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The Uncivil Servant: Fame and Disillusionment

Mitchell Abidor
September 16, 2017

Discussed in this essay: Late Fame by Arthur Schnitzler. NYRB Classics, 2017, 128 pages.

ARTHUR SCHNITZLER (1862-1931) was so central a figure in Viennese literary life in the first decades of the 20th century that the great cultural historian Peter Gay titled his book on the development of bourgeois culture between the Battle of Waterloo and World War I, Schnitzler’s Century.

A Jewish doctor born to a Jewish doctor in the largely Jewish Leopoldstadt quarter of Vienna (a plaque marking his birthplace, a short walk from the Prater, can be seen if you crane your neck on Praterstrasse), his true love was writing. Schnitzler was hugely successful as a playwright by his thirties; his most famous work, Reigen (La Ronde), was first performed in 1897.

His writings, biting portraits of Hapsburg society that were frank in their sexuality, made him both a star and a scandal. His many works retained their popularity even after his death, and so it is odd that it was only in 2014 that the German edition of his touching, funny, astute novella Late Fame was published, which a scant three years later is now available in English in a deft translation by Alexander Starritt.

The delay was not the result of any failings in the novella. Completed in 1895 at the height of Schnitzler’s fame, it was submitted for serial publication in the periodical Die Zeit. The editor didn’t think it would work if it was serialized, and suggested it be cut by a third. The revision wasn’t done, and the typescript lay in Schnitzler’s archives until it was recently discovered and published.

If the work does not have the bite of a work like Lieutenant Gustl, it is nevertheless a wonderfully jaundiced vision of the literary circles that abounded in Schnitzler’s Vienna, where groups like Jung Wien, satirized here, took up residence in the city’s ubiquitous cafés and expounded on literary topics through the night.

LATE FAME revolves around the belated discovery by a group of young writers of the forgotten volume of poetry, Wanderings, by the forgotten poet Eduard Saxberger, now an elderly civil servant who has put in decades at the office, his poetry a thing of the distant past.

He is dragged into the literary present by members of the Enthusiasm society, who claim to have rediscovered, to love and be inspired by Saxberger’s long out-of-print work.

The flattered Saxberger begins to attend their café discussions, honored by the attentions of his young acolytes: “Entering a gathering where his presence represented a particular honor was something that had never happened to him before.” His decades away from poetry and art fall away -- “[I]t seemed to him that he belonged among these people” -- and his old, mundane life in a neighborhood café no longer makes sense to him. Leaving his young admirers one evening, he returns to his old, popular haunt: “And as he sat in his place and found himself surrounded by only mundane conversations in no way interrupted by his coming, he thought: you might have stood up when I walked in.”

The other Enthusiasts give him their writings to read, and he can make nothing of them, a young fan having written short stories “that for reasons not immediately apparent to Saxberger he described as comic,” and in another case poor “Saxberger could never quite get down to reading the tiny, cramped handwriting.”

A superannuated actress seems to have fallen for him, and Saxberger is finally living the life he should have lived when young, la vie d’artiste.

But when it is decided to hold an evening of readings of works by the Enthusiasts and Saxberger is asked to write new poems, he makes the alarming discovery that he no longer has it in him. He strolls along the Danube, seeking inspiration from what he sees, from those he passes, to write the “Evening Moods” he’d promised. Though everything makes an impression on him, “his efforts were in vain.” He comes to the realization that “[i]t was over. At heart it was simple and not even very sad -- no sadder than age itself, hardly sadder than the thirty years in which no verse had ever occurred to him.”

Saxberger learns that his late fame was all an illusion — that everything was an illusion except his thirty years as a civil servant, and the restaurant in which he had spent his evenings with simple folk unaware of his short-lived literary past. “He sensed that he no longer wanted anything more, no longer needed anything more.”

He has learned that the literary life was not at all what he needed to live to be happy: its perturbations and jealousies far outweigh its benefits. The life of a civil servant who accepts his lot and is content with it has provided Saxberger with unalloyed contentment. In Late Fame, Schnitzler, despite his own rejection of petit-bourgeois life for the literary one, gives us a marvelous, humorous, and touching paean to a life lived accepting placidity, accepting the absence of fame, late or otherwise.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.