To make a destiny from the whims and individual desires of the heart, from one's self and others, just as in the theatre one made landscapes and cities from wood and cardboard - was that so difficult?
Finally, I find time for a long overdue short post on a short book that I read, ahem, over a year ago: Severin's Journey Into the Dark (2001; translated from the original German by Kevin Blahut), by Paul Leppin (1878-1945). It's another Central European translation, courtesy of boutique small publisher Twisted Spoon Press, although I have to say that I found my first venture into their list rather more satisfying. Despite an intriguing atmosphere and some nice turns of phrase, Severin's Journey was not for me, for reasons that have become familiar of late: a little too much mangsty navel-gazing for my taste. In this, the novel is not helped by the fact that only last month I finished the thematically and emotionally not-dissimilar - but far superior - Journey By Moonlight by Antal Szerb. A post on that is, of course, forthcoming.
Anyway. Our titular Severin is of that type of young, apparently sensitive young man who is in fact only really sensitive to his own angst, which he recycles a great deal at the expense of both being able to make interesting conversation and giving a toss about his various female lovers - except insofar as they strike the necessary chord to enhance his pervasive "nervous and unhealthy discontent". Described as having a "sickly, bearded young face", he is jaded in that way that only the very young can be, and longs for the passions of his childhood, when he and his friends used to run around Prague, having
great battles that were fought against the Czech boys in the old fortifications of Weinberge. He had never distinguished himself as a great hero or leader in these conflicts, but neither had he betrayed his cowardice. For him, offering his brow to the stones hurled by the enemy had a voluptuous a puzzling allure. [...] Since that time his youth had held no experience of equal worth.
Severin feels himself cursed, cut off from all proper enjoyment of life, doomed to experience everything through a numbing filter. This aspect of the novel is the least interesting, in its over-familiarity: I found it increasingly difficult to care about a narrative arc that involves the protagonist emotionally abusing his girlfriends purely because nothing stirs his emo, emo heart like a nasty bit of relationship uber-drama. Firstly there's Zdenka; he listens to her go on in "a singing contralto" about how happy she is, even though "basically she left him cold", since she cannot "fulfill the wishes that had begun to stir in the half-articulated rhythm of his blood".
Fair enough; some people are simply incompatible. But then he meets a kindred spirit in angst, the not-at-all symbolically-named Lazarus Kain, who talks a lot "about the cold and unimaginative temperament of the modern age, in which the pursuit of money had killed the joy of desire". Rather than making sweet, faintly sociopathic lurve with the man he wants to be when he grows up, though, Severin displaces his connection with Kain to Kain's daughter - who stands out to him for the "intriguing flame" in her eyes (and its contrast with her "quiet mouth"...). Not content with simply breaking up with Zdenka, he lesaves her with "a soul full of tears" by explaining exactly why he's breaking up with her:
With senseless and incomprehensible cruelty Severin had told her about Susanna.
Soon he's bored with Susanna, too; having slept with her, he then avoids her "in accordance with his preference for half-complete, unresolved experiences". Two more women follow - Karla, all "raw, lacerated voice" and "restless coquetry", and Mylada, "a new and exciting trick in the full nightlife of the city" with a sideline in "talented depravity" - but by the time Severin was stalking Mylada and reflecting on how she possessed the "lulling and fanciful charm of Slavic women", I was too bored to be properly irritated by the gendered racial essentialism.
Susanna, naturally, is pregnant, but the baby is stillborn, in that properly dramatic - but not actually in any sense inconvenient for Severin (on the contrary, he "felt he had been relieved of a burden") - way you might expect.
More interesting by far that Severin's ever so decadent lifestyle is the way Leppin writes about Prague - or rather, about Prague's effects on Severin's state of mind. Prague, we're told, has "a timid, unfamiliar power over him" - a compelling mixture of yielding strength and the faintly uncanny that is a neatly paradoxical echo of the "soft and feeble desire" that Severin feels for some other, more "radiant and intense life" than the one he finds himself living. Its "strange decay, a suppressed unreality" acts upon his mind and he seems to feel the city, lurking beyond the illuminated edges of the busy, inhabited, charted parts of it that he knows. And over the course of the short novel he comes to know this other city:
The city he knew was different. -- Its streets led into sin, and evil lurked at the thresholds. There the heart beat between dank, treacherous walls, there the night crept past curtained windows and throttled the soul while it slept. Satan had placed his traps everywhere. In churches and in the houses of lecherous women. His breath lived within their murderous kisses.
Hit and miss, then; but the hits are compelling enough that I'll probably try something else by Paul Leppin.