze. And he was always seized with awe as before a sublime painting, as if goddesses were offering themselves to his gaze; fairies and enchantresses followed at their heels.
He was always surprised, indeed amazed when he saw them in the company of men. To approach them struck him as imprudent; the very thought of it was inconceivable. But wonderful, uplifting conversations would be possible with them; he felt this intuitively. Yet he would be incapable of opening his mouth–this he knew for sure. In his dreams, he was their servant; their confidant as well. He saw himself as their deliverer from perils and his destiny bound up with theirs amidst vicissitudes that are depicted in novels.
This a passage like that, it’s not hard to see that Gerhard is out-of-his depth with women, and that leads to the idea that Gerhard is the sort of young man who could so easily find himself in trouble if the wrong woman enters his life. From Gerhard’s stroll, there’s a segue to a recent conversation between Gerhard’s uncle, the ambassador and his wife as they discuss the young man’s vulnerability. Herr von Zimmern tells his wife that Gerhard is like his father and that he will mature through experience and “encounters that crystallize what is at first only vague rumination.” Frau von Zimmern isn’t convinced and sees Gerhard as likely, through his total innocence, to have “evil encounters.” As it turns out, she’s correct.
Gerhard has a “chance encounter with Léon Duchase, a jaded and dyspeptic aesthete,” and they join each other for lunch. Duchase is a wonderful character–someone who belongs in a Huysmans novel, and there’s something nasty about his sordid world-weariness set against Gerhard’s innocence … almost as though Duchase would enjoy ruining this young man. Although Duchase has an aristocratic background, “he was only to be seen on the fringes of society; at the races, at the gaming tables, and the luncheons.” Duchasse made a “fabulous marriage,” but recklessly squandered his wife’s fortune. Now left only with “infallible taste,” Duchasse, who attaches himself to wealthy people, is a broker of sorts–antiques, carpets, paintings, houses and even of relationships. He appears to have a certain bonhomie yet beneath that social mask lies “hatred for the pleasures and for those enjoying them.”
The lunch is littered with barbed, bitter comments from Duchasse which sail over Gerhard’s head, but then Gerhard notices a woman who triggers his gallant, heroic streak. The neglected married woman is Irene, unstable, volatile and very beautiful. Duchasse thinks that in the “old days” Irene, who is trying very hard to commit adultery, was the sort of woman who would have “been stuck in a convent.”
Beauty and agitation were at variance in this face. Misfortune always ensues when power is inherited without the self-assurance needed to control it. Just as a large fortune only causes mischief when it passes to a spendthrift, beauty can prove to be a dangerous endowment for whoever inherits it, as well as for others.
To Duchasse, “society is ruined, there are no boundaries,” and the “open hunt” for married women is a “basic right.” Duchasse, maliciously anticipating the fallout from a delicious scandal, throws Gerhard into Irene’s path by sending her a bouquet of roses and including Gerhard’s card. And Gerhard, who has no idea of the implications of his actions, finds himself meeting this married woman as he’s literally shoved inside a sordid little hotel known as a meeting place for discreet lovers….
Then the novel becomes a murder mystery, and Gerhard, Duchasse, Irene, and Irene’s husband, a very dark character named Kargané–a man who owns distant estates in Transylvania–recede into the background as the detectives Inspector Dobrowsky and his protégé, Etienne move forward to investigate the crime which is initially laid at the feet of Jack the Ripper who, it’s assumed, has hopped the Channel. A considerable portion of the book is spent on the detectives, their backgrounds and their relationship.
While I enjoyed all of this, the author removes one set of intriguing characters and replaced them with another set. The inside flap of my copy explains this structure by saying that “Jünger’s trap is sprung: after luring us (like Gerhard himself) into the languorous world of decadent pleasure, he plunges the reader into a crackling detective novel, complete with an engagingly metaphysical investigator.” There’s nothing to really argue about with that statement except to say that I wanted to read more about Gerhard and Duchasse, and they moved from being at the centre of the drama. There’s an expectation that the narrative will follow a more traditional trajectory with Gerhard falling madly in love with Irene and then learning some painful lessons of life through a torrid love affair. This doesn’t happen, and while Gerhard learns some lessons, it’s not what we originally expect, and just which “dangerous encounter” is indicated by the title could be one of several scenes in the novel. Clearly Jünger loved these characters, and he spends no small amount of time filling in character outlines with delicious details, so that characters who could be considered as secondary, Wilhelm von Goldhammer: The Rittmeister, and Madame Stephanie, for example, are given several pages of their own. My complaint, if I had one, is that the novel at 187 pages, shut some characters down too soon. I wanted to read more about these people, and there’s the feeling that the characters of Etienne and Dobrowsky could have their own series of novels.
Finally, I loved the wisdom here:
There are several reasons why excess is antagonistic to happiness and fulfillment
Like so many men, he had married the type that was least suited to him.
But the wisest character has to be the remarkable Dobrowsky who expounds on his theories of crime, and why random crime is harder to solve than the most carefully planned and executed schemes:
Intelligence gets caught in its own snares, He who proceeds according to the rules of his art poses a problem that can be solved. The man in the woods who knocks down and robs the first person to come along is more difficult to track down than the most cunning check forger, who must constantly leave traces, even as a signature. Hence we criminologists are faced with the peculiar fact that the dilettante gives us harder nuts to crack than the experts.
Translated by Hillary Barr