The deer hunter

Felix Salten’s Bambi (1923) has come down to posterity, principally, in the shape of the 1942 film concocted by Walt Disney. The first English translation, originally subtitled “A life in the woods” and published in 1928 by Simon and Schuster, sold 650,000 copies before the film was released. In 2019 Clydesdale Classics, a Simon and Schuster imprint, published a new version translated by Hannah Correll. What has now possessed two high-profile presses to invest, separately, in further treatments of this novel-length fable by a minor Austrian writer?

Bambi isn’t just any old animal story. Even Jack Zipes, the editor and translator of the Princeton volume, who dismisses the Disney film as a “syrupy love-fest”, evokes it by using the commercially reformulated title “The Original Bambi”. Both Zipes and Paul Reitter, the author of an informative afterword for the NYRB edition, are American professors of German animated, so to speak, by the revival of Salten’s literary reputation in Austria. The comeback has been engineered primarily in Vienna, where a 2008 exhibition in the Jewish Museum was followed in 2020 by a more ambitious show divided between the Vienna Library and the Wien Museum. The title of the catalog for that second display, Im Schatten von Bambi: Felix Salten entdeckt die Wiener Moderne (“In Bambi’s Shadow: Felix Salten Discovers Viennese Modernism”), brings the motivation for a new English Bambi into focus.

Salten’s shadowy corner in the literary world of fin-de-siècle Vienna will have been terra incognita even to readers aware of the novel behind the film. Born Siegmund Salzmann in Pest in 1869, Salten grew up in the Habsburg capital in straitened circumstances, periodically made worse by his father’s entrepreneurial misadventures. Unlike Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and other members of Young Vienna, the loosely constituted literary circle to which he belonged, Salten had enjoyed neither an elite secondary education nor the opportunity to study at university, and (after a brief stint as an insurance agent ) made his living as a journalist. He scored a modest literary success by placing a short novel, Little Veronica (1903), with S. Fischer, the Berlin publisher of Schnitzler, Thomas Mann and other important modernist authors, but he earned his bread and butter churning out articles and reviews for Vienna’s daily press. His literary archive, newly acquired by the Vienna Library, contains nine thick scrapbooks of pasted-in cuttings that document more than 3,000 pieces published between 1902 and 1938, a tally that does not include his prolific first decade in the trade. Salten became one of Vienna’s most respected critics and feature writers, a status sealed on July 29, 1914, when Emperor Franz Joseph’s war manifesto shared the front page of the Neue Freie PresseAustria-Hungary’s most prestigious newspaper, with the journalist’s editorial welcoming the coming conflagration.

As part of his awkward apologia for Salten’s work as a Habsburg propagandist, Marcel Atze, the editor of Im Schatten von Bambi, suggests that the idea for the famous novel derived from a fleeting humanistic impulse in the author’s jingoistic wartime journalism: a comparison between the fate of orphaned Jewish children in Galicia, on the eastern reaches of the crumbling empire, and fawns exposed to starvation after their mothers have been killed by hunters. Zipes radicalizes this analogy in his rambling introduction – more animal-rights harangue than literary contextualization – by insisting that the novel is autobiographical. “As a Jew” Salten, like the creatures of the forest, “knew what it meant to be pursued and killed”. Such a reading founders on its equation of the author – an avid, unapologetic hunter – with the woodland victims of his fiction. Reitter, by contrast, quotes Salten’s remark in a letter written in 1940 “that Bambi would never have come into being if I had never aimed at my bullet at the head of a roebuck”; but both he and Zipes omit the author’s subsequent admission that only three of the more than 200 deer he killed required more than one clean shot. Zipes ties himself up in knots trying to resolve the contradictions between the “brilliant Austrian journalist and lover of animals” and the “killer of deer and other harmless beasts”.

Bambi should be read independently of its author’s biography. In Damion Searls’s elegant translation it is possible to understand why contemporary readers as different as Heinrich Mann and Schnitzler had such praise for this coming-of-age story of a young roebuck. The novel combines a richly imagined animal world with the narrative trajectory of a Bildungsroman. Bambi is nurtured by his mother, introduced by his own kind to their long history of murderous persecution, schooled in the realities of tooth and claw by interactions with other species, and sternly mentored in the ways of the forest by the Old One, his roebuck father. He loses his mother, survives a battue and a bullet wound, experiences the fraternal violence and passionate ardour of his first rut, learns that the seemingly omnipotent creatures with their third hand – Salten’s notion of how a deer perceives a hunter’s rifle – are also mortal and assumes the mantle of his father’s leadership of the herd.

Vignettes of sylvan otherness, enhanced by the hunter-author’s descriptive powers, alternate with anthropomorphically charged scenes and episodes. A melancholy conversation between two autumn leaves, for example, could stand alone as a poetical-philosophical dialogue on the transitory nature of existence and the uncertainties of the afterlife. Searls preserves the charmingly non-gendered, tender exchange – the German word for “leaf” (das Blatt) is neuter – and generally proves a more sensitive guide to the original text than Zipes, who resorts to “he” and “she”. His translation has other, more substantial deficits that render it unreliable. In addition to several instances of dropped phrases and omitted sentences, a dozen lines describing Bambi’s first encounter with the old roebucks – a passage important enough to have been illustrated in the 1928 translation – entirely. Elementary vocabulary is also misunderstood: “längst”, or “long since”, becomes “at last”; “uber einen herfallen” is translated as “fall all over” rather than “fall upon” (attack) someone.

Both translators fumble their versions of the narrative’s denouement, in which the Old One demonstrates human mortality by showing Bambi the bleeding corpse of a dead woodsman, who is identified as a poacher. Zipes, who makes a point of belittling what he admits was an “enormously popular” original translation by Whittaker Chambers, follows its description of the scene closely, including the mistake of having the man’s shirt – rather than his exposed throat – pierced by a wound that “gaped like a small red mouth”. Searls gets this right, but translates “Raubschütz” as “hunter”, which is interestingly wrong. Salten’s use of a pejorative term for “poacher” makes class antagonism more important than predatory killing. The “Wilderer” (the less fraught German synonym) who hunted to feed his family was often seen as a folk hero taking from the noble rich and giving to the suffering poor. Searls’s euphemism obscures the third-person narrator’s complicity in what Salten considered a legitimate sporting practice. Repeated incidents of deer and other animals being shot and killed by an inscrutable being known otherwise only as “He” or “Him” create the novel’s powerful negative affect, its sense of danger and cruelty. But the location of human vulnerability in the person of a reviled poacher also says something about the author’s residual loyalties to an Aristocratic pastime he could never wholly condemn. When the novel was serialized in the Neue Freie Presse In the autumn of 1922, the poacher was still an unidentified human victim. The revision for the book edition became another half-measure typical of the compromises that characterized Salten’s life and work.

Leo A. Lensing‘s chapbook memoir of the American poet Frank Stanford is forthcoming with Foundlings Press

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