A HYMN TO CONTORTED BEAUTY


Blaugast: A Novel of Decline
, Paul Leppin
(188pp, 9.50, Twisted Spoon Press, Prague,)


In these pages we find the ultimate, amorphous horror of mere existence depicted in the most graphic way. Blaugast: A Novel of Decline, also known as Blaugast: A Novel From Old Prague or The Decline or Blaugast: A Novel of One Obsessed, was completed in the 1930s by Prague-German writer Paul Leppin (1878-1945). According to Cynthia A. Klima, the translator of this Twisted Spoon edition, the novel is 'a stylised portrayal of the decadent sensibility (with a final nod to Futurism)...'

Of the various titles in separate sources, the form Blaugast: A Novel of Decline is considered to best reflect the final intentions of the author. The eponymous hero, or tormented anti-hero, is Klaudius Blaugast and the narrative charts his strange deterioration and more peculiar redemption in eighteen chapters of heightened, poetic prose. At one point Wanda, the cruel dominatrix, the Apocalyptic Woman, spits at him 'Who do you think you are? A prince of the sewers here on a business trip - a shoe-shiner for whores...'

Born into the German-speaking minority in Prague in 1878, Paul Leppin worked as an accountant for the Telegraph and Postal Service until his retirement due to ill health. He married in 1907 and lived all his life in Prag-Weinberge, the Vinohrady District of the city.  During the period 1901 to 1938 Leppin was notorious for his decadent lifestyle and, as editor of the magazines Fruhling and Wir, for his energetic literary activity. Dubbed, by Expressionist poet Else Lasker-Schuller, 'King of the Prague Bohemians' he was at the centre of the radical Czech Decadent Movement focussed on the Jung-Prag Group and was well known among his contemporaries for his journalism and his creative works. These included a collection of essays called Venus Astray
(1920), plays, prose-poetry, poems and novels such as Daniel Jesus (1905), Severin's Journey Into The Dark (1914) and The Hedonist (1918).  Leppin was awarded the Schiller memorial Prize in 1934, but a collection of poetry and short prose called Prague Rhapsody (1938) was to be his last publication.

After the German occupation of 1939 Leppin was arrested an interrogated by the Gestapo, probably because, under his leadership, the Czech Union of German Writers refused to join the Nazi-sponsored Literary Society of Germany. Forgotten by the literary world, attended by his wife Henriette and family friend Marianne von Hoop, he lived in seclusion until his death in 1945. During this final phase he worked on various unpublished projects including The Prisoner (1944) and another novel called Monika: Thirteen Chapters A Love From Hell.

In those dark days his reputation was eclipsed, subsumed by epoch-making historical events as the Czech Republic succumbed to Nazi occupation, the horrors of the Second World War, and Soviet assimilation in 1948. The bulk of Leppin's literary remains were saved by chance as his papers were (supposedly) found abandoned on the pavement in front of his house in 1945. Presumably discarded as rubbish, they were found by an anonymous passer-by and deposited in the archives of Museum of Czech Literature housed at the Strahov Monastery. Marianne von Hoop donated her papers to the Deutsch Literaturearchiv in Marbach. Fortunately, however, his work was rediscovered and rehabilitated by dedicated literary researchers in the nineteen sixties. Blaugast was finally published in 1984 due to the efforts of scholar Dierk O. Hoffmann who has contributed an Afterword to the present volume, which is based on his pioneering edition.

Hoffmann first encountered Leppin while studying the poetry of Lasker-Schuler at the University Basel. Interest in Czech litearure had been stimulated by the conferences on Prague Deutsche Literatur held at Liblice in 1963 and 1965, and the first major study of Leppin's work (by Bozena Kosekova) was published in the conference papers in 1967. These academic gatherings also played a major role in promoting the reputation of other Prague German writers, including Franz Kafka. Taking advantage of the more liberal conditions prevailing in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring interlude, Hoffmann travelled to Leppin's home city to visit friends and relatives of the author. Due to the difficult conditions (there were very few photocopiers) documents had to be copied out by hand and then smuggled to the West. In due course Hoffmann consolidated his researches into a dissertation completed in 1974. His Afterword
in this new English edition provides a good insight into all this literary detective work and the many setbacks encountered before publication of Blaugast. Hoffmann is the editor of Leppin's Complete Works.

The novel is like a diptych. The first section introduces the main characters as they impinge on Blaugast's tortured existence. He encounters the sinister nemesis figure, Schobotzki, and his companion, the evil whore Wanda. Blaugast also meets Johanna the agent of his eventual redemption, herself a streetwalker, but 'less corrupt'. The second section charts Blaugast's final descent into the lower depths of depravity during which he fleetingly encounters Johanna for a second time and is reduced to the status of a cripple when, wrongly blamed as the agent of his persecutor's persecution, he is beaten up by Schobotzki. In a delirium he wanders the streets of the city, only to fall victim of a road accident when he run over by car in which both Schobotzki and Wanda are passengers. The saintly Johanna rescues Blaugast from the scene and gives him a 'charitable home' in a boarded-up loft alcove in her apartment. She explains his occasionally audible presence by telling her clients that he is her sick brother. These two sections are divided by a fantastic dream sequence of The Forest of the Damned (the 'Ur-Forest') - a lurid depiction of warped retribution and demonic frenzy. Throughout the narrative there are flashbacks explaining psychic factors in the past of the main protagonists and poetic-prose visions of mystical experiences permeated by feelings of guilt and atonement.

Discounting the minor characters who populate Blaugast's world or inhabit his memories (flashbacks erupting into the narrative) there are four main characters in the novel. Of course we have the chief protagonist, Blaugast himself, a tormented being whose 'inconstant melancholy' is the 'fundament of his existence'. But the dynamic of the narrative, its emotional propulsion as it were, derives from the relationship of Blaugast to the triad of Schobotzki, 'a man from the depths', Wanda, 'the Apocalyptic woman' and Johanna, her antithesis, who becomes an almost angelic agent of Fate. These four form a complimentary, symmetrical quartet of two masculine and two female figures - a symbolic disposition of emblematic forces.  It is Schobotzki, with his long arms and flapping coat, who is the catalytic factor, appearing at strategic points in the narrative to determine Blaugast's destiny, his spiral of decline, sickness and despair. Truly Mephistophelean in appearance Schobotzki has deformed front teeth, the profile of giant bird and a forehead knotted under the brim of his hat. He is defined as 'a strange hero of delicate opportunity, a demigod of curiosity, an assistant to putrefaction', a dealer in Faustian experiments derived from the 'biology of atrophy' and the science of decay. He says his preoccupations are, 'Peak performances. Pure unadulterated results. Changes in the rhythm of all formation.' His motto or catch-phrase is: 'Are you interested in catastrophes?' The true meaning of these formulae remain shrouded in mystery and for Blaugast he remains (despite his childhood association) a part of the 'nocturnal image of the city' or worse - he is the devil incarnate; a force that will stop at nothing; Nemesis and the incarnation of ultimate dread. 'He was preceded by a fear so harrowing it peeled the marrow from Blaugast's bones...'

Perhaps the general style of Blaugast
shows traces of the multi-perspectivism of Futurist Art. Indeed Klima is right to draw attention to this element, but it is also appropriate to identify an expressionistic factor in the mood or atmosphere of the novel. Perhaps a more diffuse movement than Futurism, Expressionism reflected the transition from extreme Aesthetic Decadence, mainly, but not only, confined to literature, to the more primitivistic and pronounced gestural brutalism in the visual arts in the early years of the twentieth century. Prefigured by passages from the novels and art criticism of Huysmans and some oil sketches and drawings by Moreau, Expressionism was an art of heightened sensibility. In many cases this sensibility partook of the realms of nightmare delirium and, in this regard, Blaugast is a noteworthy example. We find glimpses of fragmented, macabre images that are at once urban-Expressionist, quasi-Surrealist and cinematic. For example, the image of a road that 'glistened monstrously and heaved like a narrow trench of death between the barking of machine guns...' or, in another instance, the image of animated doors swinging open 'furtively waving themselves at him with suspicious whisperings.'  Elsewhere we find urban nightmare incarnate in a grotesque window display where the waxen face of a mannequin 'bore the grimace of a murderer... ghostly, impure, familiar with original sin.' Blaugast is certainly a macabre, tortured, frenetic evocation of contorted beauty, the representation of a 'Satanic, blatant distortion of the world; a world in which the unspeakable asserts itself in sickness, 'in the spirals of degenerated nerve fibres.'

Sylvia A. Klima, the translator of Blaugast
, is a Professor of German, Slavic and Humanities at the State University, New York. In her Translator's Note she explains the 'unique challenges' she faced when grappling with the novel. These problems derive from two specific issues: the first being the particular linguistic mode of Leppin's own language, while the second is his idiosyncratic writing style.

Leppin spoke and wrote in a dialect mode known as Prague German that can be traced back at least as far as the Fourteenth Century. As cultural historians will know this dialect and its associated literature was, for the most part, effectively extinguished by the Second World War. Even earlier experts noted that Prague German was an isolated linguistic phenomenon, a kind of 'Sunday Best' use of language. With its archaic inflexions and its imported Slavisms the unique 'tint' of Leppin's linguistic inheritance presents even worse problems for the translator as no dictionaries for the dialect exist.

Klima also describes Leppin's 'decadent' mode of writing as similar to stream-of-consciousness, but with its own peculiarities caused in part by deliberate stylisation but also by the author's medical condition - he suffered from syphilis. Not so much a stream-of consciousness, more a hysterical stream-of-nightmare generated by the continuing assault on his nervous system as the disease progressed during the composition of the book.

His writing distinguished by its elaborate style from other Prague German writers such as Kafka who aimed for a stark ultra-modernism, Leppin moulded his expression to accommodate 'wild visions' and 'violent dreams', creating contortions of language to reflect 'the contortions of body and mind' that characterised his existential viewpoint. Klima enumerates various features of the text to illustrate these linguistic 'contortions': strings of adjectival constructions, elongated sentence structures, lexical figures of extended metaphor, sentences devoid of relative pronouns and other elements such as mythological references and invented words.

Paul Leppin's immediate influences were the writers and artists of the Czech Decadence. In the literary world the predominant figure was Stanislaw Pryzybyszewski author of many short novels and 'obscure stories of fatefully conceived sexuality' (as described by art critic Petr Wittlich). His translations of Huysmans were extremely influential in Prague German circles. Among his contemporaries or near-contemporaries Leppin also shares the moral perspective of writers like Frank Wedekind who, in his notorious Lulu Plays (1898), and other works, also denounced the ideology of altruism as a mask of bourgeois hypocrisy.

Klima compares the particular ethos of the Slavonic grotesque with the work of Russian Decadent Fyodor Sologub. She points to the 'sinister buffoonery' of the 'Little Baron' scenes, Schobotzki's weird costume shop and the use of sinister avian imagery as where Schobotzki appears as a vile bird of prey. Another clear influence on Blaugast
is Sacher-Masoch - Leppin's domintrix Wanda being an overt reference to the central object desire in Venus in Furs (1870), the femme fatale Wanda von Dunajew. However, Leppin's Wanda ('our Prima Donna, the beautiful Wanda') who we first meet dressed in a threadbare woollen scarf, 'leaning unabashed against the frame of the door' is from a different social background and from a different order of being altogether. Also, she has 'the look', a look that shocks. She has come 'out of the tunnels of night'.

Blaugast
shows affinities with the general tendency of much visual art of the period including early German cinema.  Many artists of the Czech fin-de-siecle are aligned with Art Nouveau and the Symbolists (Preisler, Bilec, and Mucha), but the most immediate influence was the art of Edvard Munch. There was a major Munch exhibition in Prague in 1905 and his febrile angst-ridden tone and mystical imagery resonate throughout literary works like Blaugast
and the graphic work of other Central Europeans like Alfred Kubin. Wanda's sordid sexual psychodramas and the bizarre relationships recounted in the earlier chapters of the novel find their parallels in visual works of the German late Expressionists and also of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement. One thinks of acerbic satires by Georg Grosz and Otto Dix ('Streetwalker', 1920), or drawings like 'Meeting of Fetishists' (1921) by Rudolf Schlichter.

As Wittlich has noted 'decadent' art and literature partakes of three dimensions: the naturalistic, the symbolist and the decorative. The stylistic mode of Blaugast
is almost decorative in its excess, while the descriptions of low-life degeneracy and bourgeois depravity are entirely consistent with a naturalistic trend that can be traced back to Baudelaire, Huysmans via Zola. The visionary and nightmare passages are not only found in both Baudelaire and Huysmans but overlap with more local Expressionistic/Proto-Surrealist fantasies that owe much to E. T. A. Hoffmann and Edgar Allan Poe. An important exponent of this vein of the mystical-macabre was Gustav Meyrink, well known in the period before the First World War for collections of strange semi-occult short stories such as Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1907).

German filmmaking of the time was saturated with similar  'momentous phantasmagoria', to use a phrase from Lotte Eisner. One thinks of Warning Shadows (1923), The Student of Prague  (1926) The Golem
(1920) and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) pioneered by, among many others, actor-directors such as Paul Wegener. This tradition of 'mad logic', grotesquerie and Gothic horror has been continued via the work of Czech animator Jan Svankmajer (Down in the Cellar, 1983) and his admirers The Quay Brothers with their evocations of corrupt urban decay in films such as Street of Crocodiles (1986). Svankmajer's Down in the Cellar recalls Blaugast haunted by 'the twilight of his agonising childhood' when, like all outsiders with an innate penchant for the macabre, he had encountered 'things whose shapeless existence later dominated him...'

In her note Klima lists a number of broad themes or preoccupations one finds in he novel. She identifies eroticism, absurdity, decay ('the decay of beauty'), redemption and revolt as ideas that resonate through every chapter. But, if eroticism is a striking feature of the tale, its companion theme is the pangs of love. These pangs are 'indestructible' and ubiquitous, for they are identical for everyone. For Blaugast love is full of yearning, the stalk of a pitiful plant, a stalk sprouting in ruined fields: 'It tearfully coos and flutters like a shamefully soiled brocade on the crest of those unaccustomed to hope'.

In his an analysis Hoffmann explains how Blaugast
is an attack upon the bourgeois world and its 'ideology of altruism'. The self-satisfied normal, middle-classes treat low-life with an ambivalent contempt. Ambivalent because, behind their facade of self-righteous respectability, they wallow in the depravities provided by the underclass. Meanwhile, Blaugast sardonically views his fellows not as truly moral beings, but existential tacticians who come to terms with themselves, and with others, by a 'clever technique', the mechanism of the oppressed, who like him are at odds with the phenomenological world 'finding themselves unable to embrace it.' In contrast with these deceptions, it is among the morally corrupt outcasts that a more authentic humanity can be found and, as Hoffmann says, 'it is the outcast who delivers salvation'. The hero attains his redemption, if that is the correct interpretation, through a kind of apathetic dissolution of the will. Wanda plies him with cheap drink to destroy his will, and further, and, we are told, Blaugast 'found himself in the middle of an enterprise to which he had yielded without thought' and where 'strange debris' is washed up in 'the murk of his imaginary world'. The climatic road accident is described as an 'epiphany of fate' and Johanna, for whom loyalty is the 'talisman of her existence', appropriates the victim without protest or resistance: 'like a bale of hay mowed down by a scythe'.

'I am the man,' says Blaugast, 'who goes overboard in the middle of the ocean and cannot swim.'

Elsewhere his particular condition is associated with terms like 'the unknown', 'the unspeakable', 'the irreversible', or 'the abyss of the incomprehensible'. Partly the terror is derived from this experience of irreversibility
for which the most telling metaphor is a railway journey 'its unavoidable tracks leading past eerie slopes and fainthearted stations into the Unknown'. It is his relationship with Wanda, whose presence is a 'worm-rotted footbridge' leading to further depraved exploits among the demimonde that initiates Blaugast's descent into hell - it is a hell of the 'distortions of the world'.

In Chapter III it says 'the irreversible that was now upon him trampled his body, defiled his humanity.'

Those 'things' whose shapeless forms intruded upon Blaugast's childhood become his own life by the end of the book when the trauma disintegration is described as a violent bodily transformation. This physiological distortion or deformity extends to the realm of the mind 'like unsightly cracks in a mirror' but is simultaneously reflected in his physical appearance. Blaugast becomes one of those shapeless things, 'his bloated body, hanging disfigured from his shoulder blades like a rumpled sack' as it 'groped and shuffled itself along the walls.' He has become the nameless 'blob' of so many b-movie horrors and finally, rather like a protagonist of Beckett's Trilogy
, he is deprived of the use of both legs and confined in a boarded-up loft space.

Friedrich Nietzsche once extolled a particular fearlessness of gaze, comparing such clear-sightedness to the stern resolve of the dissecting hand, or the resolute will to undertake risky voyages of discovery, journeys to the psychic equivalent of the North Pole under barren and threatening skies. In his hymn to distorted beauty that is Blaugast
, Paul Leppin takes us - his timid readers - and shows us the fractured ontological reality disclosed to such an unflinching gaze. At this point we ourselves might identify with his anti-hero who, when gripped by 'the incomprehensible', is compared to a mountaineer 'standing on the edge of an abyss, suddenly overwhelmed by horror'.

It is certainly the case that all our beliefs - those cherished convictions on which we base our view of 'the world' - are mere chimeras. Our faiths and our viewpoints are never accurate depictions of reality. On the contrary they are merely a mode of obfuscation, they are a fragile form of insulation against the traumatic dislocations and 'unspeakable' impossibilities of actual existence, against the sur-reality of the Real. Because of his pre-existing disposition, because of his proclivities and because of the diabolical machinations of Schobotzki, Blaugast is propelled into a vortex of disintegration - the disintegration of those too-fragile psychic barriers that insulate him (and us) from the unbearable anxiety and suicidal despair arising from the 'distortions' of Reality.

But, and this is the real horror, these Satanic 'distortions' of the 'the world' are not a deformation - they only appear as such to the traumatised victim of ontological exposure.

Distortion is the natural and expected outcome of loss: the loss of that comfort zone we call belief.


© A.C. Evans 2008


References
Daly, Glyn. 'Slavoj Zizek' in Carver
, Terrell/Martin, James. Continental Political Thought. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Eisner, Lotte H. The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt
. Thames & Hudson, 1969.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to A Philosophy of The Future
(trans Zimmern). Dover Publications, 1997.
O' Pray, Michael. Alchemists of the Surreal
[Svankmajer/Bros Quay] (NFT Mar 1987). British Film Iinstitute, 1987
Von Sacher-Masoch, Leopold. Venus in Furs
. Penguin Books, 2000.
Wittlich, Petr. Art Nouveau Drawings
. Octopus Books, 1974.