Arthur Schnitzler’s forgotten novella is released in English, in a stylish translation by Alexander Starritt
Arthur Schnitzler’s beguiling novella Late Fame is as much about the vanity of youth as the foolishness of old age. When the unfulfilled poet Eduard Saxberger falls in with a group of young artists, they sing the praises of Wanderings, his long-forgotten collection of verse. He becomes intoxicated, beginning to believe their hype. Perhaps he was a great, unrecognized talent; perhaps he can write again.
“Around him was an atmosphere of hope, youth, self-confidence, and he breathed it in deeply… And it seemed to him that he belonged among these people.”
Written in the last decade of the 19th century, Late Fame had been all but neglected until recently. Though Schnitzler considered his novella complete, in 1895 a proposal to serialize it in the Viennese weekly Die Zeit fell through. First published in German in 2014, it is now available in English thanks to The New York Review of Books, savior of so much lost European fiction, including Leonid Tsypkin’s masterpiece Summer in Baden Baden.
With an adept translation by Alexander Starritt, what has been saved is a slight yet masterful conjuring of fin-de-siècle Vienna that is at once perceptive, restrained, and often witty, a send-up of the creative milieu of the period. That the ctional writers circle “Enthusiasm” gathers in a café off the Ringstrasse and refers to itself as “the pride and hope of Young Vienna” recalls Schnitzler’s own literary circle, which met at Café Griensteidl and included the writers Karl Kraus and Stefan Zweig.
Immediately noticeable among the novella’s young Viennese is their sheer fecklessness. To call oneself a writer, one first has to write, but the members of “Enthusiasm” are nothing but dandies and fops. They waste their evenings complaining about their lack of recognition – “People have to hear about us, people have to know about us” – while grumbling about those who’ve made it (presumably because they actually wrote something). “They assuredly had a tremendous amount of talent between them,” Saxberger observes. “Work, however, was something they actually did very little of.”
If the mockery of Jung Wien (Young Vienna) provides the jest, Saxberger is the heart of Late Fame. “He had the feeling that he had long since forgotten about himself,” Schnitzler writes of this sad gure stuck in a bureaucratic job. In the company of “Enthusiasm” he comes back to life – a little arrogant and pompous, perhaps, but reinvigorated and aware of opportunities missed.
“He almost felt that he was growing younger. A new era of his life seemed to have begun and from time to time he was a little disconcerted to think of the previous empty years, which now seemed very distant.”
No Fool Like an old Fool
Tragedy follows triumph. When “Enthusiasm” decides to put on an evening of recitals, Saxberger is asked to produce a new poem. He returns to the well and finds it dry. His talent was fleeting; he was not destined for the poet’s life. The performance itself becomes a bittersweet nadir: Selections from Wanderings are well received, while Saxberger comes to realize what an “old fool” he had been “to associate himself with this circle of young people among whom he simply did not belong.”
This parting blow is eased, with Saxberger given the final say, in a masterfully crafted novella that will amuse writers as much as those who think so little of them. Late Fame is also a windfall to Schnitzler’s many admirers, all the more precious because it was unexpected.