Late Fame by Arthur Schnitzler
Continuing with this month’s German theme, I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of this book from the lovely Pushkin Press (for which many thanks!); I’ve been keen to read Schnitzler for a while and I’m sure I have at least one book by him lurking somewhere. However, “Late Fame” sounded fascinating: a lost work of a famous author which survived hidden away in his archive. The archive itself had an intriguing history; Schnitzler died in 1931, and his literary legacy was stored in his son’s house in Vienna. When the Nazis forcibly took control of Austria in 1938, it was likely that the work would be destroyed, as Schnitzler’s books had been amongst those burned by the Nazis earlier in the decade. Fortunately, due to intervention by the British Consulate, the seal of the British Government was placed on the door of the archive, and thereafter it made its way by a tortuous route to the Cambridge University Library where it stayed hidden all those years.
Wikipedia has Schnitzler listed as simply “an Austrian author and playwright. He is considered one of the most important representatives of the Viennese Modernism.” But it goes on to note that much of his work was considered controversial for its frank sexual content, and that his books were labelled as “Jewish filth” by Hitler (hence the burning, presumably). Nothing like this is present in “Late Fame”, however, which tells the story of one Eduard Saxberger, a lowly and ageing civil service clerk. Unmarried and fairly solitary, he’s in the habit of spending his evenings in a local restaurant with locals he’s known for years, conversing and playing cards. However, one evening he returns home to find a young man waiting for him by the name of Meier. Meier declares he is a poet, and has come to pay homage to the forgotten author of “Wanderings” – for indeed, in his youth, Saxberger had published such a volume of poems, a fact he hasn’t thought about for many years.
Meier tells the bemused Saxberger that he and his friends (grouping themselves under the name of ‘Enthusiasm’) are all huge fans of “Wanderings” and as typical misunderstood artists they empathise with his plight. Saxberger hadn’t actually realised he had a plight, but as he begins to mix with the young people, he realises he has been neglected for too long. The young artists begin to plan a performance, at which Saxberger will perform a new work and all will be showered in glory. However, things are not necessarily that straightforward: How will Saxberger be received by new generations of audiences? Is the work of the young poets really as incomprehensible as it seems to him? What will his old friends think of his new status as a famous poet? What do his new young friends *really* think of “Wanderings”? And most importantly of all, can Saxberger still write poetry?
“Late Fame” is quite fascinating; not only is it a devastating satire of the untalented artist, convinced he’s misunderstood by the world and that everyone else is a failure, but it also deals with the effect of false flattery on a simple nature. Saxberger *is* a simple man; used to spending his time with his restaurant friends, he’s seduced by the illusion of fame, convincing himself that his real life should have been as a famous poet and not an ordinary man. Fortunately, he’s grounded enough to recognise the illusion in time and step back into his own world, something that the younger people won’t be able to do, and Schnitzler lets him off lightly. As one of his friends sensibly points out, all young men of the time tried their hands at poetry, but once they outgrew this tendency they went on to live a normal life. However, the author has no mercy at all for the second-rate members of Enthusiasm and I can’t foresee much of a future for them in the creative world….
Apparently Schnitzler based many of the characters in the book on real people, a parody of a literary circle that met in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. The characters are certainly wonderfully drawn, from the pompous Meier through the ageing and fading actress Fräulein Gasteiner to timid young Winder (who I felt was the most sincere of the group). “Late Fame” manages to be funny and poignant at the same time, satirizing brilliantly the pretensions of would-be literati. It’s published in a beautiful little hardback edition by the wonderful Pushkin Press who once again deserve awards for bringing us this newly translated English version. If you’ve ever fancied yourself as a bit of a poet, it might be worth reading this book first…. 🙂
(Many thanks to Pushkin Press for kindly providing a review copy – details of the book can be found on their website here, and they also publish a number of other titles by Schnitzler which will definitely be worth exploring!)