#GermanLitMonth and #NovNov: Casanova’s Homecoming

Arthur Schnitzler: Casanovas Heimfahrt. This novella has been translated into English but is not easily available (you can get it via CreateSpace or second-hand). And yes, virtually all of my German Lit Month books are novellas, so that I can complete two challenges at once.

I read this a long, long time ago, in my teens, but when I reread it last week for #GermanLiteratureMonth, I realised that I had actually mistaken it for Mozart on the Road to Prague by Eduard Mörike (which I had also read before). So naturally, I was expecting a wistful meditation on art and mortality and instead got a much more insalubrious piece of work.

Yet I think there is far more about mortality and hubris in this novella than one might initially think, and it’s not coincidental that it was written at the end of the First World War, a war which reduced Austria from an empire to an insignificant landlocked country with an oversized capital city.

It’s 1778, Casanova is 53 and hanging about in Mantua, waiting for his home town of Venice to pardon him and allow him to return after a 25 year exile. He comes across an old friend, Olivo, whom he helped to get married 15-20 years ago, who is eager to invite him to his house. Olivo has done well for himself, he has three daughters, a thriving farm, and he seems happy and content. Everything that Casanova, for all of his past glory and adventures, is clearly not. He is aging, he has to rely more and more on his reputation or on the favours of older women, rather than being able to seduce whomsoever he chooses.

He is finally persuaded to visit Olivo’s estate, with the hidden thought that he might seduce his young niece Marcolina. However, the niece is a bluestocking, far more interested in her studies of mathematics than in this lecherous old man. Casanova suspects she is not quite as virginal as her aunt (somewhat infatuated with Casanova herself) makes her out to be, and she seems indeed to be in love with the dashing young soldier Lorenzi. Casanova recognises something of his own younger self in the charisma and insouciance of Lorenzi – so of course he hates him on sight and plans a diabolical trick to blackmail the soldier and seduce Marcolina.

So far, so typically Casanova, the man who cannot curb his sexual appetites (but of course imagines that he is in love with almost every woman he seduces). But there is more nuance here: for the profligate rake has started to worry about his legacy – in particular, he wants to write a polemical paper against Voltaire and wants to consult Marcolina about it – a first for him, to recognise a woman’s intelligence and ask for her opinion. Secondly, he is being invited back to Venice, but with a mission to spy on potential rebels and freethinkers, which angers and disgusts him.

Casanova is clearly at a turning point in his life, suffering a bit of an identity crisis. No longer rich, no longer sought after, the younger generation no longer know about his legendary deeds. There is one passage in which he almost regrets that he didn’t pursue anything in life seriously enough: he should have spent more time with writing and philosophy, he should not have wasted his talents as a financier or diplomat, but he threw it all away whenever a woman showed up. But he then realises that he doesn’t regret frittering away his time and energies on women – that he has lived his life like no one else. However, he only really seems to come alive when he starts talking about the past with his hosts (and often embellishing things – which may have given him the impulse to write his memoirs).

Just when you think that Casanova might be learning something in his old age, that he might be redeeming himself, he veers back onto the well-trodden path of vice, greed and selfishness. There is a particularly nasty thread there where he seduces the thirteen-year-old daughter of his host, simply because she happens to be there. Of course, he ends up accepting the job as an informer too.

A stroke of inspired casting here: Alain Delon as the aging Casanova in the 1992 film version.

Casanova’s memoirs were translated into German for the first time in 1913 and Schnitzler was fascinated by them. With a little help from Freud and other psychologists popular at the time, he saw Casanova as a narcissist who cannot really relate with the world, because the world itself does not interest him other than as an extension of himself, a place filled with people that he wants to dominate. Schnitzler also wrote a comedy about Casanova, entitled The Sisters or Casanova in Spa, which was not at all well received. I am unable to find any information about how this novella was received at the time – although I suspect that after Reigen, he was considered a controversial writer anyway.

Plays in March: Arthur Schnitzler vs. Noel Coward

I was going to call this attempt to read mainly theatrical works in March ‘Drama in March’, but in fact both Coward’s and Schnitzler’s plays reviewed in this post are considered comedies, although one might argue that they veer between farce and satire, with a good dose of sadness or anger as well. You’re not going to find out much about the plot of any of these, because… well, there is either too much of a plot, (too many characters and intrigues), or else nothing at all.

Arthur Schnitzler: Comedy of Seduction – Komödie der VerfĂŒhrung 1924

As if to really drive home the point, one of the plays even has the word ‘comedy’ in its title, just in case we might take it too seriously. Of course, given the Viennese propensity for finding darkness in even the cheeriest of subjects, it is obviously a tragicomedy, featuring betrayal, a couple of suicides and the outbreak of the First World War. Hilarious!

The action takes place between 1st of May and 1st of August 1914, and the rather large cast of characters are mostly aristocrats and wealthy bankers (or living off their family inheritance), or else artists – writers and musicians – who are moving in these circles but without having the same kind of wealth to splurge, therefore doomed to be hangers-on. As always with Schnitzler, the two main topics here are love and death, and the imminence of war turns this comedy of errors into something more profound. It starts off with a masked ball, so we instantly are transported to a Venice carnival atmosphere, or a Mozart opera of confused identities and easily switched love affairs and allegiances. There are seducers of either gender: philandering young Max, who cannot resist any woman he meets, and Aurelie, the duchess courted and coveted by most of the men in the play, but reluctant to get married to anyone.

Musil and Kafka both derided Schnitzler’s plays as being too superficial. It is true that this has all the charm and cheekiness of Watteau or Fragonard paintings, but beneath the frivolity, none of the characters are truly happy. They are all searching for something – for a connection to others, for true love, for their own identity, for something that they can’t quite articulate or find. Aurelie says at some point: ‘I fear it and yet I love it, to be alone again, between one joy and another, between one desire and another, between one death and another.’ Each of the characters ends up being terribly alone, often very sad. As for the suicidal gestures, it could be argued that it’s a metaphor for a society plunging into a large-scale form of suicide.

Not frequently performed, Im Spiel der Sommerlufte is here played by Junge Schauspiel Ensemble MĂŒnchen, 2009.

Schnitzler: Light Summer Air – Im Spiel der SommerlĂŒfte – 1929

This play is much slighter and frothier, although it was written just after his daughter’s suicide and was Schnitzler’s last finished play. The action is set a little further back in time, at the end of the 19th century, a more innocent time. It takes place over the course of two days in a holiday village in Lower Austria, a short train hop away from Vienna. A famous sculptor is holidaying here with his rather discontented wife, teenage son and his wife’s niece, an aspiring actress. The sculptor is a bit of a domestic tyrant and a serious philanderer – Schnitzler is perhaps making fun of himself here, for he certainly was not immune to the charm of actresses throughout his lifetime. There are ominous rumbles of thunder for most of the play, predicting a storm. When the storm comes, both literally and metaphorically, it gives people a momentary respite from politeness. Yet in the world depicted here, being honest and stating your true feelings are almost considered crimes. Wanting more in life and giving in to your desires in the mad heat of summer cannot lead to any lasting change. After the storm things seem to be somewhat resolved. however, any solution is only temporary or perhaps illusory. Things go back to their not entirely satisfactory everyday, and readers cannot help thinking that the naive schoolboy, the dashing young soldier, the dull but worthy young doctor will soon all end up as cannon fodder.

Noel Coward’s youthful plays Hay Fever (1925) and Easy Virtue (1926) are far less earnest. In fact, it is hard to believe they were written around the same time as Schnitzler’s plays, because they are all about escapism, with no hint at all of the war. Yet here too we have a good dose of satire. Under the veneer of charm and wealth, these are self-absorbed, privileged families who are careless about other people (even when those people are their guests). They are perfectly willing to trample on others to get their own way – or even for their own amusement. These are the utterly ruthless people that F. Scott Fitzgerald talked about in The Great Gatsby – all the more dangerous because they don’t even recognise that they are doing anything wrong. The matriarch Judith in Hay Fever, a retired actress, is so busy putting on a show for herself and others, that no one can figure out what is real anymore.

Picture from a Hay Fever revival at Stratford Festival, Ontario, 2014.

Coward was attracted by English high society, yet aware that he was never going to be fully accepted there: he was the wrong class and the wrong sexual orientation, no matter how talented and charming a social butterfly he was striving to become. In Easy Virtue in particular, he exposes the hypocrisy of a very stuffy upper middle-class family, when they find out that their beloved only son has married a glamorous American divorcĂ©e with a past (foreshadowing the affair that led to the abdication of Edward VIII, but also reminiscent of the whole current Meghan and Harry shenanigans). The fittingly-named Larita is initially bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but gradually loses her illusions and understands she will never be accepted by her husband’s family and that he isn’t strong enough to stand up for her. Larita is punished for being too open and honest, for responding to accusations and indignations in a cool, ironical way and refusing to be browbeaten.

These plays are nearly a hundred years old, but they don’t feel too dated, despite the lavish display of wealth and the servants putting up with the bad behaviour of their masters. Clearly, snobbishness, greediness, selfishness never go out of fashion!

Goodbye, November and Top Reads

Yes, yes, November is not quite over yet, but this will be a busy week and I’m not sure I’ll get another chance to write a blog post.

Goodreads seems to be in a bit of a meltdown, mysteriously ‘disappearing’ my read books as if they were protesters against a dictatorial regime. Nevertheless, they assure me that I am about 9 books over my challenge of 120 books read this year. Let’s hope that this is somewhat more credible than the ‘official state news’ of Romania’s ‘booming agricultural harvests’ of the early 1980s, spurred on by Ceausescu’s visits to the fields of wheat and barley.

I’ve been back to a good month of reading in November: 12 books, contributing to several challenges. 3 of those were in German, 2 in French, 5 books by women   6 by men and 1 an anthology containing both, 4 (possibly 5) crime fiction, 1 poetry, 2 short story collections, 1 non-fiction and 1 did-not-finish. I’m happy with the mix.

#1968Club:

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin – magical, poetic language and complex ideas

#GermLitMonth and #EU27Project:

Arthur Schnitzler: Late Fame

Zoran Drvenkar: Sorry

Thomas Willmann: Das finstere Tal (Dark Valley) – a mix of crime fiction, Western, historical fiction – very atmospheric indeed

Nobe Prize Winner (and dnf):

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled – very promising start but could have done with a good editor, too long and self-indulgent

November Masterclass Preparation

Kathleen Jamie: Sightlines – the world dissected with real love, charm and understanding

Kathleen Jamie: The Tree House (poetry) – understated and deceptively simple poetry leaving profound marks

Swiss Reads: (joint review to follow on the blog)

Max Lobe: La trinite bantoue

Alice Rivaz: Sans alcools

Crime fiction:

Murder on Christmas Eve anthology (coming up on CFL)

Ragnar Jonasson: Whiteout (coming up on CFL)

Flynn Berry: Under the Harrow

In other news:

I’m working on launching the Asymptote subscription book club, which will be a dream come true for lovers of translated fiction: a surprise book a month, from an independent publisher, curated by our team of editors based all around the world. The common feature? Outstanding quality of both the original and the translation. I know that’s going to be my Christmas present to myself (and it will last all of 2018 as well).

Arthur Schnitzler: Late Fame #GermanLitMonth

Arthur Schnitzler is both fortunate and unfortunate in being very closely identified with his home town of Vienna. On the one hand, it means that publishers and readers think they know what he stands for, but on the other hand it has meant that he doesn’t travel quite so well beyond its borders. I grew up with him as part of my upbringing in Vienna, but I was not surprised that his star went into decline abroad (like Stefan Zweig), because he doesn’t actually fit in that well with the clichĂ©s people have of Vienna as the city of wine, women and song.

Schnitzler never quite belonged to the stuffy bourgeoisie of the Ringstrassenpalais times (1870-80) although he was born into that world, with his father being a prominent doctor. However, his parents were of Jewish and Hungarian origins, so he probably was made to feel that he didn’t fit in quite 100%.  Nor was he quite the poor Bohemian living a ropey existence in the Depression era of the 1930s, like Joseph Roth. Yet he certainly pierced the gilded Jugendstil facades to show the agony and self-doubt underneath. In pre-WW1 Vienna, it was fashionable to be disenchanted and morose despite the high standard of living.  It was the last dying gasp of the great empire, much like the death throes of the Roman Empire: the time of decadence (Schnitzler was often accused of pornographic obsession), fetishes and neuroses. It was the time when the psychoanalysis of Freud and agonised silhouettes of Schiele coexisted with the luxurious, settled art of Gustav Klimt and the genteel debates of the well-established cafĂ© culture.

Schnitzler’s analysis goes deeper than fashion: he trained as a doctor himself and that enables him to understand psychology better than many others. He uses a fine scalpel to dissect emotions, as well as being an early innovator of stream of consciousness techniques. His prose is always limpid, clear, elegant, witty, yet with a certain easy colloquial charm and cadence that is typically Austrian – like characters from The Fledermaus. There is certainly something of the humour and lightness of that operetta in this novella SpĂ€ter Ruhm, with a strong dash of satire and piercing of egos.

Eduard Saxenberger is a mild elderly civil servant, quite content with his bachelor lifestyle and regular evenings out at the local pub. Back in his youth he had briefly flirted with poetry and even published a volume of poems, which sank without a trace. Until, that is, he receives a visit from a young poet, who is part of a literary circle who meets daily at one of the famous Viennese cafĂ©s. To his astonishment, Saxenberger discovers that these young (and not quite so young) writers venerate him on the basis of that rediscovered volume. He lets himself be seduced by the flattery and idealism of the group of artists and dares to hope for some late fame for himself… but, needless to say, he soon finds out that there is indeed such a thing as too late.

This is a merciless parody of wannabe writers and actors, and many critics believe that Schnitzler made quite sharp references to several of his contemporaries, such as Hugo von Hoffmansthal, Peter Altenberg, the actress Adele Sandrock but also himself. It also rings true of many writing groups you might have encountered, where egos are greater than actual output, where artists like to complain of being misunderstood by their contemporaries even though their art is mediocre.  There are some very funny statements such as, when trying to select which of Saxenberger’s poems might best fit the printed programme: ‘all lyrical poetry is about morning moods or evening moods… or night moods’. A joy to read, but tinged with melancholy – perhaps an awareness on the part of Schnitzler where he might have ended up if he hadn’t given up practising medicine. A warning to myself, as well!

Coffee house in Vienna.

This novella was recently rediscovered in his archives, which had been smuggled out of the country after his death during WW2 (when his published works were burnt by the Nazis).  He wrote it in the early 1890s, towards the beginning of his career, but was unwilling to cut it into 8 parts for serial publication in a magazine, so he put it in a drawer and forgot about it.  It’s amazing that a young writer was able to convey so well the discontent and loss of hope of an elderly writer.

As an aside, when Schnitzler was training to be a surgeon, he studied for a year in 1888 in London. His uncle and aunt lived in Honor Oak, and he himself lived in a boarding house in South Kensington. He was not that impressed with the rather dry English types he met in the boarding house, disliked the weather and complained about the lack of cafĂ©s and places to eat outside in London. He also remarked that nobody seemed to just go for a walk through town, everyone was just rushing to and fro – sounds familiar!

I’m linking this up to the wonderful initiative of German literature month. You can find many more reviews on this page.

Remember, Remember the Month of November…

… is German Lit Month!

When I wrote up the reading plans for November in my last post, it completely slipped my mind, so focused was I on #1968Club. Then I saw Tony Malone tweeting about it and I realised that of course I have to participate.  I have done so for the past few years and it’s always a pleasure to make a bit of an indent in my rather large pile of books in German.

I will be modest about how much I can read (and will probably have other things to review), so I will list a mere four:

Herta MĂŒller: Herztier

A group of friends try to stand up to Ceausescu’s regime in Romania, and end up being placed under surveillance. Can friendship and love survive when suspicions and betrayals become the norm? Can they escape all of that by moving abroad?

Arthur Schnitzler: SpÀter Ruhm

Schnitzler’s lost novella about an elderly man who finds literary success far too late in life.

Zoran Drevenkar: Sorry

Four young unemployed Berliners hit upon the idea to create a company which sells apologies—apologise, on a contract basis, for others’ misdeeds (firms laying off workers, managers abusing their employees etc.). But then one of their clients turns out to be a killer.

Thomas Willmann: Das finstere Tal

Heard this author talk about his debut novel in Lyon last year and could not resist it. A stranger comes to a remote mountain village, claiming to be a painter. The inhabitants are at first suspicious but are won over by his money. Then winter comes and the village is cut off from the rest of the world. And dead bodies start piling up.

But of course I am keeping my choices open: I might swerve and swoop on something else entirely from my shelves. Or even find new things in the library or in bookshops.

And on that note I just bought another book today which fits into this category. There was a historical research day and book fair at Senate House today and I couldn’t resist taking a peek and found Women in the Weimar Republic by Helen Boak, published by the University of Manchester. I don’t think it will replace my favourite book about women in Germany during the Nazi regime, but it promises to be interesting. Just look at that cover!

Of course, German Lit Month is to celebrate translations of books from German and not specifically books in German, and it also celebrates books from Austria and Switzerland, so do join in if you have anything suitable. And do check out the reviews that others will be posting on the site hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.

Six Degrees of Separation: From Shopgirl to…

Hosted each month by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, the Six Degrees of Separation meme picks a starting book for participants to go wherever it takes them in six more steps. This month’s starting point was suggested by Annabel.

Shopgirl by Steve Martin. I had no idea that comedian Steve Martin wrote novels, but apparently this one is a bit of a satire about life in LA, as well as a love story.

Lonely, depressed Vermont transplant Mirabelle Buttersfield, who sells expensive evening gloves nobody ever buys at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills and spends her evenings watching television with her two cats. She attempts to forge a relationship with middle-aged, womanizing, Seattle millionaire Ray Porter while being pursued by socially inept and unambitious slacker Jeremy.

So my second pick is purely picked for the title which sounds fairly similar. 1) Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic. I haven’t read this one either and I can think of nothing less likely for me to pick up, as I hated that whole Bridget Jones, Ally McBeal and ditzy single shopaholic chick scene which seemed so prevalent when I first started working in London in the late 1990s.

 

The third book is a bit of a leap, but bear with me… I’ll be taking you to 18th century Geneva and Paris, via the 2) Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is an extraordinarily honest autobiography of one of the greatest minds – but also one of the greatest narcissists – of the Century of Lights. Here he lays out and examines, without too much artifice, his weaknesses and blind spots, his triumphs and mistakes, his way of life often contradicting his principles (abandoning his children when he wrote so eloquently about children’s better nature and the importance of education).

The next choice is obvious, because Rousseau’s greatest rival at the time was 3) Voltaire. The two men started off by admiring each other’s work, but then disagreed on fundamental philosophical and moral issues and became arch-enemies. The turning point was the horrendous earthquake of Lisbon in 1755, when more than 60,000 people died. Rousseau said it should not make us doubt God’s kindness and that people brought it upon themselves by settling in cities with such dense populations. Voltaire was stunned by such heartlessness and produced in return the remarkable story of Candide, a young man whose naive optimism and belief in God is sorely tested by earthquakes, syphilis, the Inquisition, murder and banishment. Mindless optimism, Voltaire contends, is stupid, unsustainable, a crime almost.

The two geniuses also fought about establishing a theatre in Geneva (Voltaire was for it, Rousseau against), so my next link is theatrical, a play which is somewhat linked to Candide, in that it presents scenes of life which test our belief in optimism and love.

4) Arthur Schnitzler’s Reigen (aka Liebelei, aka La Ronde) made a profound impression on me at the age of 13, when I saw it performed on stage. It’s brief scenes of ten couples (one of the couple linking to the next, like a daisy chain) before, during and after love-making and it is incredibly revealing about class and lifestyle in decadent, pre-war Vienna.

Speaking of decadence and pre-war jitters, I’ve recently read 5) Christopher Isherwood’s Prater Violet, which also mentions Vienna, although it features the period before a different world war. This slim yet powerful work is brilliant at dissecting how world events are perceived by different people and cultures, depending on how safe you consider yourself to be. It is also a biting satire of the film industry and features a semi-fictional portrait of Isherwood as a hapless scriptwriter.

 

Clearly, my final link has to be the film industry and so we move to LA once more together with 6) Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde, a vivid, poignant, epic reimagining of the story of one of the most idolised yet summarily dismissed and underestimated women of the film world, Marilyn Monroe.

So my journey this month takes me from selling gloves in a department store in LA to becoming an iconic film star in the same city, via London, Geneva, Paris and Vienna. You can follow this meme on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees or create your own blog post. Where will your 6 degrees of separation journey take you?