Fame­and its pur­suers

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - FIC­TION STOD­DARD MARTIN

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’

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