Tag Archives: Czech literature

The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man: Kafka

Kafka’s The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man includes a stellar introduction from translator Alexander Starritt. I have respect for intros from translators; after all they are the ones who slaved over the words, mulling over one choice over another, so if anyone ‘deserves’ to write an intro, it’s the translator IMO. Starritt’s intro is lively, fluid, and well … interesting:

In English, the word that usually follows ‘Kafkaesque’ is ‘nightmare’. Hardly the thing to make you think, ‘Hurray, a new translation. No Netflix for me tonight.’ And in truth, Kafka’s work is more respected than it is loved.

These first sentences hit a chord with me. I have lost count of the number of times The Metamorphosis popped up again and again in literature class after literature class. Yes the story (while I liked it) became a ‘No-Exit’-Not-Again nightmare in itself.


Starritt argues that these short stories present an entirely different view of Kafka, and I agree. These stories are mercurial, some are absurdist, and the closest thing I could compare to is absurdist Russian fiction. These stories (and some are extremely short) are not at all what I expected from Kafka. Some stories are flash fiction–if we could imagine such a term applying to Kafka. Other stories are longer, and of course, as is with all collections, some stories are stronger than others.

The title story: The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man is a good idea of what to expect here. I read it on my kindle and it’s just over a page long. This is a single man who rues the things he’s missing:

It seems a terrible thing to stay single for good, to become an old man who, if he wants to spend the evening with other people, has to stand on his dignity and ask someone for an invitation

The last lines were unexpected and made me chuckle. Again–not at all what I expected from Kafka.

In The Married Couple, a sales rep takes his sample case to a man known as N. The sales rep and N used to work together, but now N, a much older man is bed-bound and possibly close to death. Yes, perhaps this sounds like the sort of thing we’d expect from Kafka, but the final delivery is not.

A First Heartache is a short tale of a trapeze artist who in the quest to perfect his art becomes increasingly isolated. The abnormal becomes normal and he clings to his life on the highwire. He:

had arranged his life in such a way that, initially out of a striving for perfection, then out of increasingly tyrannical habit, he stayed on his trapeze day and night for as long as an engagement lasted. His modest needs were catered to by a rota of attendants who were posted below and hauled everything up and down in specially made containers.

The trapeze artist is “in constant training, of keeping his art at its peak.” This becomes a way of life, this increasing isolation, and the only thing that disrupts this routine are the unavoidable transfers from venue to venue, which badly disrupted his peace of mind.”

Another top pick has to be In the Penal Colony, a story of a researcher who travels to a penal colony only to be invited to attend the execution of a soldier “who’d been sentenced to death for disobeying and insulting a superior officer.” The story centres on the machine that will do the deed. It’s a diabolical contraption designed by the former (deceased) commandant. The machine is sadistically designed to inflict maximum pain and suffering over a twelve hour period before the final coup de grâce.

While the officer explains the machine’s processes of torture “with great zeal,” the condemned man, who has no idea of the fate that awaits him is at first disinterested (the officer and the researcher speak in French) but then he becomes increasingly curious as the machine’s mechanisms are explained:

The condemned man looked as submissive as a dog, as if they could have let him wander around the slopes on his own, and would only have needed to whistle for him when they wanted to start the execution. 

The officer’s matter-of-fact approach to explaining the machine is, of course, bizarre and yet entirely believable. This method of execution has become an institution in the penal colony, but now it has fallen out of favour. The condemned soldier has not been given a trial and is unaware that he has even been sentenced to death. According to the officer, “it would be pointless to tell him.” Torture and death as spectacle: what is there about these things that appeal to people? The matter-of-fact bureaucratic manner in which the sadistic death is explained moves the execution away from the idea of suffering and into efficiency. Couldn’t help but think of the Nazis.

This collection rolls in at just under 200 pages. I think the stories are best read one at a time, rather than in chunks.

Review copy

Translated by Alexander Starritt


Filed under Fiction, Kafka Franz

Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand: Franz Werfel

At 107 pages, Franz Werfel’s novella Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand is a powerful story concerning a day in the life of a high-ranking Austrian bureaucrat who faces, or believes he faces, a moral crisis. The book is intriguingly called a ‘prequel to what is known as Holocaust literature,‘ and the events in the book (with memories of the past) take place in 1936 after the passage of the Nuremberg Laws the year before. The morally complex story very delicately, yet significantly, touches on anti-Semitism, herd mentality, the impending horror, and a complete absence of moral courage on the part of its main character.

The book opens with its main character, Leonidas Tachezy reveling, smugly, in his success.

Whenever Leonidas felt consciously pleased with himself, he smiled–dashing and mocking at the same time. Like so many handsome, healthy men in fine form, men who had risen to a high position in life, he tended to feel an exceptional well-being during the first hours of the morning.

We could say that Leonidas is a self-made-man. He’s just celebrated his fiftieth birthday and has reached the pinnacle of “his brilliant career.” The son of an “impoverished high school teacher,” he made a marginal living “tutoring rich, fat, and stupid boys.”  The future looked bleak, but he became successful thanks to two fortuitous turns of fate: his study partner, a Jewish student, committed suicide and left his suit to Leonidas. Leonidas took the suit, had a few alterations made and managed to attend some grand society events where he met a wealthy heiress, the much younger beautiful Amelia Paradini.

If one were to question his world view, he would openly admit that he regarded the universe as a venue whose sole intent and purpose was to pamper those divinely favoured like him, from the bottom to the top, and to furnish them with power, honor, splendor, and luxury. Wasn’t his own life absolute proof of this charitable disposition of the world? It took just one bullet in the room next to his shabby student’s digs to inherit a practically brand-new tuxedo. And from there on his life was a song.

That passage highlights Leonidas’s shallow morality. There’s no poignancy about the death of his study partner–just the feeling that the good luck he deserves fell his way. Amelia “pushed” the marriage against the wishes of her family, and since this is a woman who gets what she wants, the impoverished Latin tutor married the “richest heiress in the city.” So here they are twenty years later; he has a tremendous career, Amelia is the perfect trophy wife, and they mingle with the cream of Austrian society. Amelia spends hours pampering herself with “constant cosmetic care,” and there are no children. Leonidas “as the determined defender of his undivided pleasure [he] had never entertained a desire for children,” but he catches himself looking at his wife’s youthful body and thinking “we pay for those virgin breasts with childlessness.”

Pale Blue InkLeonidas is shaken from these disturbing thoughts by a stack of letters which await his attention. Most of them are obviously business correspondence, but one of the envelopes, addressed in pale blue ink sticks out from the rest. He recognizes the handwriting as belonging to Vera Wormser. He met Vera, a Jewish woman, when she was just 14, and years later he had an extra-marital affair with her. It’s one of the more shameful episodes of his past–an episode that he’s refused to deal with on many levels, but now the moral consequences of that affair appear to have washed up on his doorstep just as he’s trying to distance himself from anything Jewish….

Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand is a wonderful story, and that’s thanks to the story’s simple framework but also the examination of Leonidas’s undeveloped conscience. A small portion of the story exposes Leonidas’s hypothetical legal defense in which he pleads for mercy and understanding, and we see how Leonidas, a shallow, superficial human being, cannot quite grasp the moral implications of his behaviour. Moral consequences, for Leonidas, don’t really exist–they are like some faded memory he can’t quite recall, a shadow he can’t quite see, and any anguish he feels is for himself alone. And yet.. and yet… there is a moment when Leonidas cannot hide from the fact that he is a morally reprehensible human being, but even as this fact sinks in, he leaves that knowledge “back in the perfect darkness,” closing the door forever on any possibility of moral growth.

Apart from Leonidas’s so-called moral crisis, one section of the book includes a meeting between several Austrian bureaucrats who have to make a decision regarding an important medical faculty appointment. A world-renowned Nobel Prize-winner in medicine is about to passed over for the nomination because he’s Jewish and instead a relative nobody may get the appointment. This appointment becomes not so much a moral dilemma for the bureaucrats as a political one, and the meeting is a glimpse into expediency and moral cowardice. Strangely, knowing that he must face Vera Wormser, Leonidas finds himself championing Bloch’s appointment as he feels “wrapped up in the fishy community.” The meeting and later Leonidas’s rejection of “another atrocity story” are all connected to the “train [is] clattering through his head.” In spite of the fact that the novel begins with Leonidas smug in his comfortable little world, there’s an underlying anxiety, a subtle white noise, that runs through the novel along with the sense that Leonidas is somehow unaware, or deliberately ignoring the moral significance of political events that are about to consume the world. There’s a storm heading Leonidas’s way. How will he deal with it?

Today the world presented itself as a mild October day with a kind of strained, capricious youthfulness that more resembled a day in April. Over the expanse of vineyards that formed the Heitzing district’s border, thick, fast, fast-moving clouds scudded snow white with sharply delineated edges. Where the sky opened, it featured a naked and, for this time of year, nearly shameless spring blue. The garden, which had hardly changed color, retained that leathery persistence of summer. Light breezes, as mischievous as little street Arabs, blew from different directions with the leaves, which still clung fast to their branches.

My edition from the Verba Mundi International Literature series is translated by James Reidel and includes a translator’s note at the beginning of the book. There’s a brief biography of Franz Werfel (1890-1945) and an interesting overview of the real-life people who formed the characters in the book. James Reidel calls this book Werfel’s “lost jewel,” and after reading the book, it seems surprising that Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand isn’t better known. It deserves to be.


Filed under Fiction, Werfel Franz

Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal

A strong interest in Czech cinema led to curiosity about Czech literature. Paul Leppin’s Blaugast, written in the 1930s and Hermann Ungar’s dark story The Maimed, published in 1923, both have strong elements of fin-de-siècle decadence and moral decline. Czech author Bohumil Hrabal, an author I’d had in my sights for some time, presents an entirely different view of Czech society through his wonderful novel, Harlequin’s Millions. This delightful tale is set in a retirement home, formerly Count Spork’s castle, set on a hilltop overlooking the town where our nameless narrator once lived. She and her husband, Francin sell their home and become residents joining Francin’s bed-ridden, older brother, Uncle Pepin, who already lives there.  While the narrator is familiar with the castle, it’s an entirely different experience to take up residence.

I had been in the castle at least ten times or more, but then I was a guest, scared of everything and easily panicked. Today I stood here as a person who is going to be living here for a long time, until something happens to me, suddenly someone will come to me, whisper sweet nothings and make me all kinds of promises and then set me free, in a landscape that knows no limits, no bounds.

The retirement home consists of the mostly-invisible staff and an assortment of pensioners; the lucky ones wander the perimeter of the once-grand estate or sit and play cards while the bed-ridden residents remain immobile. Residents are not allowed to leave the castle without permission, so the retirement home is a jail of sorts. Many of the sights, smells and sounds within the home are unpleasant, but these realities of the mortal condition are set against the surreal atmosphere within the retirement home. All day long the strains of Harlequin’s Millions is piped though speakers scattered throughout the castle and its surrounding park:

The string orchestra curls gently around the old tree trunks and Harlequin’s Millions climbs like old ivy into the crowns and trickles down along the leaves, the corridors of the home are filled with a pleasant phosphorescent gas, with the scent of cheap perfume, so that no one is really aware of the music, only when there’s a power failure and Harlequin’s Millions is suddenly cut off, stops short, the way everything stops as if by magic in the tale of Sleeping Beauty, all the pensioners glance up, they look up at the speakers and the sudden loss of the music feels to them like when the lights go out and everyone longs to hear it again, because without it the air in the castle and along the paths in the park is unbreathable.

Our narrator, a witness for life inside the castle, begins wandering the grounds, taking a forbidden path, and discovers the decaying, mostly ignored splendor of the Count’s former home. Inside the castle, tucked away in forgotten corners are “white statues of nude young women, Greek goddesses perhaps, caught unawares by a male gaze and defending themselves, in terror, with raised arms.” The ceiling is “decorated with frescos of naked, dancing women and men,” while other frescos depict a wedding scene between two beautiful young people and a lustful naked faun “abducting a nymph.” In the days of its early splendor, the castle seems to be designed with youth and beauty in mind, and yet now it’s the last residence of the elderly and infirm. It seems that the decaying, neglected castle reflects the condition of its residents:

the gutters and drainpipes were full of holes, some had even been torn from the wall, at such moments the castle somehow resembled all those old people, who cleared their throats and then nearly choked in fits of coughing.

Left to her own devices, our toothless narrator finds that memories of her past flood back–her early married life, a failed business venture and the shock of the communist takeover. Many stories unfold through the three “witnesses to old times,” Vaclav and Karel and Otokar, elderly men who appear repeatedly throughout the story and tell the narrator fantastic tales from the past, acting as chroniclers of a long-forgotten history of the town and its residents.

harlequins millionsThere’s a fairy tale quality to this book which is enhanced by its castle setting and the narrator’s solitary walks when she discovers secret places in the forgotten corners of the castle. But if this is a fairy tale, it’s an inverted fairy tale. The tale isn’t told by a beautiful young princess imprisoned in a tower, waiting to be freed by a lover, but by an old woman who is facing the end of her life. At first it seems difficult to peg the story to a specific time frame, but the references to communism ground the story.

Harlequin’s Millions is a wonderful book. As we follow our narrator and make discoveries through her eyes, in spite of its subject matter, this is ultimately a book which reinforces the delight and joy of life. There are too many wonderful episodes to recount, but for this reader, two episodes must be mentioned. Sunday is visiting day, and some pensioners gather in spite of the rain and “peer all the way down to the bottom of the road and sooner or later a car always came driving up the hill toward the gate, and the pensioners would hurry back to the vestibule, settle themselves into an armchair and put on their best smile.” But the pensioners wait for visitors in vain while those who have visitors begrudge the time taken from their card games.

Those same pensioners who had run outside so impatiently to await the arrival of their beloved family were the ones whom hardly anyone ever came to see. More likely, someone would come whom no one had expected, or had even had time to expect, this was often the case with the five little groups of pensioners who sat and played cards all day, and when the nurses came to tell them that their relatives had arrived, that they had visitors, they had to quickly finish up their game of Mariás and then, sulking, they left the card table and went downstairs to the reception hall, if it was a nice day they took their relatives to a bench ion the park or the courtyard and still sulking, told them to have a seat, and then the relatives, when they saw that they hadn’t been expected the way one expects to be expected, actually felt better, they were glad to see that their father or father-in-law was much too busy with other things, they were glad that the pensioner was making their visit easier that he was still a person who didn’t sit around waiting for members of his family to rescue him, to brighten up his Sunday, but who without even bothering to hide his impatience kept looking at his watch, continually pushing back his sleeve to keep an eye on the time, which passed inexorably, while upstairs his friends sat waiting for him to return so they could resume their game of Mariás, that eternally moveable feast, that perennial Sunday that was always marked in red on the calendar, because playing cards is much more fun than telling all those pointless stories that had been told and retold in the family while there was still time.

That quote gives a sense of Hrabal’s style, and the long, beautifully constructed run-on sentences that create a rhythm to the tale in which time is of the upmost importance.

For this reader, the novel’s best segment occurs when the retirement home’s regular doctor leaves for his annual trip to Marienbad. His replacement, “young Doctor Houloubek,” a man who condones smoking and drinking of hard liquour, enthusiastically and misguidedly organizes an afternoon of classical music. Gone are the soothing strains of Harlequin’s Millions, and instead the pensioners are aroused by Afternoon of a Faun & Brahms’ violin concerto opus seventy-seven–a musical interlude that causes a comical near-riot.

The narrator records her observations about human nature while noting that this is “the first time” she’s ever “been able to take a good look at what is going on around me.” She notes the predictably to certain patterns of behaviour, and how visitors complain about petty things–having to queue for food, or order a cake days before they needed it as “by Saturday there wouldn’t be so much as a cream puff left on the bakery shelves.” The visitors also have a tendency to tell their elderly relatives how lucky they are to live in this retirement home, and when the pensioners try to explain the realities of life inside the castle and the difficulties of old age, the relatives immediately change the subject or become distracted in order not to listen.

While there is a great deal of gentle humour in the narrator’s memories and observations, there’s a serious side to the tale. She relates how the brewery, once managed by Francin, is nationalized under Communist rule. The narrator and her husband are rejected by the brewery workers as management in a government in which class is supposed to be leveled. The narrator notes that “all the old women in the castle, whom I’d driven to exasperation a quarter of a century ago with my dresses and my figure,” are now “thrilled”  to see that the narrator is just another old woman like them. While Communism acts as a social leveler for brewery workers, the narrator understands that Time is the true leveler that trumps all other considerations of beauty, wealth, possessions, status, & health. Utterly delightful, and told with a charming sense of mischief, Harlequin’s Millions is highly recommended.

Review copy. Translated by Stacey Knecht


Filed under Fiction, Hrabal Bohumil

Blaugast: A Novel of Decline by Paul Leppin

“Are you interested in catastrophes?”

I couldn’t resist buying a copy of Blaugast: A Novel of Decline by Czech author Paul Leppin. After reading about the plot, it sounded as though I’d really enjoy it, and then again the book (with its Art Deco cover) has an aesthetic appeal–rather like the gorgeous Pushkin Press editions. My copy, translated from German by Cynthia A Klima is published by Twisted Spoon Press.

Paul Leppin (1878-1945) is a bit of a curiosity. Blaugast: A Novel of Decline, his last novel, was completed in the 1930s but wasn’t published until 1984. The subject matter reminds me a great deal of the 19th century Decadents, but when I first started reading Blaugast, some of the scenes recall the clubs and cabarets of Weimar Berlin. Then again, according to the translator’s notes,  it’s a piece of fin-de-siecle Decadence. Dierk O. Hoffman’s Afterword outlines Leppin’s life:

Leppin’s literary remains, including Blaugast, had been saved by accident. Supposedly, the papers were found on the sidewalk in front of his home after the war, discarded as trash. Someone, whose identity is unknown, recovered and deposited them in the archives of the Museum of Czech Literature at Prague’s Strahov Monastery. Unfortunately, no official record of this “donation” exists. A few additional manuscripts are now at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach after having been donated by their former owner, Marianne von Hoop, to ensure that Leppin’s work would not be lost and would perhaps one day be rediscovered.

There are several reasons why Leppin’s work was almost destroyed: 1) Its content 2) The Nazis and WWII and 3) The Post WWII political situation in Czechoslovakia. The Afterword details the many attempts to revive Leppin’s work, and apparently the fall of Communism in 1989 heralded new editions and translations. It seems extraordinarily bad luck to fall victim to first the Nazis and then the Commies, doesn’t it? A writer’s nightmare indeed.

Translator Cynthia A. Klima tells us after the German occupation of Prague in 1939, Leppin was “temporarily detained and interrogated by the Gestapo.” There’s some speculation that he’d been “denounced” as a Jew. But there’s another reason he wasn’t popular with the Nazis: “the refusal by the Union of German Writers in Czechoslovakia under his leadership to join the Nazi sponsored Literary Society of Germany.”

In later life Leppin suffered from “advanced syphilis and a stroke.” The Union of German Writers in Czechoslovakia was dissolved and in 1945, desperately ill from syphilis, he tried to join the Nazi party in order to get a party card which would allow medical treatment. Given Leppin’s political stance (and his work), it’s really remarkable that he wasn’t carted off to a concentration camp.

So what’s the book about? Basically, this is the sordid tale of a bored clerk, named Klaudius Blaugast whose life becomes an ever-spiralling descent into the hell of complete physical and moral degradation. The story begins one night with Blaugast aimlessly wandering the dark streets of Prague when he runs into an old school friend named Schobotzki. Blaugast asks the normal sort of question of Schobotzki: “What have you been doing with yourself?”

With a mistrustful glance, Schobotzki looked past him, into the street.

“I’m going to seed,” he said casually. “Step by step. I am rather well-acquainted with the terms.”

Blaugast remained speechless; uneasiness gathered into a questionable silence. The man chuckled good-naturedly, then wrapped himself up in the collar of his cloak.

“That’s part of the idea,” he stated, without explaining himself more clearly. “It has to do with the research I’m involved in. Would you like to see my laboratory?”

Blaugast should have said, “no.” But instead bored, curious, and yet no small degree of uneasiness, Blaugast, folds to Schobotzki’s dominant personality, and agrees to accompany his old friend:

“I’m going with you, ” he announced, brushing aside doubts with a sweep of his hand. “I suppose your laboratory will offer the possibility of a schnapps. What kind of research is it that leaves such frightful consequences?”

Schobotzki menacingly raised his head off his shoulders.

“Biology of atrophy. Science of decay. Are you interested in catastrophes?”

Schobotzki takes Blaugast to a cellar which operates as a sort of scuzzy pub, and it’s here that Blaugast is introduced to the prostitute known as Wanda. Wanda is but the first, albeit significant step in Blaugast’s moral degradation. Initially, repelled by her slatternly appearance, he rapidly becomes obsessed with Wanda, eventually becoming a sort of slave. Wanda introduces Blaugast to various forms of depravity:

Her relation to the demimonde and adjacent terrain was like a worm-rotted footbridge that Blaugast, encouraged by her approval, ambitiously crossed to exceed any past achievements, conquests now regarded with cynicism.

This is not a book for the prudish. With Blaugast’s moral decline, he basically becomes the entertainment for the orgy crowd. The book is heavy on atmosphere while exploring the shadowy corners of Prague nightlife. Expect dung, masturbation for entertainment and a little indecent exposure just for kicks. I’d hazard a guess that if you like Hermann Ungar, you’ll like Paul Leppin. Of the two, I prefer Leppin. I found him morbidly, disgustingly funny plus I have a weakness for books whose characters undergo spectacular moral derailment.

Leppin has a very definite style (the translator mentions Leppinisms–Leppin’s invented words as well as “strings of adjectival constructions within elongated sentences structures, lexical fugues (e.g., military and commercial terms) extending, even belabouring, metaphor”:

Whatever ecstatic pleasure Blaugast had experienced with women always left him disappointed. The transparency of vulgar anticipation and the discharge of passionate revolts went limp in his realm, never achieving instinctive sexual force, never taming the turmoil to which he felt himself subjugated. The feeble heroic deed of forming a union to find pleasure in the sating of urges was suspect and lowly to him, a work of illusion he rejected in disbelief. Over the course of years he had killed with hope, when, true to his nature, he went chasing after new promises again and again, the peculiar would brush up against him, the unusual caress him–and frailty was driven further into the corner.

I selected that particular passage for its clever choice of words which of course evokes a very particular sexual imagery but also because Leppin does an awful lot of exposition of Blaugast’s life. Instead of getting passages which detail what Blaugast is doing, we get these overview summary passages which remove the immediacy and offer an almost clinical view of Blaugast. The result was a little too much analysis of the action. That is my one complaint here, but it wasn’t enough to discourage me from this tale of moral and physical putrefaction.

 On a final note: it struck me that Blaugast’s mistress is named Wanda, and I became convinced that Blaugast has some sort of literary connection to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.  Leopold von Sacher-Masoch wrote (amongst other things) a novel called  Venus in Furs and his wife Wanda von Sacher-Masoch wrote a rebuttal of sorts: The Confessions of Wanda von Sacher-Masoch. Venus in Furs is the account of the sadomasochistic relationship between the author, Sacher-Masoch and his idealized, fictional mistress, Wanda. The Confessions of Wanda von Sacher-Masoch is the wife’s version of ten years of miserable married life spent with the author–a literary he said/she said.

Curious, I picked up another Paul Leppin novel I have on my shelf: The Road to Darkness which includes two short novellas: Daniel Jesus and Severin. In Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel Venus in Furs, the narrator is Severin von Kusiemski–the man who hooks up with Wanda. They basically travel over Europe with Severin acting as the slave (underling) for his harsh mistress, Wanda. Given that Leppin creates no less than two characters with names straight out of Venus in Furs (Wanda and Severin), I have to conclude that he was inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. It’s just too much of a coincidence.


Filed under Fiction, Leppin Paul

The Maimed by Hermann Ungar

I came across The Maimed by Hermann Ungar while trawling through the Dedalus website. I’m stating for the record that I didn’t love this book (I wonder if anyone does), but I didn’t loathe it either. Instead I am left with the sensation that I inadvertently gawked at someone else’s rather sick and twisted sex life. Yes, I’m a bit appalled and at the same time, damn it, curious in spite of myself.

The back cover includes a quote from Stefan Zweig (which influenced the purchase). To Zweig The Maimed was “wonderful and horrible, captivating and repulsive, unforgettable, although one would be glad to be able to forget it.” Strange praise indeed. I’ll agree with everything except the “wonderful” part, but I’d add “kinky” to the book’s other attributes.

Born in 1893, Ungar was a Czech, German-speaking  jew who wrote just two novels before his premature death in 1929 of peritonitis. His surviving body of work suffers from a combination of being thrown away, lost or simply forgotten.  At one point, he was called “the most important writer of the decade,” but Ungar died before the decade concluded. After finishing the novel, I found myself wondering what sort of person Ungar was. Everyone in the novel suffers from phobias, and various pathological mental states, including obsessions, fetishism, and paranoia. What would Freud have made of this novel?….

The novel’s main character is Franz Polzer, and when the story begins, Polzer is a middle-aged man whose entire life revolves around his job as a bank clerk. This is not to say that he cares about his job particularly or devotes himself to his career–rather he has nothing else in his life other than work. The son of a “shopkeeper in a little country town,” Polzer was brought up by his widowed father and an aunt. And what a couple of sickies these two are. Polzer’s hideous childhood memories include some rather shadowy impressions of his father’s true relationship with his sister. As a child, Polzer was frequently held down and beaten by this pair, and Polzer’s psychosexual development becomes somewhat coloured by masochistic impulses as a result.

When the novel begins, Polzer has worked at the bank for 17 years. He briefly attended university with plans of becoming a doctor but these plans were dashed when his benefactor, the wealthy father of Polzer’s best friend, Karl, withdrew support. Up to that point, Polzer had attended university along with his friend, but Karl’s ill-health forced him to drop out, and then Polzer took a job at the bank. Here’s Polzer’s abysmal life:

Franz Polzer had been told that, given his abilities, he could, with industry and application, rise to a senior position  in his profession. Through all the years he had never reflected on the fact that the hopes he pinned on his career had not been fulfilled. He had forgotten them. He forgot them in all the little activities which, from the very beginning, his time had been divided up. He got out of bed in the morning, washed, dressed, glanced at the newspaper while he was having breakfast, and went to the bank. He sat down at his desk, on which were piles of papers which he had to compare with entries in the ledgers on the shelves round him. He signed each sheet, when he had checked it, with the initials of his name and placed it in a file. All around the office, and in the other rooms, there were many other men and women sitting, like him, at desks that looked just the same as his. The whole building was filled with the smell of these men and women, with the noise of their monotonous activity and conversations. Franz Polzer was equal to the demands his work made on him. It offered no opportunity of distinguishing himself and therefore no chance of attracting the attention of his superiors.

A couple of things struck me about this passage. Polzer is too dulled to even think about disappointed hopes, and then he seems repulsed by the physical presence (smells and sounds) of the other people in the office. Yes, indeed, Polzer does have a horror of physical contact. And so when Polzer’s plump landlady, the lusty widow Frau Porges begins to make sexual demands on Polzer, well we know it can only lead to trouble….

Polzer’s private life becomes so out-of-control he decides to go and see his old friend, Karl. This, as it turns out is a serious mistake. Karl is extremely ill and suffering from a  progressive chronic disease. His legs have been amputated, his body is covered with abscesses and he’s about to have an arm amputated. Karl’s life is a worse mess than Polzer’s, and there’s the distinct possibility that Karl’s mind is also diseased. He’s constantly accusing his wife, Dora of infidelity, yet he demands a male nurse to help with his daily care. There are hints of Karl’s rather strange sexual tendencies. Just how much should Polzer believe?

At this point, the novel switches from Polzer’s problem with his insatiable landlady and her groppy friend Kamilla, and instead Polzer sinks deeper and deeper into the mire surrounding Karl’s domestic arrangements. In some ways The Maimed feels like two different books. The first novel concerns the pathetic figure of Polzer, a man who’s horrified by female flesh and who may have homosexual tendencies, but then the novel shifts focus as it moves away from Polzer’s life and into Karl’s orbit.

Ungar’s Polzer is the progeny of Decadent author Huysmans. In Huysmans’ With the Flow, middle-aged office clerk Jean Folantin ekes out his meagre budget in a futile attempt to derive some pleasure from life. Polzer is a hollowed-out version of Folantin, and even the anticipation of pleasure remains elusive to Polzer. He “longed to play billiards” but declines to due to fear of “putting his body movements on display.” Polzer shrinks from his landlady’s advances, and yet surrenders when she applies the correct combination of punishment with authoritarianism.

With the whereabouts of an amputated limb, a missing fetish object, a cult of death and guilt, a dominatrix, exhibitionism, masturbation, and sadomasochism to boot, The Maimed is not for all readers. This is a strange novel indeed, full, as its title suggests, not of wounded people, but mutilated and defective people. Karl’s disease with its stench, its pus and its sores is the physical manifestation of the damage. While Karl serves as the hub of all this disturbed and disturbing behaviour, it’s what lies underneath that is truly horrifying:

“What Polzer feared had begun. The door had been opened. Once order had been disrupted, ever increasing chaos was bound to follow. The breach had been made through which the unforeseen could pour in, spreading fear.”

Translated by Mike Mitchell.


Filed under Ungar Hermann