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A Tale Told by Moonlight by Leonard Woolf

“But who ever felt the sun set or rise in London or Torquay either? It doesn’t: you just turn on or off the electric light.”

Yes, a collection of shorts by Leonard Woolf aka Mr Virginia Woolf, the man with the famous missus. A Tale Told by Moonlight is one of those delicious little gems from Hesperus Press–3 short stories and two extracts from Woolf’s memoir Growing: An Autobiography of the Years 1904-1911. Woolf (1880-1969) was a civil servant in Ceylon during this time, so the extracts of the memoir along with the stories are bundled together appropriately and are Conradian in tone. This volume also includes an excellent foreword from Victoria Glendinning. Glendinning’s name added to the attraction of this slim volume. She’s an excellent biographer (she’s written bios on Leonard Woolf and Anthony Trollope amongst others), and she’s also written a number of novels including the very, very funny Grown-Ups).

The three short stories are: A Tale Told by Moonlight, Pearls and Swine, and The Two Brahmans. The first two are superior, I think, but I prefer Pearl and Swine.

A Tale Told by Moonlight begins with a group of middle-aged and elderly men who are gathered at the home of a novelist called Alderton. Mrs. Alderton is not at home, so it’s an evening of men, for men:

It was a piping hot June day, and we strolled out after dinner in the cool moonlight down the great fields which lead to the river. It was very cool, very beautiful, very romantic lying there on the grass above the river bank, watching the great trees in the moonlight and the silver water slipping along so musically to the sea. We grew silent and sentimental–at least I know I did.

As the men sit in the cool of the evening, two lovers walk by, and their presence sparks a discussion on the subject of love. This is then, a tale within a tale. There’s the narrator who recalls an evening spent in the company of other men, and then the narrator relates a tale told by one of the men– Jessop, a man “many people did not like.”

 The conversation turns to first loves as the men “looked back with regret, with yearning to our youth and to love.” The men discussed “love, the great passion, the real thing which had just passed us by so closely in the moonlight.” Jessop, however, is initially silent, but is provoked to speak when it seems he can stand the talk of romance no longer. Jessop insists that real love is rare:

It’s you novelists who’re responsible, you know. You’ve made a world in which everyone is always falling in love–but it’s not this world. Here it’s the flicker of the body.

I don’t say there isn’t such a thing. There is. I’ve seen it, but it’s rare, as rare as-as-a perfect horse, an Arab once said to me.

According to Jessop, he’s only seen two cases of “real love.” He argues:

It’s only when we don’t pay for it that we call it romance and love, and the most we would ever pay is a 5 pound note.

A singular view indeed. But Jessop then rewards his listeners with the story of one of the two cases of “real love” and it isn’t pretty. He recalls knowing a man he calls Reynolds–a man he’d known in school:

There seemed to be in him something in him somewhere, some power of feeling under nervousness and shyness. I can’t say it ever came out, but he interested me.

After the two men left school, Reynolds became the successful author of a number of romantic novels, and Reynolds and Jessop kept in touch. One day Reynolds arrives in the Ceylon and Jessop takes him under his wing and commits to giving him a taste of life in the East. Inevitably they visit a brothel and Reynolds becomes obsessed with one of the young girls there.

A Tale Told by Moonlight is a tale within a tale, and it seems to be the complex story of love in which the tale teller, Jessop, claims a story of ‘real love” without really understanding what he’s talking about. This is a tragic tale which echoes shades of Pechorin’s love affair with Bela–the relationship and clashes between two cultures with the dominant culture (British in the case of Reynolds and Jessop) labouring under the tragic illusion that only a so-called ‘superior’ culture is capable of finer feelings.

Pearls and Swine has a similar sort of set-up–a room full of men harping on about their favourite subject. In this story, the narrator is on a week’s holiday in a “large gaudy uncomfortably comfortable hotel” in Torquay. It’s evening, and the male guests have gathered in the “smoking rooms” and are drinking before going to bed. The subject at hand is colonialism, “Indian unrest” and how the colonies should be ‘managed.’ Each man has his own theory of what should be done, and pomposity, ignorance, and hypocrisy are thick in the air that night, until finally a man who’s lived in Ceylon for years weighs in. He tells a horrific story of pearl harvesting:

Well, we rule India and the sea, so the sea belongs to us, and the oysters are in the sea and the pearls are in the oysters. Therefore the pearls belong to us.

The man describes the pearl harvesting operation which involves the British government taking 2/3 of the oysters hauled up and leaving 1/3 to the men who takes all the risks bringing the oysters up from the sea. The man describes how a young British man named Robson–a man with “views” is sent out to manage the oyster farming camp:

Yes, he had views; he used to explain them to me when he first arrived. He got some new ones I think before he got out of that camp. You’d say he only saw details, things happen, facts, data. Well, he did that too. He saw men die–he hadn’t seen that in his Board School–die of plague or cholera, like flies, all over the place, under the trees, in the boats, outside the little door of his own little hut. And he saw flies, too, millions, billions of them all day long buzzing, crawling over everything, his hands, his little fresh face, his food. And he smelt the smell of millions of decaying oysters all day long and all night long for six long weeks.

The man who tells this dire tale relates what happened one horrible, unforgettable night, and through this tale he hopes to illustrate that “views” fall apart when faced with the ugly reality of colonial life in the East.

In the foreword, Victoria Glendinning writes that Leonard Woolf’s literary works are eclipsed by his wife’s accomplishments. He published his two novels A Village in the Jungle and The Wise Virgins before Virginia’s first novel was published. Glendinning states that Leonard’s friend Lytton Strachey did not think that Leonard was “cut out to write fiction.” And for this reason, combined with the need for money and “recognition of his wife’s gift,” Leonard Woolf stuck with “political books” along with journalism and some editing. These gems in this slim edition hint at an untapped talent.

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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.

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