No one chronicled the exuberance and the decadence of fin-de-siècle Vienna better than one of its famous sons, Arthur Schnitzler. In his intriguing and unsettling plays and prose — most notably his 1926 novella “Dream Story,” the source for Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” — Schnitzler explored, with controversial candor, the mores of society and individual preoccupations with sexuality and death. Sigmund Freud applauded his incisive forays into the unconscious mind. The Nazis branded his work “Jewish filth” and, two years after his death in 1931, began burning his books.
Fortunately, Schnitzler’s literary estate was salvaged and spirited out of the Third Reich. After the war, the author was rediscovered and his posthumous reputation grew. Then in 2014 an unpublished novella titled “Late Fame” cropped up in Schnitzler’s archive. Written between 1894 and 1895, the book had been submitted to the German newspaper Die Zeit, only to be rejected due to length. Schnitzler refused to shorten it and the manuscript lay dormant for over a century. Now, finally, following publication (and plaudits) in Germany and the United Kingdom, this little lost-and-found classic sees the light of day in the United States.
The book is a pungent cautionary tale about the trappings of fame and the dangers of wish fulfillment. One winter’s evening, Eduard Saxberger returns home from a walk and finds a young man waiting for him. The visitor explains that he and his Viennese literary circle are ardent fans of Saxberger’s collection of poems, “Wanderings.” Saxberger is astonished. His book was published long ago and promptly forgotten. Shorn of readers, he abandoned poetry and spent the past three decades earning a living as an undistinguished civil servant. Suddenly, belatedly, he is hot property.
Saxberger emerges from obscurity and becomes the center of attention at the coffeehouse where his acolytes meet. Bolstered by their belief that he is an unrecognized genius, he agrees to write new work for a poetry recital. But as the date looms he finds himself grappling with writer’s block, reassessing old friends (“dull philistines”), fielding the advances of the group’s seductive playwright (“our tragedienne”) Fräulein Gasteiner, and wondering how his life would have panned out if success had come earlier.
Schnitzler packs a great deal into his hundred pages. His overlooked and underappreciated writers and artists light up each scene with their splenetic tirades and commentaries: “The envy of the talentless, the frivolity and malice of reviewers, and then the horrid indifference of the public.” The more time Saxberger spends in their company, the more he doubts both their ambition and the sincerity of their claim that he is a “maestro” or “venerable poet.” In a clever twist at the end, Schnitzler sharply skewers literary pretensions and hollow values.
“Read through ‘Late Fame,’ ” Schnitzler wrote in his diary; “seems to have turned out not at all badly.” It has turned out very well indeed and we should be grateful to have it, better late than never.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Arthur Schnitzler, translated from the German by Alexander Starritt.
Publisher: New York Review Books, 111 pages, $14.