Severin’s Journey Into the Dark by Paul Leppin
I’ve said before on the Ramblings what a fickle reader I am, easily swayed in the direction of tracking down a new book when I have plenty already on the shelves waiting to be read. This one is a case in point; if I remember correctly, [P] at books, yo mentioned it in passing on Twitter and I was intrigued enough to go and check it out. It’s from Twisted Spoon, a Prague-based publisher who bring out some lovely and fascinating books (I have two beautiful hardbacks from them already) and so I didn’t need any more urging to send for a copy…
Author Paul Leppin (1878-1945) was born and lived in Prague; despite writing in German, he translated from Czech and also wrote articles on Czech literature and obviously had a deep love of his native city. “Severin’s Journey Into the Dark”, subtitled “A Prague Ghost Story”, was first published in 1914 and the city it portrays is decadent and mysterious.
Severin is a young clerk; bored to death and worn out with his office work, he sleeps in the afternoon when he’s finished there, and then roams the street at nights. Despite the fact he has the love of a good woman – Zdenka, who worships him – he’s dissatisfied with everything, suffering from nerves and ennui. A chance encounter with a bookseller leads him into a different world – apart from the charms of the bookseller’s daughter, he is introduced to the Bohemian circle of Dr. Konrad.
Something about Severin seems to attract every woman who comes his way, and he certainly takes any that he can; there are wild parties, alcohol, drugs and death. Through all this floats Severin, constantly searching and constantly failing to find what he’s looking for – perhaps because he doesn’t really know what that is. He seems incapable of finding love and at one point reacts against the decadent lifestyle he’s leading and returns to Zdenka for peace. But this is never going to satisfy him, and nothing does until he falls for Mylada, singer in a cafe; she becomes his all-consuming passion, but there is a strangeness to her also and it seems that Severin will never achieve any kind of happiness.
More than ever he thirsted for a genuine life, one that bestowed flowers and terror and blew the daily round to pieces with its stormy jaws.
Well, if anything is certain it’s that Twisted Spoon can be relied on to bring us strange, intense books. Severin is an unpleasant character in many ways; his attitude towards the women he meets is cruel and dismissive, if nothing else, and he seems tormented by strange visions and the constant reappearance of a nun who may or may not exist and may or may not be Mylada’s sister. Often Severin himself seems something of a hollow man with little substance – maybe the ghost of the title? – and he’s really not easy to like, despite his despair. I found myself pondering on the choice of name, too, as Severin is not a common one and is best known (apart from Siouxsie and the Banshees’ bassist!) as the main character in Sacher-Masoch’s “Venus in Furs” – I assume the choice was therefore deliberate!
However, the strongest element in the book is actually Prague itself; the city, its streets and buildings, its atmosphere and weather, come alive in Lepper’s wonderful prose. It’s a place I’ve often thought I’d like to visit and although this version no longer exists, it sounds fascinating. This is not so much a novel with a plot, but an extended meditation on Severin’s plight, his state of mind, his sense of emptiness and his inability to feel real emotion.
“Severin’s Journey Into the Dark” was a powerful and memorable read; his journey back and forth between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, searching for some kind of redemption, is a difficult one and the ending is perhaps a little abrupt and inconclusive. Nevertheless, the image of old Prague which springs vividly from its pages will stay with me – and I’m more convinced than ever that I need to explore more of Twisted Spoon’s output.