Tag Archives: Austrian literature

Late Fame: Arthur Schnitzler

“You don’t know the effect that the applause of hundreds of enthusiastic listeners, that the praise of the press–that fame will have on you.”

Arthur Schnitzler’s novella, Late Fame examines the tricky labyrinths of self-delusion through the dreams and desire for literary glory. This novella, originally intended for publication in a magazine, was resurrected from Schnitzler’s archives, and its title, published now decades after its creation, has an irony which is underscored by the material itself.

Late Fame

Eduard Saxberger is a 69-year-old civil servant, a bachelor, who has had a successful career, and who lives alone, contentedly, in a pleasantly appointed house. His life is disrupted by the arrival of Wolfgang Meier, a young poet, a member of the “Enthusiasm society,”  who gushingly asks if Saxberger is the author of The Wanderings.

Saxberger has almost forgotten his long-dead and buried dreams of literary fame. At first when he rereads the poetry he wrote so many decades before, painful memories awake:

The whole sorry life that he had led now passed though his mind. Never had he felt so deeply that he was an old man, that not only the hopes, but also the disappointments lay far behind him.

Meier understands why Saxberger stopped writing poetry:

It’s the same old story. At the start, we’re satisfied to have just our own pleasure in our work and the interest of the few who understand us. But when you see those coming up around you, winning a name and even fame for themselves-then you would rather be heard and honored as well. And then come the disappointments!  The envy of the talentless, the frivolity and malice of reviewers, and then the horrid indifference of the public. 

Charmed and flattered by the reverence shown by Meier, Saxberger mingles with the young writers, the self-styled “hope of young Vienna,” and so begins a period of renewal in Saxberger’s life. He discovers that while he loves listening to these young people praise his work, he’s bored when asked to critique another’s poems. He joins these “writers who stay apart from those following the beaten track,” and once again Saxberger dreams of literary fame. …

Late Fame is a delightful tale which follows Saxberger’s ‘renewal’ which comes to a crisis point when he’s asked to write a new poem for a public reading–a reading which will, the poets claim “show that rabble,” who will “get the shock of their lives.” A great deal of the story’s humour is found in the relationships within the group of writers. These include various poets, an unemployed actor, and a rather shopworn actress who “doesn’t fit into regular theatre life.” From a distance, she looks impressive, but as she comes closer to Saxberger, he sees “the strangely ravaged lines of the face itself.” The penetrating stares she insists on sending Saxberger make him uncomfortable.

According to the group, anyone not in their circle are “the talentless ones,” “careerists,”followers of literary fashion.” Schnitzler captures not only the seductiveness of fame, but also how easy it is to cloak ourselves in self-delusion. This circle jerk of poets and writers support each other with claims of being ‘true’ and chafe against the lack of fame while skirting the possibility of lack of talent. In their circle, they survive on mutual admiration as they bolster each other’s lack of progress. We’ve all met people like this, and we all know how impossible it is to break through the tough membrane that protects the talentless. Does Saxberger profit or suffer from this experience? That’s for the reader to decide.

This bittersweet tale of fame lost and found will make my best-of-year list.

Jonathan’s review

Max’s review

Translated by Alexander Starritt

Review copy

 

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Mona Lisa: Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1937)

Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s playful novella Mona Lisa from Pushkin Press capitalizes on the mystery of Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic painting by focusing on the facts and then cleverly blurring the details. The result is a delightful little tale centered on the alluring Mona Lisa smile, obsession, and the human desire to build a narrative around any mystery.

Mona Lisa

It’s the dawn of the 16th century, and we’re in the middle of the Second Italian War. King Louis XII sends one of his marshals, Louis de la Trémoille to Milan where he is supposed to raise an army, go to Naples and offer relief to the French governors who are fighting the Spanish.  There’s a big speech, full of pompous grandiosity from King Louis XII which boils down to the fact that the only thing Louis de la Trémoille is getting from the king is his blessing. The king stares “for a while into the indeterminate middle distance past the Marshal with the vacant expression of one who at all costs refuses to talk of money.” The Marshal is supposed to finance the campaign somehow:

“I trust that you will also take the opportunity of recouping the cost of this campaign. Be sure therefore that you levy from the territories for whose sake we are making such sacrifices all necessary and fitting reparations, be it in the form of direct payments or precious objects, jewels, costly tapestries and suchlike things. For this is my express wish and command. And so,” concluded the King, “goodbye and may god go with you!”

So Trémoille leaves for Italy with just a “few inconsequential counts and minor noblemen.” The First Italian War was a very lucrative affair, but the Second Italian War isn’t a booty-filled operation, and poor Trémoille  “was barely able to send to Paris anything of note.” He has to “content himself with fleecing the smaller towns” and decided to “concentrate on the purchase of objects of art.” This is how Da Vinci enters the picture.

Da Vinci is portrayed as a distracted genius, far more sophisticated and intelligent than Trémoille. While trying to catch a fly inside Da Vinci’s workshop, one of Trémoille’s entourage, a certain Monsieur de Bougainville, discovers the painting we know as the Mona Lisa. He falls in love with the woman depicted in the portrait and is determined to track her down….

The book plays into the mythology that’s grown around the painting, and at the same time, the narrative creates mystery and mythology of its own. Bougainville, dangerously obsessed and determined to discover the identity of the woman known as La Gioconda, takes Leonardo da Vinci’s words and builds a whole story around the woman who posed for the portrait. Da Vinci is frustratingly vague about his model:

“Oh,” Leonardo said, raising his eyebrows, “I knew her only fleetingly, and the picture of the woman before you is neither her nor anyone else. The truth us, even had I wanted to paint her, it would have immediately turned into the likeness of someone else. After all, one always paints women who never exist, and the same goes for women one really loves.”

This is a very light, bubbly read, and although there are some very serious consequences to Bougainville’s obsession, the story never deviates from its comic stance. De Vinci seems mystified by the French soldiers, their desire for booty, and Bougainville’s determination to create a palatable narrative regarding the model for his painting. The novella is written in such a way that readers connect with the rather bemused and distracted Da Vinci. Why is this Frenchman so determined to ‘save’ the woman who may or who may not have been the model for painting? After all, according to Da Vinci, the portrait is of an idealized woman. What is all this fuss about?

Review copy

Translated by Ignat Avsey

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I was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia

German literature monthAnother entry in German Literature month 2013, and this time it’s I was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1897-1976), an Austrian writer.  The flap of my gorgeous Pushkin press edition states that the author’s “uneasy relationship with the National Socialist Party resulted in his fall from prominence in 1944.” Apparently Lernet-Holenia’s 1941 novel, The Blue Hour was banned by the Nazis, but as a screenwriter he was connected to an agency which produced propaganda films.  He published numerous novels, and I Was Jack Mortimer (1933) is particularly loved by the translator, Ignat Avsey, who calls the book “the most magnificent thriller ever written.” I wouldn’t go that far, but I did enjoy the book, and am, once more, grateful to Pushkin Press for putting another obscure title into print.

I came across this title thanks to Tom from A Common Reader , and it sounded like a perfect read for German Literature month. Primarily this is a story of identity for our main character steps into the shoes of another man. It’s the sort of scenario tackled so well in Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat. Sometimes our lives can be difficult and we daydream about running away and becoming an entirely new person, but what happens if the life we step in to is more problematic than the one we already have? Personally, I think it would be a crap shoot to assume someone’s identity; you’d be walking  into a minefield–one false step and everything blows up in your face.

I Was Jack MortimerViennese taxi driver Ferdinand Sponer picks up a fare and becomes instantly fascinated with the glamorous expensive young woman in the back seat. Her name is Marisabelle von Raschitz–obviously a young woman from the highest echelons of Viennese society, and the kind of woman who wouldn’t give Sponer the time of day.  In spite of the fact that Sponer has Marie, a wonderful, kind, loving and generous girlfriend, he becomes obsessed with the unattainable Marisabelle and hangs around outside of her apartment building, hoping to catch  a glimpse of this elegant young woman.

It’s interesting that Sponer makes such a pest of himself with Marisabelle as it reveals a lot about his character. He is confident enough to know that Marisabelle is attracted by his looks, and he hopes that means she’ll overlook his lowly status. Meanwhile, in spite of Marie’s devotion, or perhaps even because of it, his relationship with his long-standing girlfriend is stale:

They were planning to get married, but kept putting it off for various reasons: if the truth be known, only because they’d already known each other for too long. In the meantime she’d lost her job as a shop assistant, had then been unemployed for months at a stretch, and was now helping out here and there at a friend’s, taking in washing and doing mending and stitching jobs.

There’s a poignant scene between Sponer and Marie, as they sense “how unhappy they were,” and she seems to know and accept that the romance has gone. However, fate intervenes in Sponer’s life when he picks up a fare, a man about his own age, who wishes to be taken to the Hotel Bristol. Not long into the journey, Sponer discovers that his passenger is dead–shot through the throat. With an escalating sense of panic, Sponer makes a series of mistakes. He steps into his passenger, Jack Mortimer’s life, and finds himself in a mess….

The plot shows that even though Sponer’s life isn’t what he wants, at least it’s a life of his own making. When you step into the shoes of another, you find yourself dropped into unpredictable situations and unfathomable relationships that have nothing to do with you. Someone, after all, murdered Jack Mortimer, and that fact alone indicates that Sponer is stepping into a situation fraught with danger. But Sponer also discovers that a certain glamour opens previously closed doors, and wearing Mortimer’s clothes proves to be disorienting. A nightmarish sense of unreality sets in, and this is marvelously expressed even as Sponer begins to lose his sense of identity.

He paid with his own money what Jack Mortimer hadn’t. Or was it Jack Mortimer’s money he paid with? He didn’t know, the silver had got mixed up in his pocket

I Was Jack Mortimer,  with its street scenes of a slightly faded Vienna, is a good read. I particularly liked the way Sponer, as a lowly taxi driver, had a certain anonymity. He negotiates the street of Vienna with ease. This situation is transformed, however, when he assumes the dead man’s identity–suddenly he is recognized even as he wades through the unchartered waters of another man’s messy life. There’s a plot-driven anticlimactic feel to the resolution of the story, and while that is deliberate (you’ll know what I mean if you read it), nonetheless I felt a little deflated by the conclusion. While there’s a thriller aspect to the story, the underlying issue is arguably, identity. Sponer is a lowly character when we first see him, and in spite of the fact he’s handsome, the Viennese socialite doesn’t think he’s worth her time. Sponer discovers the hard way that sometimes it’s better to be an anonymous peon, for when you’re shabbily dressed and a taxi driver, people tend to ignore you. And that’s sometimes not a bad thing….

As a sort of addendum to the book, I found myself chewing over a statement I disagreed with:

She disarmed him by not making any secret of the fact that she no longer loved him. Jealousy can only exist when one hopes one has made a mistake.

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Confusion by Stefan Zweig

“Since that evening when the man I so venerated opened up like a shell that had been tightly closed and told me his story, since that evening forty years ago, everything our writers and poets present as extraordinary in books , everything shown on stage as tragic drama, has seemed to me trivial an unimportant. Is it through complacency, cowardice, or because they take too short a view that they speak of nothing but the superficial, brightly lit plane of life where the senses openly and lawfully have room to play, while below in the vaults, in the deep caves and sewers of the heart, the true dangerous beasts of passion roam, glowing with phosphorescent light, coupling unseen and tearing each other apart in every fantastic form of convolution? Does the breath of those beasts alarm them, the hot and tearing breath of demonic urges, the exhalations of the burning blood, do they fear to dirty their dainty hands on the ulcers of humanity, or does their gaze, used to a more muted light, not find its way down the slippery, dangerous steps that drip with decay?”

Stefan Zweig’s novella Confusion is a frame story narrated by a sixty-year-old professor, who at the end of his career in the Department of Languages and Literature, is presented with an “expensively bound” collection of his published works. The professor, Roland, notes that while the articles, no matter how trivial, are organised like a “well-swept staircase,” in reality, his life has not been this well-structured. The collected articles present just the surface of Roland’s life and that “missing is the name of the man from whom all my creativity derived.” And then Roland takes us back to his mis-spent youth

A young Roland, the son of a headmaster from a small Northern German town, is sent to Berlin to study English. Since he hates books, he’d rather much join the army or the navy, but Roland’s father “with his fanatical veneration for universities” insists that his son should receive an education, so Roland finds himself in Berlin, away from home for the first time. With absolutely no interest in the lectures “a morgue of the spirit,” Roland instead throws him enthusiastically into a life of debauchery. He’s a good-looking young man and he discovers, to his delight, that his female conquests are “cheaply won.” The fun comes to an end, however, when his father comes to visit and discovers that his son does not attend his lectures. Roland is sent away from Berlin to attend university in a small provincial town in central Germany.  

Roland is expecting more of the same–in other words, he expects to be as bored in his new location as he was in Berlin, but to his astonishment, when he tracks down his Professor of English, instead of finding a dusty old dinosaur, he finds an older man with a vigorous mind and a deep love of Elizabethan literature, a man whose lectures are so infused with enthusiasm, that his love for his subject is contagious. Roland finds his professor “curiously challenging,” and for the first time in his life, he felt a “superior force,“–a man he wishes to emulate.

In no time at all, desiring to be closer to his idol, Roland takes a room in the same building as the professor. There are some days and some evenings when the two men enjoy energetic discussions, but then there are periods when the professor disappears only to reappear days later rather the worse for wear. The professor’s much younger wife is always excluded but nonetheless she manages to lurk in the background when Roland visits his mentor. Is she jealous? Does this explain why she eavesdrops on their conversation?

For most of the novella, we see Roland as a young man, a confused young man–a man who doesn’t understand his emotional responses to various situations. While the big mystery here is just what the professor is up to, it’s fairly easy to guess the answer before Roland arrives at any conclusions, but the interest in the story comes not from the mystery behind the professor’s behaviour as much as it’s derived from Roland’s youthful and naive responses to the various difficult situations he encounters. This is essentially the story of how a young man matures and sees that his idol has feet of clay. Who cannot identify with this story? Who hasn’t admired someone formative only to discover that they are not the ‘perfect’ construct our imagination has created?

One of the elements I enjoyed about the novella was its buried sexuality which appears to come not only from young Roland but perhaps from Zweig himself:

We live through myriads of seconds, yet it is always one, just one, that casts our entire inner world into turmoil, the second (as Stendhal has described it) the internal inflorescence, already steeped in every kind of fluid, condenses and crystallizes–a magical second, like the moment of a generation, and like that moment concealed in the warm interior of the individual life, invisible untouchable, beyond the reach of feeling, a secret experienced alone.

And:

I never understood and loved Berlin as much as I did then, for every cell in my being was crying out for sudden expansion, just like every part of that overflowing, warm human honeycomb–and where could the impatience of my forceful youth have released itself but in the throbbing womb of that heated giantess, that restless city radiating power? It grasped me and took me to itself, I flung myself into it went down into its very veins, my curiosity rapidly orbiting its entire stony yet warm body–I walked its streets from morning to night, went out to the lakes, discovered its secret places.

My copy from New York Review Books is translated by Anthea Bell and contains an introduction, which adds greatly to the novel, by George Prochnik. Prochnik tells us of Zweig and his wife’s joint suicide in 1942  and states “the question of how he could allow his much younger and cherished second  wife to follow him into the realm of the shades is the only real outstanding mystery of his death.” The introduction goes into some depth on the subject of Zweig’s literary career, his dread of aging and the fear of having to “live on as one’s own shadows.”  Zweig, who was Jewish, made an “unwise” statement regarding Hilter’s 1930 victory: “a perhaps unwise but fundamentally sound and approvable revolt of youth against the slowness and irresolution of ‘high politics’ .” And, of course, we all know how that ended.

Zweig eventually fled from Austria and began a nomadic existence which ended in his suicide. My impression from other pieces I’d read was that Zweig committed suicide in Brazil due to the continued successes of the Nazis, but Prochnik’s excellent introduction throws a different light on the matter.

Confusion from Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) is part of Caroline and Lizzy’s joint celebration of German Literature month, and thanks to both of them for their energy and enthusiasm in organising this event.

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Concrete by Thomas Bernhard

“Did I drive them away, all these people, or did they withdraw from me?”

 

John Self   in the Asylum loved Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters while Tom at a Common Reader found it pointless. I wondered how I would feel about Bernhard and when the chance came to review Concrete , I grabbed it. Full review over at Mostly Fiction.

I’m not going to repeat the review, but I will say that Concrete is the closest thing I’ve ever read to the first section of Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground. Concrete (and the meaning of the title is horribly obvious by the end) is a 156 page rant narrated by a forty-five year old man named Rudolph who lives in Peiskam, Vienna. He suffers from sarcoidosis and is hopped up on prednisolone. Rudolph is the ultimate procrastinator who blames everyone else for his lack of progress on his masterpiece about Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Anyway for the full review go here.

Notes from Underground is wonderfully described by translator Richard Pevear as the “dialectic of isolated consciousness.” Thomas Bernhard’s Concrete is another example of  the “dialectic of isolated consciousness,” and by  its fundamental nature such a dialectic is contradictory, logically flawed, and repetitive.  How can 156 pages of bitching and complaining be so funny? Here’s Rudolph ranting about dogs (btw, this is mid-rant; he’s already been at it for about a page when this quote takes place.)

People keep a dog and are ruled by this dog, and even Schopenhauer was ruled in the end not by his head, but by his dog. This fact is more depressing than any other. Fundamentally it was not Schopenhauer’s head that determined his thought, but Schopenhauer’s dog. It was not the head that hated Schopenhauer’s world, but Schopenhauer’s dog. I don’t have to be demented to assert that Schopenhauer had a dog on his shoulders and not a head. People love animals because they are incapable even of loving themselves. Those with the very basest of souls keep dogs, allowing themselves to be tyrannized and finally ruined by their dogs. They give the dog pride of place in their hypocrisy, which in the end becomes a public menace. They would rather save their dog from the guillotine than Voltaire. The masses are in favour of dogs because in their heart of hearts they are not prepared to incur the strenuous effort of being alone with themselves, an effort which in fact calls for greatness of soul. I don’t belong to the masses, I’ve been against the masses all my life, and I’m not in favour of dogs. What we call our love of animals has already wrought such havoc that if we were to think really hard about it we should be positively frightened to death. It isn’t as absurd as it may first appear when I say that the world owes its most terrible wars to its rulers’ love of animals. It’s all documented, and one ought to be clear about it for once.

There’s about 2 more pages ranting about dog ownership.

Here’s another quote mid-rant about a sortie Rudolph made into society with his sister. His sister  announces to the “assembled company” that Rudolph is writing a book about Mendelssohn:

This evoked uproarious laughter from all these brainless people sitting in their repulsively soft armchairs, and one of them, a specialist in internal medicine from the neighbouring town of Vocklabruck, actually asked who Mendelssohn Bartholdy was. Whereupon my sister, with a devilish laugh, blurted out the word composer; which brought forth yet more sickening laughter from these people, who are all millionaires and all brainless, among them a number of seedy counts and sterile barons who go about year in and year out in leather shorts, the stench of which has been building up for decades, and occupy their pathetic days with gossip about society, illhealth and money.

Rudolph never stops. He’s always ranting about something, moving seamlessly from one rant to another. If you were trapped in a corner by this person, the rant wouldn’t be funny–it would be rather alarming, but here it’s funny. After ranting, repetitively (as ranters are wont to do) about whether or not to go on holiday Rudolph describes himself as “a man of quick decisions”  and when there’s a slight delay in his plans, he notes to himself: “A damper has been put on your murderous impetuosity.”

If this is typical Bernhard style (and from reading other reviews, it sounds as though it is), as much as I loved Concrete I won’t want to read another novel too soon. To do so would be to spoil the flavour of Bernhard, and it’s probably time to step away from the loony. That said, The Lime Works will be my next Bernhard. It sounds even more demented than Concrete, if that’s possible. Now I’m ready for something completely different–a very rational set of essays about George Orwell.

My review copy is from Vintage with a translation from German by David McLintock.

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