And now we come to the final novel of Paul Leppin, whose novella Daniel Jesus and a few of whose short stories were so vividly sensual in their description of human sexuality and evocative of the hothouse atmosphere of the city he spent his life in, Prague.
Blaugast came into existence with two strikes against it. First, it appears to have been composed late in the author’s career, after he himself was struck with the curse of syphilis (a plague that decimated thousands in turn of the century Europe), and as such has a tendency to display some of the feverish irrationality of a disease tainted brain. He likely wrote it in a consecutive fashion, as the further we get into the proceedings, the more disjointed and insane it appears to become. Associations become tenuous, leaps in logic become pronounced.
Secondly, the timing. The era of fin de siecle Decadence had long since past, and the world, and Europe in particular, thrashed about in the throes of war. By the time the Nazis took power, only to be succeeded by the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia almost immediately after the war, any such literary endeavors were suppressed. In fact, it was not until the 1980s that Leppin’s works were finally published in any broad distribution – he died a sickly and forgotten man over 40 years prior.
But is it, as many have posthumously asserted, Leppin’s greatest work?
First, a clue. Readers of the Journal of Decadence have encountered part of this novel already. With some identifiable character names replaced with more generic terms, chapter XI of Blaugast had been published in 1920, and later in Twisted Spoon’s Others’ Paradise, as “retribution”, discussed here. Go ahead, take a look. I’ll wait.
Back with us? So now you get the idea. While that was hardly the best or worst chapter of the book (and it is unclear why that single chapter was chosen to publish as an independent entity), the same general tone pervades the novel as a whole.
The back cover of the novel contains one lone phrase: “Are you interested in catastrophes?”, and it’s an appropriate one. Because if any single sentence can be used to sum up what Blaugast is all about, that clearly is the one to go with.
A small scale affair, the entire cast of the novel can be lined up as follows:
- Klaudius Blaugast, our protagonist.
- Wanda, an evil if sexually inventive and adventurous whore.
- Johanna, a spacey self-martyr meant to portray the stereotypical if wholly imaginary “hooker with a heart of gold”
- Schobotski, an evil, mean spirited catalyst of destruction, whose sense of schadenfreude governs his every action.
The story is a simple one at core: during a late night stroll, Blaugast encounters an old school acquaintance, Schobotski. While Blaugast treats him as if an old friend, the latter personage would seem to have been more of a ringleader and bully, who gathered a contingency of toadies to serve his whim. While school officials had an inkling of what was going on, those he oppressed proved too intimidated by the man to either stand up to or report his misdeeds, allowing Schobotski to go wholly unpunished.
When asked what he’s been doing with his life since school, Schobotski coyly replies that he’s deliberately “going to seed…it has to do with the research I’m involved in. Would you like to see my laboratory?” The laboratory he refers to is a local bar, and the research experiment he alludes to involves the man he just ran into.
“Are you not a friend of the night? That’s surprising. If you would like to learn about yourself, it’s more productive to (live by night). Lamplight renders the thoughts of others transparent. Intangibles melt away, banality phosphoresces in the dark.”
Schobotski leads him to the bar, and as it happens, his eventual doom, by introducing him to the local whore Wanda. As soon as he sees Blaugast ensnared by her charms, Schobotski disappears and leaves his experiment to come to fruition…
Entranced by his new lover’s attentions and admittedly inventive and expansive sexual palette, Blaugast quits his day job, delivering himself over to a life of vice. As it begins to dawn on him how empty his new life is, he sinks into despair. Wanda begins to treat him like a servant, taking clients in his home and having her former patron and lover serve drinks and polish their shoes. While one of the whores Wanda brought in during the course of their earlier adventuresome love life takes pity on him, Wanda kicks her out and intimidates her into staying away.
Blaugast is humiliated beyond his ability to bear it when Schobotski himself turns up as a client, insults him and rubs his new station in life in his face (going to far as to spit-stick a dollar bill to his schoolmate’s forehead), and runs into the streets.
Winding up as a beggar, his search for spare coin eventually leads to a final degradation as the local fool, who entertains drunken patrons in bars and nightclubs by hopping around pretending to be a bird, and finally (and most unbelievably) masturbating in public for the amusement of former peers who look down on him in disgust and bemusement.
One night, Schobotski, who has a reputation for destroying lives and infecting the unwary with the curse of syphilis by similar efforts as to what he had done in the course of the novel and has therefore become the target of some rather amusing vandalism and pranks, runs across Blaugast and decides to take it out on him, beating him half to death. Stumbling out into the street in delirium, he is run over by a horse and carriage and winds up with spinal damage, ending the novel being cared for by the martyr-whore Johanna, who finds fulfillment thereby. The end.
Twisted Spoon presents a far more acceptable face this time around. While still printed in the same essential format, the paper stock seems ever so slightly superior, and lengthy and at least somewhat informative essays are provided as an afterword, discussing Leppin, the book in question, and some personal background of the circumstances of preservation and translation of Leppin’s works in a country continually beset by the forces of totalitarian oppression (be it fascist or communist in orientation, it’s all the same in the end).
Where Leppin continues to shine is in his direct line to the human sexual impulse. When Blaugast is describing his all consuming lust for the female of the species, all the desperation, contradictory impulse, and frenetic, pulsating drive is present and palpable in his use of language:
“Mention was made of it sometimes in books…well-thumbed pulp novels. Mothers were sitting in polished rooms, their smiles beaming, glowing in feminine grace. Sisters busied themselves peacefully in their rooms, brides waved from balconies decked in flowers. But in their addicted, dilated eyes flickered a fire that consumed the whole world. Under their deceptive garments they had naked, scandalous thighs like the girl in the laundry (his first deflowering experience)”.
On the other hand, if intimately related, comes this powerful description of sexual insatiability:
“Whatever ecstatic pleasure Blaugast had experienced with women always left him disappointed. The transparency of vulgar anticipation and the discharge of passionate revolts…never tamed the turmoil to which he felt himself subjugated. The feeble heroic deed of forming a union to find pleasure in the sating of urges was suspect and lowly…(but) true to his nature, he went chasing after new promises again and again…the unusual (would) caress him – and (reservations would be) driven further into the corner.”
Wanda traps Blaugast by reading him correctly,
“cunningly recogniz(ing) that the hunger wearing on him…his yearning stemmed from sources shrouded in the mystical, that devotion and fulfillment had to be inventive in their variations in order to dazzle this unfortunate being, to moor such a nomadic soul…it (was) Woman in her entirety…the archetype…toward which he strove.”
But that aside, this is not the triumphant Leppin I caught wind of in Daniel Jesus. After this, and the stories contained in Others’ Paradise, and even Severin’s Journey into Dark, it is apparent that Leppin, however his own lifestyle may or may not have approached the truly Decadent in tone and practice, falls far more under the header of the morbid, defeatist strain of pseudo-Decadent despair peopled by the likes of Remy de Gourmont.
While the trappings are there, and his sensual, open frankness towards sexuality are both powerful and refreshing, it’s hard to sit through the utter and meaningless collapse of the protagonist at the hands of the cruel and manipulative Schobotski and Wanda, who turns on the drop of a dime from an attentive if unfeeling lover to a callous and hateful ingrate taking advantage of Blaugast’s weakness and hospitality.
Schobotski in particular is a hard figure to stomach.
“Feeding on misfortune, he knew with…certainty…how to track down his (victims) – how to sow naive fields of pleasure with afflictions…the suicide of workers fleeing impoverishment, the ruining of degenerates – these were the dessert fruits he found the most appealing…cowardly thoughts streaked his brow in wide furrows of accumulated malice.
Schobotski knew (whores) who, having long ago exited the scene, now served as charwomen of vomit-filled toilets…he humiliated many among them…when he encountered a hunched figure working with a washpail…his jovial voice swelled with the arrogance of a victor; magnanimity was not the sort of item he ever had in stock.
…Like a connoisseur, Schobotzki knew how to identify the sexually transmitted diseases of the bit actresses in his little play, and he directed them all diabolically. The teenagers who fell into his trap…were objects of his merest whim; their misfortune he skillfully exploited to the fullest extent…the confessions of swindlers, who called on the police after their last drink to admit their guilt…were a balm for him.”
But as noted in past Journal discussions of his work, one cannot with any honesty read too deeply into the work of Paul Leppin, for as the translator puts it in the afterword,
“Leppin’s approach to writing was neither analytic or metaphoric in the traditional sense…for him, emotions were the key to effective literature. The depiction of atmosphere, not plot, characterizes all his works.”
So what can be taken away from what will in all likelihood be our final look at the life and works of Paul Leppin? In the end, not much. Very little of any importance has come across in either biographical or literary sense, and all we are left with are some intensely vibrant sensory and sensual expressions of a fading Central European demimonde and the passions of a man who had to be intimately aware of what he spoke – these are not the descriptive terms of naivete or the supposedly clever euphemisms of the literati, but the sense impressions of one who experienced them.
And while all the hand wringing and coming to a bitter end becomes tiresome and even distressingly moralistic in tone, there is much to be said for that direct and intimate hotline to the physical that so many would be authors neglect out of a misguided sense of “propriety” or a prudish striving towards the ethereal, as if we were not men of flesh, but solely priests of spirit – a denial of the entirety of human nature and experience that is absolutely laughable.
Those searching for the pleasures of the flesh follow the shifty eyed figure from their past to their ruination here.