Category Archives: Austro-Hungarian fiction

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