Fameand its pursuers
ONE ASSOCIATES struggling young writers with Parisian garrets and La Bohème, but Vienna of the fin-desiècle was perhaps their great heyday. Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Stefan Zweig apprenticed themselves there. Slightly older was Arthur Schnitzler, best known now as the playwright of La Ronde.
Schnitzler mixed with theorists such as Freud and Herzl, as well as the “second Viennese school” of musicians and “Secessionist” visual artists. Like the Schönbergs and Schieles, he and his kind fancied themselves rebels: men of manifestos, sure of their “genius” almost before it had been put down in ink.
Late Fame is Schnitzler’s neverbefore-published novella about this milieu. Translated by Alexander Starritt, it appears in an elegant edition (£15) from those fine exhumers of overlooked classics, Pushkin Press. It tells of a sexagenarian civil servant who wrote a slim volume of poems in youth, only to be neglected. One day, a representative of “Young Vienna” arrives at his door to inform him that he is now a heroic exemplar.
The old man visits the “Enthusiasm Society”, which meets in a smoky café. Members represent all writerly identities — poet, novelist, playwright, critic, lecturer. Out-of-work actors attend, too. In pique at general lack of attention, they devise an evening in which all may have fifteen minutes of fame. The old poet is to be lead-turn in this enterprise. He imagines himself on the verge of an adulation he had forgotten he deserved. In truth, he is being used mainly to promote younger men’s work.
Schnitzler’s protagonist moves between the self-styled avant-garde, and amateur versifiers in an old duffers’ pub. Pretensions of both are skewered: the backbiting of bohemians, the self-protective scorn of the settled bourgeois. At risk of being ludicrously out of time with the one and alienated by conventionality from the other, the old man gradually realises that whatever poetic urge he had in youth has vanished, as if it belonged to another person entirely.
This is no tragedy, except perhaps to one shy acolyte who posits faith in his judgment. Seeking advice on whether he should take the risk of becoming a poet, he is told: “If something was very beautiful or very bad, I might be able to tell you the difference; but to say whether you have talent or not? I don’t understand the first thing.” Calloused humility at last must be learned. Caprice and chance lurk behind artistic success.
Recognition of true talent is ever a crapshoot.
He and his kind fancied themselves rebels, men of manifestos, sure of their ‘genius’