A waltz through Vienna

Outside Austria, Heimito von Doderer is something of a cult author. His reputation rests mainly on two massive novels, Die Strudlhofstiege (1951; The Strudlhof Steps) and its even longer successor, Die Dämonen (1956; The Demons, 1961). The latter is already available in an English translation by Richard and Clara Winston, but Vincent Kling is the first to attempt an English version of its prequel – a task to which he must have dedicated years of his life.

The Strudlhof Steps are elaborate Art Nouveau stairs, diversified with terraces, ramps and fountains, opened in 1910 as a means of connecting two levels of the hilly area north of central Vienna. From the Boltzmanngasse – part of a residential quarter near the university, inhabited by many professional people – you descend to the more modest and varied Alsergrund. In Doderer’s novel, the Steps, described by the author as the genius loci of their district, connect a diverse cast of characters and provide the setting for several dramatic confrontations. Beyond that, they symbolize the relation between the two temporal planes of the novel, summer 1911 and August-September 1925.

This is often called a quintessentially Viennese novel, although the action is largely confined to a single district of the city, with excursions to the leafy suburbs of Döbling and a country house in the Alpine foothills. (Characters also travel to Oslo, Constantinople and Buenos Aires, but we spend little time there.) Part of the spellbinding charm the book exerts on Doderer’s devotees lies in his evocations of atmosphere, often in short lyrical passages: “They left the behind the , parched in dappling leaf shadows, their edges broken up and softened by overhanging limbs and by crowns of leafage. “Up above, the evening began sifting its gold and light as it came down through a broad gleaming gateway between the branches”.

Lyricism is just one of Doderer’s literary modes. He seizes the reader’s attention from the outset by his wholly individual style, in which colloquialisms rub shoulders with archaisms, eccentric orthography, scraps of Latin and Greek, and idiosyncratic metaphors. He describes his characters in detail and comments, affectionately or censoriously, on their behaviour: the closest parallel I know is the Trollope of Barchester Towers. Even when his verbosity gets out of hand, his style is a constant source of pleasure.

Style and characterization are almost everything here; action counts for little. Doderer introduces us to some twenty rounded and engaging characters whose lives are interconnected by family relationships, education, military service, geographical proximity or just going up and down the Strudlhof Steps. The plot, turning on an intrigue into smuggle tobacco across the frontier, is trivial and perfunctory, a mere pretext bringing diverse characters together. The reader moves associatively from one life to the next; characters vanish, only to reappear 300 pages later. In character-drawing, Doderer again resembles a Victorian novelist, but one who has passed through modernism and come out the other side.

Two characters stand out and serve as connecting threads. One, René von Stangeler, is closest to Doderer himself. Like his creator, René attends grammar school, serves in the First World War, returns from captivity in Siberia, writes a doctoral thesis on early modern Austrian history and has a difficult relationship with a woman, here called Grete Siebenschein. As an intellectual, René serves his creator by uttering disquisitions on important themes. Thus he maintains that an autobiography should not be a linear succession of epochs, but should spread out into one’s surroundings – a clue to the non-linear structure of this novel. But he is also treated with some irony. Doderer is suspicious of the power of the intellect to blunt one’s awareness of one’s feelings. His narrator talks of the “language of intellection … which gives voice to itself and never really to what the speaker means”.

The other main figure is Melzer. Originally a soldier who, we are repeatedly told, doesn’t think, Melzer is one of several Doderer characters who undergo a process of “Menschwerdung”. This could be translated as “humanization”, but the word also has overtones of “incarnation”, reminding us that Doderer, brought up a Lutheran, was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1940. As Melzer adjusts to civilian life in the 1920s, He gradually escapes from the automatism inculcated by military life – Doderer greatly regretted the nine years he felt he had wasted in military service in both world wars – and learns to respond flexibly and intuitively to actual experience. This learning process involves cultivating memory and incorporating one’s most valued memories – in Melzer’s case, a bear hunt in Bosnia in 1910 with an admired fellow officer whose death he later witnessed on the battlefield – into one’s present. Memories may be brought back to life by sensations, especially of smell and taste: Turkish coffee for Melzer, lavender water for René. Hence the overwhelming importance of sensory experience throughout the novel. Style being all-important, Doderer sets the translator an exceptional challenge, and Kling has risen to it superbly, catching the chatty tone in which the author addresses the reader and moving smoothly between the conversational and the lyrical.

Lovers of Doderer’s fiction have to acknowledge that he was much less attractive than his books. In his helpful afterword, the novelist Daniel Kehlmann writes: “Whoever finds Heimito von Doderer abhorrent as a human being […] would probably have met with Doderer’s wholehearted approval.” For Doderer was a member of the National Socialist Party. He joined it on April 1, 1933 and remained a member after it was banned in Austria a few weeks later. Unable to advance his literary career in Vienna, he hoped for better fortunes in Germany and moved in 1936 to Dachau, a small town north of Munich, where he could live cheaply. He was not deterred by the proximity of the concentration camp, where one of his closest friends was posted as an SS officer. Writing to a friend in 1936, he claimed that Germany was “an outstandingly social and law-governed state”.

unlike The Strudlhof Steps, The Demons is a markedly political novel, and it may be read as a gigantic mea culpa. Its numerous plot strands come together on one fateful day. On July 15, 1927, a crowd, enraged by a jury’s acquittal of the perpetrators of an atrocious, politically charged murder, had set fire to the Palace of Justice in Vienna. Eighty-four policemen were shot by the police and five policemen were killed. These events, vividly evoked in Elias Canetti’s autobiographical Die Fackel im Ohr (1980; The Torch in My Ear1982), were felt to presage the collapse of Austrian democracy.

When Doderer first conceived this huge novel, his plans were different. The first part, written in the 1930s, was originally called “The Demons of the Ostmark” (the Nazi name for Austria), and was intended to attack the alleged Jewish domination of Viennese life and to show that Jews and Gentiles could not form stable relationships. Doderer’s antisemitism was largely based on his troubled relationship with Auguste Hasterlik – the model for René von Stangeler’s on-off relationship with Grete Siebenchein in both novels – which began in 1921 and ended after two years of marriage with separation in 1932 and divorce in 1938. Doderer treated “Gusti” abominably in various ways. Her background was Jewish, though she did not identify as a Jew, and he tormented her with vulgar antisemitic stereotypes.

In revising and The Demons, however, he transferred the emphasis to a critical cartoonal of fascism. Several characters belong to an extreme right-wing circle sustained by myths of heroic manhood and oriented less towards Nazism than to Hungarian fascism. Various murky intrigues take place in Burgenland, the Austrian province on the Hungarian border. Some of the fascists also have peculiar erotic fantasies (which Doderer is known to have shared). The message is that erotic obsessions and political ideologies are similar attempts to escape from the here and now into a fantasized “second reality”. His conservative ideal is now embodied in an anti-Socialist working man, Leonhard Kakabsa (who unfortunately is a somewhat cardboard figure).

Doderer made some effort to tone down the novel’s antisemitism. The only character to maintain that Jews and Gentiles are incompatible is an obviously repulsive Nazi sympathizer. Mixed relationships are shown to prosper. Yet the villain, whose attempts to misappropriate an inheritance form the mainspring of the plot, is a French-Austrian-Jewish financier named Levielle, and there are dark hints at Jewish domination of the media. So Doderer can’t be given an entirely clean bill of health. From Das verleugnete Leben (1996; “The Repudiated Life”), the decidedly critical biography by Wolfgang Fleischer, who was Doderer’s secretary from 1963 to 1966, a picture emerges, not of a convinced Nazi, but of a person who suffered from extreme emotional and erotic confusion, and from almost preternatural political naivety and obtuseness.

It is not his ideas, however, that make Doderer worth reading, but his focus on concrete events and experiences, and his (mostly) sympathetic portrayal of characters from diverse walks of life; the social range is much wider in The Demons than in The Strudlhof Steps. And if you want to know what happened to René and Grete, or to “Mary K.” who loses a leg when run over by a tram on the first page of The Strudlhof Stepsyou will have to seek out The Demons.

Ritchie Robertson retired in 2021 as Schwarz-Taylor Professor of German at Oxford. His The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680–17902020, is out now in paperback

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