Best known in the English-speaking world, if known at all, for writing the plays and stories that served as the basis for Max Ophüls’s 1950 film La Ronde, Tom Stoppard’s 1979 play The Vast Domain, and Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut, Austrian author and playwright Arthur Schnitzler has a new work out. Late Fame was originally written in 1895 for the literary magazine Die Ziet; however, it was left behind in the editing process. It sat for over a century, until it was finally published posthumously in 2014. In 2015, Pushkin Press brought out Alexander Starrit’s translation in the United Kingdom, and now NYRB Classics is bringing it to the United States. Sometimes we might wonder if an unpublished and long overlooked work is worth our time, but when Pushkin Press and NYRB Classics publish something it’s going to be worthwhile. And, certainly, Late Fame is worth more than the very short time it takes to read.
Late Fame is both comic and melancholy as it explores an aged man’s face-to-face encounter with the life he’s led. For the past 30 years, Eduard Saxberger has lived a comfortable if not particularly impressive live doing bureaucratic work day-in-day-out. To his surprise, one day a young poet seeks him out and asks if he is the Eduard Saxberger, the author of the brilliant poetry book Wanderings.
But that was over thirty years ago. Since then, Saxberger has not written at all. If he reads, he might read a popular novel before bed. He’s so distant, temporally and mentally, from the young poet who wrote Wanderings. But he’s flattered. In the passage here, Saxberger shows a variety of responses to this sudden resurgence of his past:
The old gentleman listened attentively, nodding. It was so peculiar. Artists, artists — how that word sounded! All at once there rose up in him muddled images of distant days and forgotten people. Names occurred to him, and what had become of them — and then he saw himself as you see yourself in a dream, as a young man, saw himself youthful, laughing, talking, as one of the best and proudest in a circle of young people who stayed apart from those following the beaten track and did not want to be anything but artists — and he said aloud, as if the young man opposite him had had these rapid thoughts along with him, “That is long ago, that is so long ago!”
Look at how much Schnitzler packs in here. It’s not quite the stream-of-conscious style of writing we’ll get in a few decades, but even in 1895 Schnitzler was showing how quickly the mind can move from one thing to the, sometimes contradictory, next, or even think these simultaneously. Saxberger thinks of long-lost people, of himself, of his ambitions and pride, of his certainty that he was going to live the life and not travel the beaten path. Yet he simultaneously realizes, because it’s thirty years later, that he has gone down the beaten path, lost promise, and I read that he nearly gasps his final statement to the visiting poet.
This particular visit, though flattering, doesn’t get much easier for Saxberger. His new-found fan, still in his youth, still thinking he won’t travel the beaten path, says:
The Wanderings couldn’t have been written while you sat in your office day after day. You can hear in those proud verses that they were made by someone who had cast off the shackles of the everyday.
This introduces the slightly political attraction the young poet may feel, his own youthful desire to keep out of the office and live for his art. When he finally leaves, after inviting Saxberger to meet some of the other young artists, Saxberger sits down and drifts into his uncomfortable thoughts:
Never had he felt so deeply that he was an old man, that not only the hopes, but also the disappointments lay far behind him. A dull hurt rose up in him. He put the book aside, he could not read on. He had the feeling that he had long since forgotten about himself.
The remainder of the book continues this beautiful back-and-forth between Saxberger’s hope and despair. Is he still, at heart, the young poet who wrote Wanderings, or is he the old man about to retire from a life of tedium and small pleasures. Who is the real Saxberger? He resents the familiar crowd he has spent many evenings with over the past decades, growing old in their company:
Old philistines! How young he — the “venerable” poet — was when he set beside them . . . He understand that among these people he had had to go into a decline. And with that, his anger dissipated. He felt excused before himself.
I think it’s interesting that Saxberger’s anger, when he comes up with this excuse, dissipates. One might think he’d just get more angry at this uninspiring group of men he’d spent so much time with. Yet his anger does not rise but dissipates. He’s himself throughout the book, trying to come to grips with the life he’s lived, with the time he’s lost, and with the fear that he’s not the person these young poets think he is.
Of course, these young poets are not exactly who he thinks they are, either. We recognize them for what they are: young aspiring artists who, like Saxberger did before them, think they’re going to avoid the beaten path. Whatever skill they have is small next to their pride and hopes to avoid the grinding day-to-day. It’s an interesting clash, Saxberger and the youths each inspired by something that is probably fake, and the “something” they are inspired by is something they don’t care to acknowledge because it says less about any artistic aspiration (though that’s there) and more about their hopes for life lived on their terms. Neither group wants to acknowledge that such a fate is rare and, in any case, not theirs.