Never had he felt so deeply that he was an old man

Late Fame, by Arthur Schnitzler and translated by Alexander Starritt

I am, it’s fair to say, something of an Arthur Schnitzler fan. I’ve previously reviewed his Fraülein Else and his Dying, and loved both. When I heard that Pushkin Press were releasing a previously unpublished Schnitzler novella I lost no time asking for a review copy.

As a rule, I’m fairly suspicious of posthumous releases of unpublished work. All too often the result is some half-finished manuscript which the author discarded as not up to scratch but which was then slapped together after their death even though it’s perfectly evident it wouldn’t ever have been released in their life.

In this case, that suspicion would be totally unwarranted. Late Fame is quality Schnitzler, and as the excellent afterword makes plain was in fact very likely intended for publication in pretty much its current form. Pushkin Press have done both Schnitzler’s memory and his fans proud.

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Edward Saxberger is an elderly civil servant, not yet retired but comfortably settled in his department and his quietly ordered life. Years ago, in his youth, he wrote and published a small poetry collection titled Wanderings. It didn’t make much of a stir and after a little while he gave up his literary career and became the stolid and reliable civil servant that he is today.

Now (the book was written in the 1930s) a young man named Wolfgang Meier comes to Saxberger’s rooms seeking him out as the long-lost author of Wanderings. To Saxberger’s amazement Meier talks of how his artistic circle have discovered Saxberger’s work and been inspired by it; how they were delighted to learn he still lived; and that they believe the time has come for Wanderings to gain the recognition so long denied it.

Before long Saxberger is part of Meier’s set – a group of young writers and intellectuals based loosely on Schnitzler’s own similar early circle. Meier is himself a poet, but they also have a critic, a playwright, an actress and more. They all hail Saxberger as a giant come to walk among them and even more they claim him as a spiritual companion and inspiration. Saxberger finds himself replacing dinners with his long-standing friends and peers and their talk of business and politics with dazzling late night discussions of art and ambition.

Saxberger’s a sober man and his literary aspirations were long ago put to bed, and yet it wouldn’t be human not to be excited by this new attention. He’s cautious naturally, but what if he was overlooked? What if they’re right and now, after all these years, he’s finally being recognised? Who wouldn’t be tempted by such an extraordinary second chance, so unlooked for and so unexpected?

Meier and his group are organising a recital evening at which they will present various works from their movement and they want Saxberger to write new poetry for the occasion and to showcase it with them. It’s a dizzying prospect, but Saxberger finds that it’s harder than he thought to pick up his pen again, and he’s not entirely sure he understands the work his young compatriots are producing. Does he still have talent, if he ever did? Do they? Could he still be relevant? Will the audience proclaim him a lost master or will they laugh?

With his artistic dreams rewoken Saxberger finds himself caught between identities: the staid but comfortable complacency of his place among his aged peers with their careers in government or industry; the thrilling but perhaps fleeting recognition of him as an artist but only among people more than thirty years his junior. Saxberger no longer feels he fits in the world he’s come to inhabit, but he’s not a twenty-something just setting out either.

In lesser hands Late Fame could easily be a cruel novel. Schnitzler, however, walks a fine line between comedy and tragedy. Saxberger is a likable protagonist and his pleasure at being (re)discovered is palpable, as are the practical difficulties of his position. The young artists are passionate, deadly serious and full of their own importance as of course they would be.

They assuredly had a great deal of talent between them; work, however, was something they actually did very little of.

Here, Saxberger is in a café with them and notices them exchanging sharp glances at another very similar looking group.

“Who are those people?” asked Saxberger of Meier.

Christian, the tragedian, answered for him. “Those are the talentless ones.”

“Is that known for a fact,” Saxberger asked earnestly, “or do they call themselves that?”

“We call them that,” mocked Friedinger. “And that one there” – he gestured at one of those sitting at the other table – “is about to have a play put on.”

“Why do you call them talentless?” asked Saxberger, persevering.

“Talentless,” interjected Meier in his calm way, “is what we generally call those who sit at a different table from us.”

“Nonsense,” shrieked Stauffer, “they really are useless. Someone has to put them in their place.”

“I’m writing an article about it,” said Blink, his demeanour suggesting that this would dismiss them once and for all.

Note that in the above quote there’s a said, but before that some askeds, a mocked, an interjected and a shrieked. There’s an often quoted writing rule that you should only ever use said, not exclaimed or proclaimed or asseverated or whatever. It’s like most literary rules, fine for some kinds of writing, but far from a requirement for all as I think Schnitzler demonstrates.

Schnitzler succeeded in making me care for Saxberger, even sympathising with his growing but easily understood vanity. That empathy made this at times an oddly tense novel, since I found it difficult to imagine Saxberger suddenly being hailed as a major new discovery by anyone beyond his new circle. They title their evening Enthusiasm, and it’s easy to see him as just another enthusiasm they’ve briefly picked up and might just as lightly put down again not considering the damage they could do.

Late Fame doesn’t have the technical daring of Fraülein Else or the implacable awfulness of the situation in Dying, which I suppose could arguably make it a lesser work. Better though perhaps to see it as a gentler novel than either of those; a Sunday afternoon book to be read with a coffee and slice of strudel but still shining with Schnitzler’s characteristic psychological acuity.

Late Fame comes in a physically gorgeous hardback edition which fits neatly in hand or pocket and is just tremendously well put together. The translation is fluid and readable (though since I know no German I can’t speak to its accuracy), and the afterword is both fascinating in its description of how this manuscript was so nearly lost and yet finally came down the years to us and insightful (particularly in picking up subtle psychological elements that would I suspect be more obvious to a contemporary reader familiar with Freudian theory than a modern one for whom that’s largely historic). The whole package is a delight.

Other reviews

I’m sure I’m missing several, but the ones I have noted are from Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings here and from Lizzy Siddal at Lizzy’s Literary Life here. As ever, if you know of others please let me know in the comments.

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17 Comments

Filed under Central European fiction, German, Pushkin Press, Schnitzler, Arthur

17 responses to “Never had he felt so deeply that he was an old man

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    This was my first Schnitzler and I loved it. Like you, I got very tense because I was actually very worried about what would happen Saxberger. Despite his pomposity you can’t help but like him. And you’re right about the book itself – it’s a lovely object. What other Schnitzler would you recommend? (and thanks for the link)

  2. I bought this one recently, Max. Couldn’t resist. I’ve only read one Schnitzler (so far)

  3. Oh, this sounds wonderful – I too am a Schnitzler fan! Will have to get my little paws on this one…

  4. It sounds wonderful, definitely my type of thing, but I’m wondering whether it might be better to start with one of his earlier novellas. The only Schnitzler I’ve read so far were the two short stories in the Vienna Tales anthology I picked up last year – both were early pieces, ‘The Four-poster Bed’ and ‘Out for a Walk’. I have a copy of his Dream Story, so maybe I should read that first. This is a beautifully produced little book, though, a delight to hold…decisions, decisions!

  5. Jonathan

    I’ve only read ‘Dream Story’ but I picked up a copy of ‘Vienna 1990’ recently which I keep meaning to read.

    This book does sound really good. All the reviews I’ve read applaud it as well so I’ll have to get a copy.

  6. Kaggsy, I think either Fraülein Else or Dying would work well. Else is an interesting one technically as it’s entirely stream of consciousness which some hate, but it’s very well executed. It’s about a young woman who’s put in a very uncomfortable position by her family who force her to ask an aquaintance for money to help them out of their difficulties. It’s incredibly tense, almost like a thriller.

    Dying features a man dying of tuberculosis whose healthy lover promises him that because she can’t imagine living without him she’ll die with him. Initially he tells her he wants nothing of the kind, but as time goes on and his health declines the idea of not dying alone becomes more appealing to him but the idea of keeping to her promise becomes less appealing to her. Again, it’s very tense though perhaps not quite as much as Else.

    I read them in the order Else then Dying, so that’s as good as any, but I don’t think it matters as both are excellent.

    Guy, I think this is a natural for you.

    Marina, have you Schnitzler reviews at yours? Do share if so. He’s a marvel isn’t he? I still haven’t read Dream Story, which I probably should given it’s his most famous one.

    Jacqui, I think you could start with any of them. This is lighter than the other two I’ve read, so it may just be a question of the mood you’re in. This is a more forgiving novel than either Else or Dying.

    Jonathan, Vienna 1990? As I just said to Marina I haven’t read Dream Story yet, though I shall. I suspect it has less humour than this, though I may be being unfair.

  7. I love the idea for this novel; your review has me eager to pick it up.

  8. I didn’t know about that. Many thanks Jonathan!

    Scott, the afterword says that apparently Schnitzler tended to start with the idea, then built the book around that. It makes sense because the three I’ve read all have a really strong core concept. Anyway, if you do try it let me know how you get on with it.

  9. Interesting that Fraulein Else is atypical – I loved the stream of consciousness. I notice this is third person. I certainly intend to read more Schnitzler – perhaps Dying before this (note capitalization).

  10. Well, atypical of the three I’ve read, and only in terms of style. The sense of tension is very typical of the Schnitzler’s I’ve read. Dying is a great novel(la, can’t quite remember the length now).

  11. Sounds great Max. I’ve read Else and Casanova’s Return to Venice, both very fine. The latter would suit you very well I reckon.

    Putting this on the wishlist.

  12. Yes, the Casanova is a definite must read, not least as I’ve read a fairly chunky set of excerpts from Casanova’s memoirs.

  13. It is fantastic idea for a story. There are examples of artists who are appreciated after their death, so it’s understandable that Saxberger is tempted to believe he’ll have late recognition.

    The last quote sounds a bit high-schoolish, no? It shows the youth of this group and the arrogance that goes with adolescence.

    I’ll see if I can find it in French. What’s the original title?

  14. Isn’t it just? Youth and arrogance are their defining features. The whole thing is very easy to picture.

    I’ll check at home to see if my copy has the original title. It might be discussed in the afterword.

  15. Pingback: 2016 end of year roundup | Pechorin's Journal

  16. Pingback: Late Fame: Arthur Schnitzler | His Futile Preoccupations .....

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