Category Archives: German

all the more human

Flypaper, by Robert Musil and translated by Peter Wortsman

Robert Musil is famous (being a bit generous with that word there for a moment) for his unfinished novel The Man Without Qualities. By all accounts it’s an incredible work. I’m too fond of editors to ever welcome the idea of reading an interrupted book – one that not even the author finished polishing – but I’ve been told that for Musil I should put that prejudice to one side.

Fair enough, but The Man Without Qualities has another barrier besides being incomplete. It’s nearly 700 pages long. That’s a lot to launch into with an author I don’t know.

Enter Penguin Modern Classics with their pocket editions each coming in at around the 60 page mark. Flypaper is a collection of fueilletons, short essays, by Robert Musil. There’s nine of them in this tiny collection, and as an introduction to Musil it’s about as good as it could be. That’s the joy of these little Penguin editions. They cost almost nothing, they’re concise and they’re a tremendous way to try out an author who for one reason or another you might be unsure about investing in.

Each of the nine little pieces in this collection is a small marvel of mercilessly precise observation. The title narrative, Flypaper, consists of a description of a piece of flypaper and the slow death of the flies that land on it. It’s at times hard to read. Partly I admit because I had nightmares about flypaper as a child (someone unwisely left some above my bed at a relatives home, meaning I had a front line view of exactly what Musil describes here. Whether that caused the peculiar horror I still have of the sight of dying insects or whether that fear already existed and so made the flypaper terrible I have no way of knowing). Partly though because Musil takes something as insignificant as the death of a fly and by not looking away invests it with majesty and with a more universal significance.

Here’s Flypaper’s first paragraph, after which it gets much more disquieting:

Tangle-foot flypaper is approximately fourteen inches long and eight inches wide; it is coated with a yellow poison paste and comes from Canada. When a fly lands on it – not so eagerly, more out of convention, because so many others are already there – it gets stuck at first by only the outermost joints of all its legs. A very quiet, disconcerting sensation, as though while walking in the dark we were to step on something with our naked soles, nothing more than a soft, warm unavoidable obstruction, and yet something into which little by little the awesome human essence flows, recognised as a hand that just happens to be lying there, and with five ever more decipherable fingers holds us tight.

Musil then explores the flies ever tiring attempts to free themselves, each miring them more firmly to the paper. He talks of moments of furious struggle, of sudden exhaustion, of the slow despair and futility of a fight against inevitable disability (as wings and limbs become stuck fast) and death.

There is real empathy here, and it is the empathy which makes it so awful. The next, Monkey Island, examines a small island in the heart of Rome. A wide and deep ditch separates the island from the land around it, and on it is a tree and a colony of monkeys none of whom can quite jump or climb that ditch.

This then is the monkeys’ kingdom. Musil’s gaze sweeps over it, from the strongest monkeys who form the royal family of the island to the outcasts who live within the ditch itself. It is a microcosm of us, a point Musil has no need to underline but which cannot be avoided as he shows the social and literal gulf dividing those monkeys who have from those who feed from fallen crumbs.

I won’t describe each essay. They are superbly written. Some, like those first two, draw out uncomfortable truths about our own existence. Some, such as The Painstpreader or It’s Lovely Here are satires, of artistic mediocrity on the one hand and of tourists’ desire to encounter “something that is acknowledged by experts as beautiful” on the other.

The briefest piece, titled Sarcophagus Cover, is a touching description of two ancient Roman sarcophagi that have on them a couple still gazing affectionately at each other through the long centuries. The last, The Blackbird, is a sort of fable different in nature from all that has gone before. Not so much an essay as an example of his fiction, but no less finely crafted. Musil has range.

This next quote is an entire piece, albeit a very short one. I hesitated to quote it, since after discussing Flypaper and Monkey Island there’s a risk of giving the impression that Musil only focuses on the cruel. That’s not true of course. What Musil focuses on is the world.

Fishermen on the Baltic

On the beach they’ve dug out a little pit with their hands, and from a sack of black earth they’re pouring in fat earthworms, the loose black earth and the mass of worms make for an obscure, moldy, enticing ugliness in the clean white sand. Beside this they place a very tidy looking wooden chest. It looks like a long, not particularly wide drawer or counting board, and is full of clean yarn; and on the other side of the pit another such, but empty, drawer is placed.

The hundred hooks attached to the yarn in the one drawer are neatly arranged on the end of a small iron pole and are now being unfastened one after the other and laid in the empty drawer, the bottom of which is filled with nothing but clean wet sand. A very tidy operation. In the meantime, however, four long, lean and strong hands oversee the process as carefully as nurses to make sure that each hook gets a worm.

The men who do this crouch two by two on knees and heels, with mighty, bony backs, long, kindly faces, and pipes in their mouths. They exchange incomprehensible words that flow forth as softly as the motion of their hands. One of them takes up a fat earthworm with two fingers, tears it into three pieces with the same two fingers of the other hand, as easily and exactly as a shoemaker snips off the paper band after he’s taken the measurement; the other one then presses these squirming pieces calmly and carefully onto each hook. This having been accomplished, the worms are then doused with water and laid in neat, little beds, one next to the other, in the drawer with the soft sand, where they can die without immediately losing their freshness.

It is a quiet, delicate activity, whereby the coarse fishermen’s fingers step softly as on tiptoes. You have to pay close attention. In fair weather the dark blue sky arches above, and the seagulls circle high over the land like white swallows.

The phrases there. “A very tidy operation.” The fishermen with their “kindly faces” impaling the worms. The transition from fat life to “squirming pieces” and the tidy convenience of the sand-filled drawers. The fingers that “step softly as on tiptoes”. Marvellous imagery culminating in that final vision of freedom and beauty and utter indifference. To the fishermen the worms are no different to the hooks or the drawers; the gulls are part of their scenery, as they are to the gulls.

I’ve not commented on the translation. Obviously I’m not familiar enough with German to read the original (or I would have), so I can’t say how faithful this is. I can’t say that of any translation really. Still, the language is spare and precise and beautiful and I can’t believe but that Wortsman has done an excellent job here.

The point, as I understand it anyway, of the Penguin pocket editions is to tempt readers to try new writers. For me it’s worked. I’ve tried Musil, who I knew about but was daunted by, and I’m no longer daunted. I plan now to pick up a copy of his short novel The Confusions of Young Torless and that going well I think The Man Without Qualities is looking a lot more enticing than it once did. Well done Penguin.

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian fiction, Central European fiction, Fueilletons, German, Modernist fiction, Musil, Robert

The county courts of this region were very busy.

This didn’t really fit with what I had to say about Roth’s Weights and Measures, but it seemed so apposite to our own times that I felt I had to quote it anyway:

The county courts of this region had a lot to do. There were, for instance, certain types of men who allowed themselves to be slapped, voluntarily and with relish. They possessed the great art of provoking other men who, for one reason or another, were ill disposed towards them, until they received a slap in the face. Whereupon they went to the local doctor. He confirmed that they had been injured, and, sometimes, that they had lost a tooth. This was known a a ‘visum rapport’. Whereupon they sued. They received justice and damages. And on this they lived for years.

The details may change, but people don’t. Slaps to the face aren’t so common anymore, but the county courts of my and many other regions remain very busy…

This section, where Roth speaks of a desperately poor family, also remains true but is less comic:

And yet they still managed to live, despite everything – for God helps the poor. He bestows a little compassion on the rich, so that from time to time one of them comes and buys something which he does not need and which he will throw away in the street.

As Billie Holiday sang:

Rich relations give crust of bread and such
You can help yourself but don’t take too much

The Babylonians would have recognised the truth of that…

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian fiction, Central European fiction, German, Roth, Joseph

Even the dawn looked faded

Weights and Measures, by Joseph Roth

Once upon a time in the District of Zlotogrod there lived an Inspector of Weights and Measures whose name was Anselm Eibenschütz.

That’s the first sentence of Weights and Measures. Those first four words are among the most iconic in storytelling. Immediately they create a sense of distance but also of the fabulous. Here they are the precursors to a story about a local government inspector’s marital problems and his attraction to a local criminal’s woman. What could be fabulous in that?

Herr Eibenschütz, the inspector, is a former artilleryman who resigned his service in the army at the urgings of his wife.

He had married, as almost all long-serving non-commissioned officers are in the habit of doing. Ah, they are lonely, the long-serving non-commissioned officers! They see only men, nothing but men! The women they encounter flutter past them like swallows. They marry, the non-commissioned officers, to keep hold of at least one swallow, as it were.

I thought that the most beautiful of images. It shouldn’t really work as a paragraph. It contains a great deal of repetition (as do several other passages). Even so it does work. It reads like a fairy story; a fable. It captures a palpable sense of loneliness and the sheer need for another human being to call one’s own.

Eibenschütz sadly did not choose his swallow well. He was happy as an artilleryman and is less so as an inspector of weights and measures. He doesn’t even work for the central government as he is entitled by virtue of his old rank, but only for the local municipality. He takes his task seriously though and travels through the district accompanied by his imposing gendarme checking the honesty of the local traders and shopkeepers. It is unfortunate that they are all dishonest and that none of them has an accurate weight or measure save those they save for his visits. The old inspector was not so scrupulous in his duties.

Eibenschütz then is an honest man in a land of thieves. All are corrupt save him and this does not make him loved. At home things are little better. He captured his swallow, but not love.

For a long time now he had made a habit of going to sleep as soon as they climbed into bed at night, into the two beds pushed closely together, and he no longer spared a glance for her naked body as she undressed before the mirror, perhaps in the hope that he might desire her still. Sometimes she asked him, standing there naked, whether he loved her. She really meant whether he found her beautiful. ‘Yes, of course!’ he said and yielded to sleep, not least to escape the pangs of conscience which his lie might yet produce.

There’s an extraordinary air of melancholy to this book. It opens with Eibenschütz married. His happiness in the army and his loneliness at being without a companion are both already past. Much worse though than being alone is being with someone for whom you have no feeling. This is a book suffused with loneliness.

Soon Eibenschütz suspects his wife of having an affair. She seems too happy and too beautiful. Here only the illicit are ever happy. Rectitude has no rewards.

Suddenly, too, he saw how she had altered. A new, large, tortoise-shell comb held the knot of her thick dark-blue-gleaming hair together. Large golden earrings which she had not worn for a long time, earrings on which dangled tiny delicate golden discs, trembled on her earlobes. Her dark-brown countenance had recovered quite a youthful, indeed a maidenly, ruddy hue. One might say that she looked again as she had looked in the past, as a young girl, when he had first met her in Sarajevo, where her uncle, the master-at-arms, had invited her for the summer.

I won’t say too much more. Eibenschütz discovers the identity of his wife’s lover and and learns that she is pregnant by him (he realises when from nowhere she speaks of how good it would be for their marriage to have a child). His home is no longer welcoming. “Not even the cat would come up to him, as it had done in former times, and allow itself to be stroked.” In his sorrow he takes to frequenting a border tavern owned by the notorious outlaw Jadlowker. It is there that he sees the gypsy woman who shares Jadlowker’s bed, and becomes infatuated with her.

As plots go this one couldn’t be much simpler. It’s a story of love, rivalry and infidelity. There is nothing original to it. It does not aim for originality. What there is though is a clash of ways of life. Eibenschütz is an agent of the state. He tries to impose its rules on a region where by his standards normality is crooked. Jadlowker lives on the border. He is rumoured to have murdered a man in Odessa with a sugar-loaf. He is Eibenschütz’s opposite. He is chaos and lawlessness. He is on the boundary between civilisation and a great dark forest beyond which lies another world (or, more prosaically, Russia).

Like the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself Eibenschütz tries to impose order where there is no place for it. It is in a sense a heroic enterprise, but it cannot succeed. Jadlowker by contrast is free. He has no government to report to and no morality. His freedom is a freedom to do what he wills. He is a killer and a thief.

Roth makes the district of Zlotogrod breathe. He captures its customs such as the way the people rush out in the middle of the night to celebrate the arrival of spring; heralded by the first cracks appearing in the ice which each year coats the local river. The government is far away and they have their local doctors and local courts and when a man needs order he goes to one and when he needs freedom he goes to Jadlowker’s.

The heart here though is Eibenschütz. As he falls genuinely in love with Jadlowker’s gypsy he begins to notice the world about him. He notices the birds singing in the spring and their absence in the winter. He notices the stars overhead and how they seem not meaningless lights as they used to but friendly companions in the night. Nature and the cosmos both change to match the moods of Eibenschütz, Jadlowker and others.

At first I thought the matching of nature and mood thematic. I thought Roth was choosing for the seasons and the sky to follow the narrative. Then I realised that he was doing nothing of the kind. Nature and the sky remain unchanged throughout the book save that the seasons turn as they always do. Men just change their interpretations according to their sentiments and find meaning where there is none.

Weights and Measures is a fable, but it is a dark and sly one. The world here seems suffused with meaning, but gradually it became apparent that the meaning was only ever that which the characters gave it. It was written in 1937 and it contains no hope. The best that can be achieved in Zlotogrod is to leave it.

This is not a well known Roth. I found few reviews of it online and it hasn’t the recognition factor of Hotel Savoy, The Radetzky March or The Legend of the Holy Drinker. It’s not one of his major works. It is, however, beautiful and haunting and superbly written. I’ll finish with one final quote. Here Eibenschütz’s gendarme has been speaking of his own troubles after hearing of those of Eibenschütz himself.

Eibenschütz had long since ceased to listen. But it did him good that a man was speaking beside him, just as it sometimes does one good when the rain is pouring down, even if one does not understand the language of the rain.

The language of the rain. Roth shows a world which is venal and mundane and then makes it fabulous through the sheer beauty of his art. I intend to write a post soon about my personal canon; the works I consider central to my concept of literature. Roth will be on it.

The copy of Weights and Measures I read was published by Peter Owen Classics and translated by David Le Vay. Given how the language sang I’ll look out for Le Vay’s translations in future.

Weights and Measures

Update: 25 November 2014. Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat has now also reviewed this. Her excellent review is here.

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian fiction, Central European fiction, German, Personal canon, Roth, Joseph

she did not want to worry

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, by Friedrich Christian Delius and translated by Jamie Bulloch

I read Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman twice. Each time I read it straight through without a pause. It’s the third title released by Peirene Press in 2010 and for me the best yet. If I’d read it a month earlier it would have made my end of year list.

The novella takes place in Rome in January 1943. A young German woman is living in a German speaking enclave. She is heavily pregnant. She came to Rome to be with her husband Gert who had returned from the Russian front with an injured leg.

Gert’s leg is unhealed and his dressings need to be changed daily. Even so within a day of the woman’s arrival her husband was called back to duty. Reverses in North Africa mean that every soldier is needed. Gert is a military clerk, and clerks can serve sitting down.

The woman then is on her own in a foreign city. Her husband in his letters urges her to enjoy its beauty, but it’s hard to enjoy even the most marvellous things when those you love are far away and in danger. The entire novella takes place in the space of a single afternoon’s walk as the woman goes from the convent where she is staying to a Lutheran church where a rare afternoon performance of Bach is to be held. Along the way she thinks, and tries not to think.

Portrait is written in an unconventional style. There are no chapters and no full stops. Each paragraph either simply breaks with the next picking up from it or ends in a comma. It’s not quite a stream of consciousness. It’s more a stream of experience. As the woman walks she sees familiar but little understood sights of Rome. She thinks about her past and about her family and husband. They have not been married long. She thinks too about the war and about the regime back home, but those thoughts are dangerous and she shrinks away from them.

Formatting constraints with WordPress prevent me showing how the paragraphs are arranged on the page in the actual book. There each paragraph opens with an indented line, which gives it a far more pleasing appearance on the page than these quotes suggest. Otherwise the book is up to Peirene’s usual standards in terms of its sheer physical quality.

again she thought how fortunate she was, provided with everything she needed, not starving, and not having to queue like the Roman housewives or their maids, how lucky she was that at this hour she was able to go to church, and even to a concert, and was only vexed for a second by the question of

why there is not enough bread in wartime, and why it is getting ever scarcer, seeing that ever more land is being conquered and ever more victories are being reported, after all the wheat is still growing, and the rye, you can see from the window of the train how all the fields were blooming and ripening, so where is the bread, but that was not a question you could ask, it was a test, it was God’s will, he provided the daily bread and allocated it,

The woman is devout. Her father is a minister and so will her husband be – if he survives the war. They are fortunate. She keeps reminding herself how fortunate they both are. He is serving in a comfortable billet in North Africa which is far better than the Russian front. She is in Rome and is largely spared the privations the locals and people back home are suffering. Still, she is not with her husband. She might never be again.

Announcements of victories and exhortations to more of the same are painted on the street walls. They are seen and heard ever more frequently.

and yet there were too many defeats, in Russia the picture was no longer one of great victories, they hardly spoke about victories any more, they only spoke of the length of the war, and what was the point of this dreadful war if there were to be no more victories, they could not imagine a war without victories,

since she was twelve years old the Fuhrer of the German Reich had proceeded from one triumph to the next, for as long as she could remember he had only won, conquered, been celebrated, cheered, even during church services thanks were offered up for the political and military successes too, and her husband would only be able to return soon if they were victorious, but if more defeats threatened on almost all fronts he would stay there, his life in ever-increasing danger, and she would have to wait longer and longer,

it was impossible to think what might become of the beautiful Germany withouth victories, thinking this was forbidden, she forbade herself from thinking it, and while her yearning flew south to Africa,

What it is permissible to think is key here. This is a loving young mother. She is only recently wed. She is pious and humble. She is not well educated, but she is a decent person. Of course, in 1943 she is also a tiny part of the Nazi state. The state doctrine sits uncomfortably with her faith. Both her father and husband have spoken critically of Hitler and of how he seems to put himself above god. Both have reflected that the bible contains no requirements to hate the Jews. She has no personal animus against them either.

They are all, as the phrase goes, good Germans. None of them actively support Hitler. In fact, they do not agree with him. Her father and husband both still do their duty though and every time the gap between national rhetoric and church teaching occurs to her she does her best to think of something else. She just wants a small and quiet life. No doubt millions of Germans feel very similarly.

On her own she could not work out what you were allowed and not allowed to say, what you should think and what you ought not to think, and how to cope with her ambivalent feelings, all she could do was to keep these things to herself until his return,

there is the weapon of silence and the weapon of words, she learnt with the League of German girls, and as she preferred to remain silent anyway, especially if she was not confident of her thoughts and her faint doubts were not assuaged, she knew what she had to do, to trust patiently in God, and continue undeterred along her path,

Portrait contains, fittingly enough, a marvellous portrait of the young woman. She is convincing and for me sympathetic. Her plight is an easy one to care about and to relate to. She’s not in any sense a bad person. None of the people she knows seem to be bad people. They’re all just keeping their heads down, doing the best they can and waiting for the war to end.

That’s what gives this book its power and impact. What Portrait addresses is life under totalitarianism. Here it’s Nazi Germany, but I’m not sure what’s explored is unique to that. There have been many regimes throughout history where it could be dangerous to say the wrong thing or even to think the wrong thought. All empires built on terror depend on the acquiescence of the bulk of their population. Most of those living under such systems will just be ordinary people trying to get on with their lives.

In a brief foreword to Portrait Meike Zeirvogel of Peirene Press talks about how if “we can relate to her we come close to understanding the forces that were shaping an entire generation.” That’s exactly right. That said this isn’t a didactic book and there’s a lot I’ve not talked about here (partly as it’s skilfully examined in the review at Just William’s blog here which convinced me to read this book).

There’s the contrast between the Germanic, protestant, Northern European culture and the Italian, Catholic, Southern European one. There’s the dizzying spectacle of antiquity undermining the certainties of the present and refusing to comply with her Lutheran expectations. Above all for me personally though there’s the insight into the mind and experience of a person who in a small way was part of what is widely seen as the greatest evil of the twentieth century (some would argue for Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot as having that honour, lovely century the twentieth).

In terms of style I was initially concerned that the lack of chapters and more critically the lack of full stops would seem gimmicky and contrived. In practice though I found the rhythm of the text had a sonorous flow to it. It was smooth to read and felt like a river of thought and experience. A river full of eddies, small diversions and strong undercurrents barely visible on the surface. The style is unusual, but it works.

Both times I read Portrait I read it straight through on a single sitting. Each Peirene title is designed to be capable of being read in that way. Here though I think it’s actually important to do so. This is a short work of 117 pages and its structure is such that interruptions would break that flow I spoke of above. I would strongly recommend that anyone tempted to read this put aside a couple of hours in which to do so. The paragraph structure intentionally avoids any breaks in the narrative. Imposing breaks from outside would damage it and I suspect reduce the impact considerably.

I’ve read all three of Peirene’s 2010 titles. Stone in a Landslide is here and Beside the Sea here. Comparisons between different authors from different countries are both pointless and a bit absurd, but so by and large is life so I’m going to make some anyway.

This is my favourite Peirene title to date. It’s the first I’ve read twice (though I’ve kept all of them as they all bear rereading) and I thought both in terms of style and content it really stood out. It’s a deceptively quiet work which is both highly particular (Nazism) but with wider resonance (how good people can help evil prosper). I’ve taken out a subscription to Peirene’s 2011 titles and given the quality of 2010’s offering I’m very much looking forward to them.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman. After writing this (thankfully after, or I’d have wondered what was left to say) I found several other reviews which may be of interest. Kimbofo’s is here. Andrew Blackman’s is here. Lizzy’s Literary Life’s is here. The Fiction Desk’s is here. Finally, Nicholas Lezard of the Guardian’s is here.

Just as I was about to press publish on this entry I saw that my copy of Peirene Title No. 4 had arrived. It’s Next World Novella, by Matthias Politycki and translated by Anthea Bell. I can’t wait.

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Filed under Delius, Friedrich Christian, German, Novellas

At that very time Paris was the scene of the most heinous atrocities

E.T.A. Hoffman’s Mademoiselle de Scudéri is the earliest Western detective story that I’m aware of. Like many people I’d thought that honour went to Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. Like many people, I was wrong.

Mademoiselle de Scudéri was published in 1819, 22 years before Poe’s famous short story. It features an elderly amateur detective, overzealous police so certain of their theory of the crime that they risk a miscarriage of justice, and a series of apparently inexplicable murders. We’re in definite Christie territory here.

I heard about the book from Guy Savage’s blog His Futile Preoccupations. He described it here as interesting but disappointing. That was a good warning to have, because I was interested but knowing upfront that it wasn’t a novel to inspire love meant that I wasn’t disappointed.

So, what’s it about? Seventeenth Century Paris is recovering from an epidemic of poisonings. A special tribunal located in the Place de Grève has brought the culprits to justice, but using brutal methods. Paris is awash with paranoia and increasingly it’s the tribunal itself that people are frightened of. All this by the way is pretty much historically accurate.

Against this backdrop a new wave of terror emerges.

While the blood of the guilty and the merely suspect flowed in streams on the Place de Grève, and the poisonings finally became less and less frequent, a scourge of another sort appeared, spreading renewed consternation. A gang of thieves seemed determined to get its hands on all the jewels in town. No sooner had a piece of rich jewellery been bought than it mysteriously disappeared, however well it was guarded. But what was much more terrible, anyone who dared to carry jewels in the evening was robbed or even murdered on the open street or in the dark corridors of houses. Those who managed to escape with their lives testified that the blow of a fist to their heads had struck them down like a thunderbolt, and once they came round, they found they had been robbed, and were lying in a quite different place from where they had been struck.

The murder victims are all killed with a single dagger blow to the heart. The killer or killers show an almost supernatural knowledge of when men are going to meet their lovers and all too often those men never arrive or are found dead by their mistress’s house the next morning. Rumours of necromancy and black magic abound, and when a leading policeman nearly captures one of the gang only to see him disappear into an apparently solid wall the population are convinced that the criminals have the aid of Satan himself. The gang are nicknamed The Invisibles and all Paris is afraid of them (all wealthy Paris anyway, the two are often treated as if the same thing in this novel).

The tribunal ask for additional powers, the king comes near to granting them, but a short poem of Mademoiselle de Scudéri’s persuades him not to and soon after she is horrified to receive a glittering jewellery set and a letter from The Invisibles thanking her for protecting them. Her intent was just to protect the innocent from the excesses of the tribunal, but now she is involved.

I won’t recount the entire plot, so far we’re only around 20 pages or so in, but naturally the police arrest a suspect and naturally Mademoiselle de Scudéri suspects he may be innocent and that a miscarriage of justice is about to occur. Only she can see that truth, justice and good can prevail over deceit, tyranny and evil.

And if that last sentence sounded a little melodramatic then welcome to Mademoiselle de Scudéri. It’s German romantic literature. It is melodramatic. The noble of birth tend to nobility of character. Goodness within is reflected in beauty without, evil is generally reflected in ugliness. To be a lover is to be innocent.

Or perhaps not. There are subtexts here which suggest things may not be so clear. There are elements of the book I can’t discuss without spoilers but it is fair to say there are darker undercurrents. Paris may be a city of love but it’s also a city of superstition. Mademoiselle de Scudéri may seem to be proven predictably right but it’s not quite that simple. Evil is insidious and part of its power is to make us doubt that which used to seem so certain.

Mademoiselle de Scudéri is part of Hesperus Press’s “100 Pages” series of short classic novels. It’s a quick afternoon’s read, better yet a quick evening’s read since although it’s not a ghost story it’s best read as if it were one – when it’s dark and the normal world seems a little removed. It’s very much of its time and it’s literary tradition and so I’d also suggest being prepared for a lot of high emotion. By way of example here’s the police’s chief suspect, Olivier, telling his side of events to the good Mademoiselle:

Olivier was too disconsolate to speak. He buried his head in his hands and shook with sobs. Finally, forcing himself to fight down the wild grief that had gripped him, he continued his story.

Half the conversations in the book take place through tears. Characters swoon a lot too. Some may exclaim. It’s that sort of novel. In a longer work it would get irritating but at this length it’s bearable enough. The plot bears no real scrutiny and depends on the police missing a really pretty obvious connection between all the crimes; the characters are thin; the true culprit is obvious and the explanation for the seeming guilt of the accused man frankly a touch preposterous but then it is the first Western detective novel. These are all accusations one could throw at a lot of its spiritual descendants.

Guy ended his review saying that he was sure there were plenty of people who would love this story, but that he didn’t. I’m glad I read it. I found it genuinely interesting as a period piece and as an example of a body of literature (German romantic) that I don’t know that well, but I didn’t love it either. That’s ok, I didn’t expect to. At the end of the day Mademoiselle de Scudéri is a crowd pleaser and I don’t think it’s aiming to be great literature. I think it’s aiming to be just what it is, an entertainment that amuses for a few hours and that tells a good story that raises a few questions in the reader but not too many to be uncomfortable.

Mademoiselle de Scudéri. The Hesperus edition comes with an interesting foreword by Gilbert Adair and a fascinating introduction by the translator, Andrew Brown, which explores the darker ambiguities of the novel to very good effect. Despite my reservations it’s of obvious interest for anyone interested in the roots of the crime genre and is exactly the sort of thing I look at houses like Hesperus to be publishing.

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Filed under 19th Century, Brown, Andrew (translator), Central European fiction, Crime, German, Hoffmann, E.T.A., Novellas, Romantic Literature

… floating on a sea of milk and honey

Memoirs of a good-for-nothing, by Joseph von Eichendorff

Memoirs of a good-for-nothing is one of the most charming books I’ve read in ages. Written back in 1826, it’s the story of how an amiable idiot goes out to seek his fortune but instead finds love and adventure, without ever understanding anything that’s going on around him.

The novella opens with our hero waking up to his father’s complaints that once again he’s been sleeping while others worked, that he’s a good-for-nothing and should go out and earn his own living.

“So I’m a good-for-nothing, eh?” I retorted. “All right, then. I’ll go off and seek my fortune.”
The idea was indeed very much to my liking. In autumn and winter the yellowhammer used to sing a lament outside our window: “Farmer, please hire me! Farmer, please hire me!” But a short time ago I had seen him sitting proudly on top of the tree, singing his merry springtime song: “Farmer, keep your work!” – and this had given me the idea of making for the open road.

So he heads off down that road, singing and playing his fiddle. Before too long he meets two beautiful ladies, countesses it seems, who enjoy his happy folksong and invite him to join them in their carriage bound for Vienna – or more precisely to a palatial country estate just near Vienna.

The estate’s a confusing place, for our young man is fresh from a village and knows nothing of domestic servants or the doings of the nobility, but no matter, for he has fallen in love with the younger of the two ladies he just met and besides in no small time he has a job as an assistant gardener and then as tollkeeper to the estate – a position of some responsibility, even if largely his duties involve smoking a pipe and sitting outside in a particularly lurid dressing gown. Once he’s pulled up the vegetables in the tollhouse garden and planted flowers in their place, well, if it wasn’t for the difficulty of seeing his love (their stations are very different) he’d be a happy man.

But then, he’s almost always a happy man anyway. Our hero is prone to bursting into song on seeing a pretty view, plays his fiddle at the slightest provocation (or just for the sheer enjoyment of it), he jumps for joy when he has a happy thought, and he has a lot of happy thoughts. When sadness strikes him, or anger, it’s like a summer squall of rain, soon past. He cries bitter tears more than once in his journeys, but his heart is an optimistic one and he’s never sad for long.

And that, in a nutshell, is what makes this such a likeable book. The protagonist is incredibly naive, and none too bright, but he’s good natured and well meaning and I found him impossible to dislike. There’s such an overabundance of joy in this novel, sheer joy of life, in art and music, in love and in the German and Austrian countryside and its beauties, it’s a story free of cynicism and that’s no common thing.

Of course, life as a tollkeeper is not the end of our hero’s travels. Soon, believing his love’s heart belongs to another, he leaves for Italy with two itinerant painters, spends time in a remote mountain castle staffed with people he has no common language with but who seem to be expecting him, visits Rome where he has various adventures and generally gads about the place. He’s chased by a mysterious hunchback, his companions are stolen from him, all manner of incident occurs, none of which he has the remotest clue about.

I journeyed onwards day and night without rest. I had no time to collect my thoughts, for wherever we stopped, fresh horses were waiting ready harnessed; moreover I could not speak to the people, and my gesticulations served little purpose. Sometimes, when I was in the middle of an excellent meal at an inn, the postillion would blow his horn and I had to drop my knife and fork and jump back in the coach, without having the slightest notion where I was supposed to be going at such breakneck speed, or why.

There’s an air of Shakespearean comedy to much of this work. Our hero is pursued by people, but it’s wholly unclear for most of the book why, or even if they’re after the right man, and although he finds some of them frightening in truth none of them really seem all that menacing. Our hero isn’t a man prone to questions, or reflection for that matter, and for a good chunk of the novella he can’t speak the local language anyway, so though it’s obvious something’s going on it’s not until the end it’s terribly clear what (and I don’t think he ever really works it all out).

It doesn’t matter though, because Germany and Austria are beautiful, because a wandering man with a fiddle can cause a whole village to leap up and start dancing, and because whatever’s going on our hero is guided by love and by desire for adventure and he’s basically a good person. And this is not a story in which bad things happen to good people.

Much of Memoirs is very funny. The hero has a habit of falling asleep whenever nothing much seems to be going on, leading to him missing out on quite a lot that happens. His misunderstandings lead to bizarre and comical situations, and his own emotions are so changeable that at any moment he can plunge from joy to despair and back again. There’s also some wonderful set pieces. Here he’s in Rome, and encounters a parrot in an open window above him:

Then I tried to start up a conversation with the parrot, for it gave me great pleasure to watch him clamber up and own in his gilt cage and perform all manner of contortions, in the course of which he always contrived to trip over his big toe.
Suddenly he shouted “Furfante!”* at me, and even though he was only a stupid animal, this annoyed me. So I called him an insulting name in return, and we both got angry; the more I insulted him in German, the more he shrieked away in Italian.

There’s an equally marvellous sequence where, as he enjoys a secluded mountaintop view, a group of musicians creep up behind and strike up their instruments believing him to be an English nobleman on the Grand Tour and hoping to earn some money from him. The image of young English lords being surprised by lurking bands of mountaintop musicians was one I just couldn’t resist.

More seriously, it’s a work of German romanticism (a genre I know a bit, but not well). There’s a well written introduction by the translator, Ronald Taylor, where he writes that the essence of German romanticism is a Holy Trinity of Nature, Love and Art and their connection with the soul of the German people. The novel’s a paean of love to Germany, to the German nation, and while naturally it’s hard for a modern reader to read of German “national spirit” without unfortunate connotations creeping in, that’s not really von Eichendorff’s fault.

Memoirs makes a marvellous counterpoint to The Black Spider, both are nineteenth Century pastoral novels and both I think come from a common cultural tradition, but where one is a dark tale of divine retribution the other is an idyll in which good is rewarded and nobody is really very evil. It’s also a tremendous corrective. If you’re finding yourself bogged down in a literary great which is heavy going, or depressed by a tale of unusual bleakness or cynicism, then Memoirs is as bright a contrast as you might wish for.

It’s taken me a while to warm to Oneworld Classics, with my reading this year though I’m seeing how they live up to their title. It’s marvellous to see these works being translated, German classics, Italian ones, a wealth of European literature that has tended to be obscure to English speaking readers – and like The Black Spider this is a fresh and enjoyable translation. Couple all that with good paper and print and attractive covers, and I expect to be reading more of them as the year goes on.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Memoirs is full of folksongs, Eichendorff was primarily a poet and lyricist. I’ve not quoted those songs here, for reasons of space, but one of von Eichendorff’s poems (not from this book) can be found here, with different translations of it being set side by side. Interesting stuff.

Memoirs of a good-for-nothing

*Scoundrel. The endnote is in the original.

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Filed under 19th Century, Central European fiction, German, Novellas, Picaresque, Romantic Literature, von Eichendorff, Joseph

It is so very easy to deceive children

Burning Secret, by Stefan Zweig

Burning Secret is a 1913 novella by Stefan Zweig. It’s the first Zweig I’ve read, and it’s brilliant.

Secret is the story of essentially three characters. There is the baron, never named, a suave young man who amuses himself by seducing women and is rather good at it; Edgar, a bookish twelve-year old who is recovering from an illness; and Edgar’s mama, a woman no longer quite as young as she was but not yet so old as to have put all thought of adventure behind her.

All three are at a mountain spa, the mother accompanying Edgar, the Baron for relaxation. Unfortunately for the baron, he has arrived at the wrong time of year, his friends are absent, and so he has to make his own entertainment. He decides to do so by seducing Edgar’s mama, and his chosen route to conquest lies through Edgar himself. Befriend the boy, and wait for him to make the necessary introductions.

Soon, to Edgar’s delight and confusion, this polished and urbane nobleman is acting as if nothing could give him greater pleasure than to pass his time in the company of a lonely young boy. Edgar is entranced, the baron’s scheme is set in motion:

He had found his go-between. Now, he knew, the child would pester his mother to the point of exhaustion with his stories, repeating every single word – and he remembered, complacently, how cleverly he had woven a few compliments intended for her into the conversation, always speaking of Edgar’s “beautiful mama”. He was certain that his talkative friend wouldn’t rest until he had brought his friend and his mother together. He didn’t have to lift a finger to decrease the distance between himself and the fair unknown, he could dream happily now as he looked at the landscape, for he knew that a pair of hot, childish hands was building him a bridge to her heart.

The baron’s plan, naturally, works and before long Edgar has forged an introduction. Having done so, Edgar himself of course becomes redundant, the baron only has so much appetite after all for spending his days with a child. Quickly, although he has done nothing wrong he can think of, Edgar finds that his marvellous new friend seems no longer to have any interest in him. Worse, it seems his mama has stolen his friend from him, sharing some secret with the baron that neither of them are willing to let him into.

Where Burning Secret truly shines is in its psychological nuance and accuracy. The baron is merely bored, a man about town with no town to go about in. He feels some small guilt when he realises how much he has hurt Edgar, but he is a man focused on his own desires and his concern does not detain him long.

Edgar’s mother by contrast is aware of her own fading youth:

…at that crucial age when a woman begins to regret having stayed faithful to a husband she never really loved, when the glowing sunset colours of her beauty offer her one last, urgent choice between maternal and feminine love.

What is not dwelt on, but clear, is that she is also of quite a different class to the baron, a bourgois who speaks in French to her child though she doesn’t command the language sufficiently to converse in it at any length. The baron is younger than her, better travelled, aristocratic. For a woman open to a last chance of adventure, he’s a dangerous and seductive lure.

And, of course, Edgar. Edgar is at twelve on the cusp of adolescence, moving from the certainties of childhood to the ambiguities of adult life. He has not yet moved far, but there is an irrevocability even to the small steps he is here taking. When Edgar is described, words like hot and burning are constantly used, referring to his heart, his hands, his tears. Everything for him is absolute, passionate, intense. When he realises the adults are excluding him, he is not merely disappointed as an adult might be, he hates them with all his force:

So they’d got away from him after all, by means of a lie as mean as it was vile. He had known since yesterday that his mother told lies, but the idea that she could be shameless enough to break a downright promise destroyed the very last of his trust in her. He didn’t understand anything at all about life, not now he knew that the words he thought had reality behind them were just bright bubbles, swelling with air and then bursting, leaving nothing behind. What kind of terrible secret was it that drove grown-up people so far as to lie to him, a child, stealing away from him like thieves?

He had a secret of his own now. Its name was hatred, boundless hatred for both of them.

As the novella progresses, Edgar decides to revenge himself on the adults, accompanying them at all times, speaking about his papa (he doesn’t know why it disturbs them, but notes that it does), disrupting their plans with his presence and his scrupulous yet truculent obedience. To their frustration, he does nothing that would give an excuse to punish him or send him away to his room. They become his prisoner, but the dynamic between the three keeps shifting, they understand and can counter each other’s actions, but none of them understand the other’s motives.

For Edgar, those motives are particularly obscure. The adults have a burning secret, something between them so momentous that they will lie to children over it, meet in secret, behave incomprehensibly. When the baron tries to lure Edgar’s mama down to a secluded part of the woods, Edgar wonders if he intends to kidnap her, but instinctively it seems to him that’s not quite right. He knows the baron has some other purpose, and that if could but comprehend the burning secret of that purpose the doors of the adult world would forever be opened to him.

Of course, he’s quite correct. The fire that motivates the adults is one he is as yet untouched by, he can’t understand it because he doesn’t yet feel it. Part of his fury is his knowledge that his own lack of comprehension means he is still a child, as long as he doesn’t understand the burning secret, he can’t be considered grown up.

Burning Secret is brilliant. Superbly well written, filled with nuance regarding age, class, intensity of emotion (to the baron it’s all a mere diversion, to the mother a last opportunity, to Edgar it’s his whole existence if only for a brief while). Among all this Zweig manages to bring the setting to precise life (what is it with German speaking authors and mountain sanitaria by the way? They seem very fond of them), and he packs it all in to less than 120 pages. I’d heard Zweig’s reputation, I’ve been missing out though on not starting to read him sooner.

Burning Secret (along with most Zweig’s), has received a fair bit of attention from the blogosphere. Dovegreyreader covers it here, Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life here, Tom Cunliffe of A Common Reader here and Nicholas Lezard of the Guardian writes about it here. Bizzarely, John Self of The Asylum hasn’t written about it, though he has seven other Zweig’s. Clearly I’ll have to buy him a copy for his birthday sometime…

Burning Secret is published by the ever reliable Pushkin Press. It’s in their small, gem, format and is as ever physically a pleasure to hold and read. The translation is by Anthea Bell, and while I can’t comment on its faithfulness to the origiinal (and there’s big questions of course as to what it means to be a faithful translation) it flows smoothly and I’d consider her name on other books a definite bonus.

On a final note, I’ve mentioned before on this blog writers whose lives were cut short by the Nazis, Zweig is another of them. He and his wife committed suicide in 1942, despairing as did so many others that the Europe they loved was being lost to barbarism. Pushkin Press has brought writers back into the light who we could easily have lost in the English speaking world, and I continue to be grateful that they do so.

Burning Secret

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian fiction, Bell, Anthea (translator), Central European fiction, German, Novellas, Zweig, Stefan

Dying

Dying, by Arthur Schnitzler

I’ve read two Arthur Schnitzler’s now, first his 1924 novella Fraülein Else and now his earlier 1895 novella Dying. Having read both, I’ve become something of a fan.

I wrote up Fraülein Else here, it is an extraordinary novella that pulls off the difficult trick of being written entirely in the form of a teenage girl’s stream of consciousness when she is faced with a terrible dilemma. It’s a remarkable book. Dying, written 29 years earlier, for me doesn’t have quite the sheer wow factor Fraülein Else did (which was partly a result of the sheer technical skill that later work showed), but it too is remarkable.

Dying is the story of two lovers, Felix and Marie, both young and both passionate about each other. As it opens, Marie is meeting Felix for the evening and finds him distracted and upset, he reveals that he has been diagnosed as having less than a year to live, that he will in fact be dead by next Spring. Marie, devastated, swears to die with him, a promise that will become less romantic and more burdensome as the year continues. Will she keep to her promise, will he hold her to it? Those questions add drama throughout, but the real tension comes from the ebb and flow of emotions, the strains Felix’s approaching death puts upon them, the sheer horror of their situation.

Here, Felix tries to get Marie to understand his news, the reality of his situation:

“I know it’s hard to believe, darling. At this moment I don’t believe it myself. It’s hard to grasp, isn’t it? Just think, here I am walking along beside you, speaking words out loud, words that you can hear, and in a year I’ll be lying cold in the ground, perhaps already rotting away.”
“Stop it, stop it!”
“And you’ll look as you do now. Just as you look now, perhaps still a little pale from weeping, but then another evening will come, and many more, and summer and autumn and winter, and another spring – and then I’ll have been dead and cold for a year – what’s the matter?”
She was weeping bitterly. Her tears ran over her cheeks and down her throat.
A despairing smile passed over his face, and he whispered through his teeth, hoarsely, harshly, “I’m sorry.”

At the outset, Felix sets out to be stoical, resigned, philosophical about his fate. He intends to leave a will that will be a “quiet, smiling farewell to the world over which he had triumphed.” Triumphed, because he believes that by the end he will have learned to despise it, to have become detached, to accept the inevitable with an equanimity which the common run of man never achieves.

At the outset, of course, death is still a year away and his health still good.

As the novella continues, Marie tries to bolster Felix’s spirits, and to deny the facts of the situation. She looks desperately for each of his better days, hailing it as the start of a recovery and downplaying the days where he is weaker. She seizes on any sign of hope. Felix himself tries to disdain hope, to face up to the facts, but even so fear smuggles hope in however much he knows it no longer has any place in his life.

Much of the novella deals in the play of the pair’s emotions: Marie’s desire to sacrifice herself to ensuring Felix’s survival, her fears for him, her growing concern that he may hold her to her promise and her own shame that she might not wish to be held to it, her increasing wish to just go outside and live; Felix’s desire to die with pride and dignity, to die in accordance with his sense of himself as a sophisticated and cultured man, his increasing dependence on Marie, his jealousy of her continuing health, his growing resentment of how much he must rely on her and most of all his raw anger that she will outlive him so that her mere presence becomes a constant reminder of his own extinction. Felix’s attitude to death changes as it comes nearer, it is one thing to be phlegmatic when oblivion is yet a year away, as it grows closer however the terror becomes overwhelming:

“I’ll tell you straight out, people falsify the psychology of the dying, because all the great figures of world history of whose deaths we know anything felt duty-bound to put on an act for posterity. And what about me? What am I doing? If I talk calmly to you about all kinds of things that are no longer anything to do with me, what exactly am I doing?”

“I too feel in duty bound to pretend, whereas in reality I’m prey to a boundless, raging fear of a kind that healthy people can’t imagine. They’re all afraid, and that includes the heroes and the philosophers, only they make the best play-actors.”

Part of the sheer power of this novella is its portrait of the fear of death. Not just the natural and general fear that most of us have as a matter of course, few of us want to die. Rather, Schnitzler shows the specific yet inchoate fear of death held by those for whom it is no longer an abstract, no longer something to happen on some distant future day, those for whom it is now to come within the foreseeable future.

Also powerful is the increasing hopelessness Felix feels, the pointlessness. Felix is a writer, but why write when he will likely never finish what he is writing? Why read the news, when he will not be there to see how it turns out? As he comes to question, if you are dying, why do anything at all?

As time continues, everything becomes a mockery: an evening concert is a reminder that those attending will continue while Felix will not; an evening stroll is filled with crowds of the oblivious living: and as Felix’s health declines Marie of course remains a vibrant and healthy young woman, with her own desires however she may try to suppress them:

I shan’t of course speak to how it resolves, to what choices are made at the end or their outcomes, but it is no spoiler to say that as time continues the pair go through the full gamut of emotion, including of course for Marie the (to her) shameful desire to live again, to go out and dance and see crowds and not to spend her days ministering at a sickbed. At the same time, Marie is sick with grief, worn down literally by care:

She felt miserable, unutterably miserable. She would have liked to shed tears, but her emotion had something dry and withered about it. There was no comfort to be found anywhere, even in her own pain. And she envied him, for the tears flowing down his cheeks.

The novella captures brilliantly the guilt and conflict Marie feels, because she does love Felix, she does genuinely want to care for him, but it is a terrible burden and part of her cannot help but wish to have her life back, preferably with him but if that cannot be then without:

If only it were over! Yes, over! She no longer shrank from the idea, and those treacherous words that made hypocritical pity out of the most dreadful wish of all came to her mind. “If only he were at peace!”

Dying deals in issues which are genuinely painful. Felix and Marie’s predicament is a ghastly one, made all the worse for its credibility. It is in that sense not an easy read, though in quite another sense it is an effortless read being beautifully written and, in the Pushkin Press edition I enjoyed, being ably translated by Anthea Bell.

Dying has also been the subject of excellent writeups by John Self of the Asylum here and by Lizzy Siddal of Lizzy’s Literary Life here. Lizzy also wrote up Fraulein Else at that same link. Lizzy criticises Dying for “a tendency to melodrama in some places”, which is probably fair though I think it’s only a slight flaw. She notes too though that it is never maudlin, a point I firmly agree with.

For me, Dying was a remarkable work by a novelist with genuine insight into some of the most painful emotions any human being might ever have to experience, the loss of a loved one, the shame and guilt when love is not enough to make things better, our fear of letting each other down, our fear of losing each other, the anger and pettiness that gets between us, the horror of death, the unthinking joy of life.

Dying is a novel about a terminally ill Nineteenth century Viennese man, put like that it sounds a fairly unappealing read. Pushkin Press have though, as they’ve had with other titles, my thanks for putting this back into print as it’s a work that for all the specificity of its setting and characters is human and universal. I look forward to buying and reading more of Schnitzler’s work, and of his contemporaries, and I’m delighted that Pushkin Press is bringing these writers to our attention.

Dying

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Filed under 19th Century, Austro-Hungarian fiction, Bell, Anthea (translator), Central European fiction, German, Modernist fiction, Novellas, Personal canon, Schnitzler, Arthur

Jarmila

Ernst Weiss committed suicide in 1940 as German troops entered Paris, as Joseph Roth said in his extraordinary essay “The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind” (in which he specifically cited Weiss by name), another writer “burned by Germany”. Weiss, a friend of Stefan Zweig, was part of the flowering of late Austro-Hungarian literature that produced so much beauty in the first half of the last century. Beauty that the Nazis sought to destroy, silencing in the process a whole generation of writers.

Or so they hoped. In the English speaking world however, thanks in large part to the efforts of Pushkin Press, these writers are being returned to us and with them a literature which is as fine an example of what the written word is capable of as can be imagined.

Jarmila is a posthumously published novella, written by Ernst Weiss in 1937, and is a masterpiece of concision and style. Published in Germany in 1998, it is brought to us by Pushkin Press in a translation by Rebecca Morrison and Petra Howard-Wuerz which comes with a fascinating (and also translated) afterword by Peter Engel which sheds much light on the circumstances of the novella’s creation. The afterword also illuminates where one element of the novella is necessarily lost in translation – in German, the word for feather is apparently the same as the word for a spring, a fact that would lend some additional subtlety of symbolism to the German that the English cannot capture. It is an excellent translation, in an imprint fully up to Pushkin’s usual high standards, and a pleasure to hold and to read.

All that said, what is Jarmila? In short, it is a melodrama, a tale of how a village watchmaker falls in love with the beautiful young wife of a rich but elderly feather merchant, of their affair and of its consequences. Coupled with this is a framing device in which a businessman who has come to Prague to purchase “thirty tons of average grade Bohemian apples” carries with him a faulty watch that he bought at the last minute, having accidentally left his own at home. The watch acts as introduction to the watchmaker, now a toymaker, and so as a mechanism through which the narrator hears the story of the watchmaker and of Jarmila herself.

Jarmila, a woman with “Breasts like Bohemian apples”, is first described plucking a goose for its feathers:

She clenched the thrashing goose between her firm young thighs with her skirts stretched tight and tore at it.

For the goose, read the watchmaker-cum-toymaker, a handsome young man, but poor. He loves Jarmila, engages in a passionate affair with her meeting her in the barn in which the merchant grades his goose feathers, fathers a child on her and urges her to leave the merchant and come with him to New York.

Jarmila will have none of it, as becomes quickly clear, she is all too happy enjoying passion with the watchmaker and fortune and position with her cuckolded husband. The watchmaker loves Jarmila, but it is far from clear if she loves anyone at all. She is, essentially, evil. A creature of beauty, but not of compassion, intent on her own best interests, utterly selfish (I did say it was a melodrama).

The watchmaker’s campaign to win Jarmila away from her husband, to win the right to raise his own son, and the husband’s retaliation, form the meat of the plot. The plot, however, is not the point.

Instead, the point in Jarmila is the structure of the tale itself. Jarmila is an essentially fractal work, with each part of it containing in miniature the whole. Elements occur and recur, the watch is faulty because its spring is broken, a theme which manifests more than once in the novella. Jarmila is married to a feather dealer, feathers (like springs) act as a motif through the entire work, the toymaker rips the feathers of the chest of a toy bird just as Jarmila plucks the feathers of geese and just as she rips the heart out of the watchmaker. Everything is significant, no remark lacks connection to the broader story.

Put another way, and to coin an observation I sincerely doubt is original in respect of this tale, Jarmila is constructed as if it were a watch mechanism itself. It is intricately detailed, every part is fitted precisely to every other. Every part functions in conjunction with every other. Nothing in its structure is accidental, everything is subject to the minutest craftsmanship. The central element of the tale, the broken watch, is a symbol of the tale itself.

Weiss’s prose is a pleasure to read, light yet dense, it is easy to race through the novella but reflection reveals layer after layer of interconnected symbolism, much of which I have chosen not to touch on here as to do so would result in a a blog entry longer than the work itself. Like many of the best novellas, it unpacks in the mind after completion, significance becoming apparent in what at first appeared to be mere incident. It is a work I look forward to rereading, as having read the whole I will be in a much better position to appreciate the individual elements as they arise.

Not everything, however, is weighted in symbol. Sometimes Weiss simply shows us his gift for description and indulges his own love for a country he was at the time of writing permanently himself an exile from (and it is no accident that a sense of doom, of the impossibility of escape and the impermeability of borders suffuses the novella). Here, our unnamed narrator buys his dinner on arrival in Prague, in a passage that is almost a love letter to the city’s cuisine:

I sat down in an empty corner and ordered beer and Prague ham. I planned to leave the following day – but not before having sampled the ham. I couldn’t make myself understood to the waitress. The toy trader, who’d been watching this whole time with his uneven, steely-grey eyes, came to my aid; his German was not without flaws, but fluent. There was a choice of ham dishes on the menu served raw or smoked, warm or cold, with horse-radish or gherkins, cooked in wine or with noodles baked in the oven, or even as an omelette filling, with macaroni, or garnished with pickles, and so on. I wasn’t really hungry and ordered without paying attention. In fact, I rather would have liked to invited the toy trader to join me for a glass of beer. There were three kinds, the first a light, wheat colour, then a brown one, the last thick, heavy, and almost black. When I was young wet-nurses were given black beer like this to increase their milk flow. Was it sweet, or rather bitter like English stout? Who could I ask?

But soon after, the narrator comments on the toymaker’s hands, which themselves then become another recurring element, another fragment in which the whole is reflected. In a work this tightly structured, we are rarely far away from greater meaning.

Jarmila succeeds because of the sheer skill of its craftsmanship, it doesn’t matter that the tale itself is trite, indeed it would be a distraction were it not. The point is an inescapable clockwork mechanism, which unwinds towards its conclusion with bleakly inevitable precision, beautifully and unerringly. Jarmila is a work by a writer at the peak of his talents, it amply deserved publication and although it is a tragedy it did not receive such in Weiss’s lifetime, Pushkin Press has my thanks for seeing that it did in mine.

Jarmila

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian fiction, Central European fiction, Czech fiction, German, Novellas, Weiss, Ernst

The air is like champagne

Fraülein Else, by Arthur Schnitzler

Fraülein Else is a 1924 novella by Austro-Hungarian author Arthur Schnitzler, now perhaps most famous for writing the work that would eventually become Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut.

But let’s not hold that against him (actually, I think highly of Eyes Wide Shut, but popular opinion has I think moved against me on that one), Fraülein Else is a complex psychological novella written almost entirely in the form of the stream of consciousness of a young woman of respectable family staying with her aunt at a fashionable spa. In just over a hundred pages (and small pages at that) it manages to be as gripping as many thrillers, while having much to say about sexuality, the brutal realities underpinning polite society and loss of innocence (or worse, realisation that innocence was only ever a comfortable illusion).

I read the excellent F.H. Lyon translation of Fraülein Else, published by Pushkin Press. For those unfamiliar with them, Pushkin Press is a publisher of literary fiction with particular strengths in European literature (especially, from what I have seen, mitteleuropean literature). My wife, Emma, has read a number of works published by Pushkin Press and the general quality of their choices is very high. The books are published on a smaller than usual format, clearly printed on high quality paper, and although paperback with slightly stiffish card covers. Physically, they are very attractive, easy to hold and a pleasure to read. Even if ebooks do become the norm, there will I think always be a place for books as well produced as the Pushkin range.

Going back to Fraülein Else, the essence of the story is a simple one. Else is a young woman of good but not aristocratic Viennese family, her father is a lawyer and a successful one, she is on holiday with her aunt and attractive cousin at a spa when she receives a telegram from her mother, informing her that her father faces ruin and that only 30,000 gulden can save him. Her father has already approached all those who have lent him money in the past, all that is left therefore is for Else to approach family acquaintance Herr von Dorsday who is also on holiday at the spa and ask him for the money.

We soon learn that Else’s family is not as good as it appears, her father has embezzled trust funds and this is not his first brush with possible ruin, he has needed saving before. Else has holes in her stockings that she hopes will not be noticed and, although it is clear until now she has avoided thinking too much on the subject, the telegram leaves her unable to avoid the truth that her family is not so respectable after all.

Else approaches Herr von Dorsday. In return for the money he requires that she pay an improper price. For the course of an evening Else thinks on whether or not to pay that price, and on what her alternatives may be.

And that, in its most simplistic essence, is the book. It is the stream of consciousness of a young woman, forced by family exigency to consider matters she would prefer not to and exposed to the truth that even in polite society the good manners on show merely conceal the reality that everything still has its price. Else’s innocence is lost merely by the fact of the request from her mother to approach Herr von Dorsday, his request simply cements her understanding of the crude nature of the world she inhabits, a world that until then had seemed much prettier.

The drama of the novel comes from Else’s consideration of what to do, for much of it I was genuinely uncertain how events would play out and there is a real tension as one watches her thoughts flow to acquiescence, to rebellion, to escapist fantasy, to acquiescence again and so on. More powerful though is the character of Else herself, beautifully realised (as it must be, for the novel to work at all). Schnitzel shows Else’s initial innocence, its later resurgence as she dreams of ways out of her dilemma, he shows too her new understanding of her world – which seems always to have been present but heretofore unacknowledged, her despair and her savage hope. Schnitzel paints a subtle and wholly persuasive psychological portrait which made me empathise with Else and be fascinated by her situation.

Because it’s essentially an unbroken stream of consciousness (though far easier to read than that suggests), it’s difficult to pull out particularly representative quotes. I’ve tried, with the following two passages, to give some sense though of Else’s internal monologue and the style of the work. In this first excerpt she has received the telegram and is considering how to approach Herr von Dorsday:

I must turn on the light. It’s getting chilly. Shut the window. Blind down? No need. There’s no one standing on the mountain over there with a telescope. Worse luck … ‘I’ve just had a letter, Herr von Dorsday’ … Perhaps it’ll be better to do it after dinner. One is in a lighter mood then. Dorsday will be too … I might drink a glass of wine first. But I should certainly enjoy my dinner more if I finished the whole business first. Pudding à la merveille, fromage et fruits divers. But what if Herr von Dorsday should say no? Or if he’s downright impudent? Oh no; no one has ever been impudent to me. Well, Lieutenant Brandel was, but he didn’t mean any harm. I’ve got a bit thinner again. It suits me … The twilight stares in. It stares in like a ghost – like a hundred ghosts. Ghosts are rising out of my meadow. How far off is Vienna? How long have I been away? How alone I am! I haven’t a girl friend, nor a man friend. Where are they all? Whom shall I marry? Who would marry a swindler’s daughter? …

In this second excerpt, Else is returning to the hotel after thinking matters over for some time:

He’s waiting. Herr von Dorsday is waiting. No, I won’t see him. I can’t see him any more. I won’t see anyone any more. I won’t go back to the hotel, I won’t go home. I won’t go to Vienna, I won’t go to anybody, to anyone at all, not to Father, not to Mother, not to Rudi, not to Fred, not to Bertha, not to Aunt Irene! She’s the best of them, she’d understand everything. But I’ve nothing more to do with her or with anybody else. If I were a magician, I’d be in quite another part of the world. On some splendid ship in the Mediterranean, but not alone. With Paul, perhaps. Yes, I can imagine that quite easily. Or I’d live in a villa by the sea and we’d lie on the marble steps that run down into the water, and he’d hold me tight in his arms and bite my lips, as Alfred did at the piano two years ago, the impudent wretch. No, I’d lie alone on the marble steps by the sea and wait. And at last a man would come, or several men, and I’d choose one, and the others whom I’d rejected would throw themselves into the sea in despair. Or they’d have to be patient and wait til next day. Oh, what a delicious life it would be!

Part of what impresses me here, is how easily Schnitzel captures Else’s immaturity, her flights of childish fancy, but intercuts them with her dawning realisation of her actual situation. Schnitzel is also excellent in a number of passages in bringing out Else’s own burgeoning sexuality, suppressed by societal dictat but by virtue of this situation brought (only part unwillingly) to the forefront of her mind.

Other characters in the work are seen largely through Else’s eyes, the few times Else speaks to someone during the evening it is presented in italics and rarely are the words of the conversation on their own very revealing. Despite this, Schnitzler manages to capture Else’s aunt’s concern for propriety, Herr von Dorsday’s self-interest,self-regard and essential hypocricy, the tension between Cissy Mohr – possible lover to Else’s cousin Paul – and Else herself. We see only through Else’s eyes, and she does not appear a particularly unreliable narrator, but because suddenly she sees much so too do we and the work is full of small psychological truths.

An irony with Fraülein Else, compared to other works I have written about here, is in one sense I have relatively little to say about it. It is well written, shows great insight and is both an enjoyable and rewarding read. Pushkin Press have, once again, brought to English readers a novelist whose works might otherwise go ignored, and certainly without them I wouldn’t have read this particular work. The plot however is so simple, the essential dilemma faced by Else so easily grasped, the truth of her society so depressingly familiar, that it is hard to write at length about it. I am left then saying that this is a fine piece of Austro-Hungarian literature of a sort too little now recognised, and that I am extremely grateful to Pushkin Press for publishing this translation and giving me access to it.

Fraülein Else (also available directly from the publisher here). I note that John Self over at Asylum has written up a different Arthur Schnitzel here, which may also be of interest.

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian fiction, Central European fiction, German, Modernist fiction, Novellas, Personal canon, Schnitzler, Arthur