Sunday, 28 July 2013

Week Twenty-Nine - Jeanette

Blaugast: A Novel Of Decline by Paul Leppin (c. 1933)
Recommended by Harry

There are two styles of books that majorly push my buttons.

Number one: a hefty, often depressing, English Victorian novel.
Number two: a brief, always depressing, European novel of the interwar period.

When I asked my friends for their recommendations, the request came with just one coda. ‘Please don’t make it too long,’ I said in various pubs / texts / emails. ‘I do have to read it in a week.’ Of course, a few chose to ignore this request and recommend me doorstops anyway (albeit with some cute justifications, e.g. Lizzie: ‘It’s five books, yes, but they are children’s books’; Geoff: ‘It looks thick, but on some pages there are only a few words’; Barry: ‘Well, at least I’m not recommending you Ulysses’). Anyway, I wasn’t expecting (and I didn’t get) any lengthy Victorian novels. But I was hoping to get at least one succinct slice of degenerate continental misery.

            Are you interested in catastrophes?


Blaugast: A Novel Of Decline is the final novel of the Prague German Paul Leppin. Unlike his near-contemporary Franz Kafka, there has been little posthumous celebration of this author; Blaugast, unpublished at the time, is still a very niche work (this edition, the first commercial English translation, is from 2007 on a small Czech imprint). I’d certainly never heard of Leppin, and he seems unknown to even the keenest readers of European modernism.

This is a terrible literary injustice. For my money, Blaugast ranks as one of the lost masterpieces of Mitteleuropa.

Engulfed by disasters, which he sought in vain to understand, he found himself hopelessly adrift, surrounded by an enemy that no-one ever called by its name. But its presence was irrefutable and cruel. It made itself known in faltering discussions, ejaculations, and dissolute jokes, in the cracks of doors and within the corners of rooms.

This is our anti-hero, Klaudius Blaugast. A directionless middle-aged clerk, at the start of the novel he randomly meets an old schoolfriend, Schobotzki. What, Blaugast cheerfully asks, has Schobotzki been up to since school?

‘I’m going to seed,’ he said casually. […] ‘It has to do with the research I’m involved in.’

Blaugast, intrigued, follows Schobotzki to his ‘laboratory’ where he meets Wanda.

Her eyes, serenely cold, flickered like a candle’s flame just before its death.

Prostitute and emotional sadist, Wanda soon brings Blaugast under her powerful influence. He is directionless no more. He becomes obsessed with Wanda and performs ever more humiliating acts upon his own body and psyche. Physically, it leads to syphilis; socially, it leads to financial ruin and homelessness; psychologically, it leads to complete debasement.

A novel of decline, indeed.

Yet Leppin does more than chart one person’s degradation. His unflinching portrayal of wider society mercilessly goading the fallen man is an equally strong (and even more morose) aspect of Blaugast.

The spastic goosestep of his uncontrollable legs, the result of the disease now consuming his spinal cord, his face, altered by the rigid dilation of his pupils, and the solemn rags he preferred as his wardrobe, earned him the moniker ‘Little Baron,’ which he would acknowledge with an awkward bow. The epithet was most commonly used by the children who ran behind him and by the habitu├ęs of the beer gardens and pubs, who welcomed the patient beggar with jeers and jokes.

Leppin particularly singles out the malice of the bourgeoisie. Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good And Evil that all high culture is based on cruelty*, and perhaps Leppin is making reference to this. Leppin’s gloomy point that everyone has a propensity for sadism as long as the victim is socially marginalized is well made via one especially ugly episode. ‘Little Baron’ has been beckoned into a wine bar.

After downing a few glasses of schnapps given him, he was ordered to masturbate onto a plate in the presence of all for the succour of a meagre fee.
I’ve quoted from this book so much because Leppin made me gasp on every page with his inventive prose. Look, look, at how he describes nervousness:

A rat’s tooth, voracious, bespattered with carrion, gnawed at his intestines.

If I ever wrote a sentence like that, I would just stare in the mirror for about a week, grinning at my own brilliance.
This is my second favourite book of the project (after The Underground Man). But unlike The Underground Man, which I’m sure everyone who reads this blog would enjoy, I’m far warier of pushing Blaugast on people. Although there is some redemption within, it is nevertheless a pretty nihilistic work, and certainly the kind of book you have to want to read. Next year I will explore the other works by Leppin: Severin’s Journey Into The Dark sounds incredible!

I’m interested in hearing of how Harry acquired this particular taste and discovered Blaugast.

Because, really, I know hardly anything about Harry, other than the reason why I asked him to contribute to Two Readers: that he has excellent taste. (Oh, and that he’s a prominent academic, and that two days ago he viewed the house of a former member of Brit girl group The Paper Dolls). He got in touch with me following Seasons They Change, we’ve nattered over social networks, and had one abortive attempt to meet up (trains and overrunning appointments stymied us).

I hope in the future our luck will hold for some facetime. It has to: I feel that, as time goes on, we are just stockpiling the many, many, many things we have to discuss. I’ll leave you with just one of them.

*N.B. I know I sound pompous here. However, my knowledge of this Nietzsche work comes entirely from Kevin Kline’s character in A Fish Called Wanda.