When Venus in Furs was first published in 1870, psychologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing coined the term Masochist, much to the chagrin of the author: Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The novel was erotically charged and emotionally violent, blurring the lines between love and cruelty, power and victimhood. How did Sacher-Masoch know these things?
In her debut novel, The Masochist, Katja Perat creates an adopted daughter for the novelist to retell the history of their era, as she might have lived it.
As a youth, the “wild child” Nadezhda is pulled from place to place by “natural insider” Leopold’s impulses and indemnity of birth, watching the trail of spurned and broken women, and being shaped by experiences she then must reconcile in her own young life. It’s a reconciliation that takes her into fin de siècle Vienna, “the heart of Austria, the heart of the world, the heart of life…” to a house on Spiegelgasse, to Berggasse 19 – Freud’s couch – to a romantic rendezvous in Café Central and lovelorn walks through the Prater, to trysts in the Hotel Sacher and uncontrolled weeping through Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) at the Musikverein.
The first-person narrative illuminates the gulf between Nadezhda’s thought and speech, just as it reveals the gulf between male and female experience in a fin de siècle society where her true voice retreats into the confines of her head – a place we get to share. Here, impulsiveness in men is applauded as bold individualism, but in women is a sign of hysteria. Her silence then is often her boldest resistance, and her acerbic, unvoiced retorts in the face of 19th century mansplaining become our private jokes. The teeming life locked within her head oversees an outward passivity that she continues to combat into her adult life, until she is able at last to declare, “This is my first act of free will.”
Though the story in The Masochist is often weighty and tragic, Perat’s blend of dry wit and lyrical beauty is a hugely enjoyable read, as Nadezhda (Slavic for “hope” – something she considers a cruel joke) continues to search for what will give vitality to her life.
She writes of desire and closeness: “The contact between two hands is so slight, barely taking in any body at all, but when it’s forced to carry the entire burden of intimacy, it seems to take in everything, not just the whole body, but the whole spirit as well and everything else that you can’t ascribe to just one or the other.”
For Nadezhda, this written account is a means of wresting some autonomy over her life. For Perat, it is an autonomy over which the voices of an era might survive.
Through “Nada,” she begins to redress the balance: Though we see Gustav Klimt, it’s Emilie Flöge and Adele Bloch-Bauer that are the focus. And every man she encounters from Freud to Rilke gets an acerbic critique, saying of the latter: “He was the kind of person who in the course of a single sentence was capable of apologizing at least five times, without giving the slightest impression he was sorry for anything.”
It’s also a chance to gaze through an exciting, contemporary and importantly female eye, through a world that amplified men, which she does adroitly. It’s through this eye that she allows the lives of the era’s women to be seen, whilst deeply pursuing the questions of feminine desire and purpose. As the “wild child” recounts: “Leopold always liked to say that women, not men, were the ones who should be entrusted with history.”
It’s a deft and accomplished debut; grand in scope but succinct. A worthy rewording of the time, made for our own.
Translated by Michael Biggins
Istros Books 2020
pp 194 €14.40