The Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić, in an essay on the fickleness of the literary marketplace, discusses how she would dress up the classics of modern literature and submit them as book proposals to U.S. publishers. She makes a few alterations to “The Old Man and the Sea,” including “stressing the ecological aspect of the thing” and “changing the old man into a good-looking young Cuban exile, gay.” She finds success. A stab at “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is not so lucky: “ ‘Forget the contents!’ said the editor. ‘No one could possibly follow that story. But there’s no reason not to use that great title.’ ” Her whimsical essay is a bit inventive, Ugrešić admits, but she’s straightforward in her advice to would-be writers, that, unlike her, they should probably keep quiet about the absurdities of their chosen field, unless they seek to sever the branch they’re sitting on.
The hustle and randomness to literary success, its sense of interchangeability, are at the heart of a newly translated novella by Arthur Schnitzler, released by New York Review Books Classics last summer. Finished in 1895, the brilliant “Late Fame” concerns an aging Viennese civil servant who, virtually out of nowhere, is crowned a master poet by an eccentric coffeehouse group of striving writers and actors. The tale consists of little more than the man’s ascension and the orchestration of a public reading, yet in Schnitzler’s hands it becomes a distorted mirror onto the less-talked-about side of literary life—from workshopping to self-promotion, favor trading, and reviews. (“Was it even allowed,” the complacent and cipher-ish hero, Eduard Saxberger, reflects apropos of reviews, “to take a decent person who had done nothing wrong and treat him like this?”) Inwardly, Saxberger goes from feeling that life has passed him by to feeling awakened to his inborn specialness, that “he was indeed a poet!” The slim book that he bases this realization on, “The Wanderings,” was written more than thirty years ago, but never mind: it’s a good fit for the cultish and bickering Enthusiasm Society, whose members decry literary fashion and careerism while rallying around a conviction in their own criminally ignored gifts.
For Schnitzler himself, of course, recognition was not in doubt, with success arriving in his thirties and four volumes of collected writings to his name by the time he was fifty. In the States, his output has often been synonymous with just a couple of works (both of them daringly erotic for their time) and especially with their film adaptations: “Reigen” was adapted into “La Ronde” by Max Ophuls, in 1950, and again by Roger Vadim, featuring Jane Fonda, in 1964; a bit more recently, “Traumnovelle” inspired Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.” But Schnitzler, a doctor before retiring to write, was prolific, in prose as well as drama. “Late Fame” was unreleased in his lifetime; it was meant for the periodical Die Zeit, but ultimately rejected on the grounds of length. Where most of Schnitzler’s reprinted novels in English are notable for their advanced psychological realism (Freud saw him as something of a doppelgänger), “Late Fame” is wholeheartedly comic, albeit with a touch of pathos and its own kind of unmasking. The story’s conceit packs a sting for creatives. After all, where is the writer who has never felt like an impostor?
The restless souls at the center of Schnitzler’s farce, mischievously and briskly delineated, were partly modelled on the group of writers known as “Young Vienna”: critics bring up names like Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Peter Altenberg, and Stefan George. But whatever human clay helped supply their quirks, the Enthusiasm Society amounts to a diverse repository of absurd writerly and creative types, reflected in their range of ages and specialties: in addition to poets, there’s a dramatist, two actors, a novelist, and a critic. “We are simply artists,” is how they are introduced to the pliant, clean-shaven Saxberger. Oblivious Romantics in a modernizing world, they say things like “I write what I have to write,” “You, too, have been destroyed by the public,” and “May I permit myself to send you my ‘Zenobia’?” An oppressive heat and smokiness fills their favored coffeehouse. “I’ve been running around town all afternoon . . . something has to be done . . . people need to know about us,” an irritable ballad-writer declares, vocalizing the wider ache to be noticed. This being before social media, a solution is devised in the form of a reading. They find a site normally reserved for carnivals and small dances. Here, old literary work can mingle seamlessly with the unfinished, and the collective can be launched with a manifesto. (It’s titled “What We Want” and, in fact, airs one member’s grievances while being ghostwritten totally by another.) The plan is for Saxberger, benign and verifiably gray-haired, to bestow his would-be grandeur on this motley and largely unpublished troupe.
The story of a resurfacing or uncovered maestro ideally hangs on a new work, and Saxberger is asked to come up with new poems for the event. For decades, the office clerk has read only newspapers and the odd commercial novel, preferring to spend his off time at the local bar (the Pickled Pear), chatting at a safe remove and keeping score of others’ billiards games. With the need to actually dispense some ink, his passive new daydream of fame becomes annoyingly cantilevered to reality. “Don’t you think ‘The Wanderings’ unknown enough?” he says as he tries to defend himself. Saxberger’s plight is a test of age that stirs up pangs of lost youth, and steps from pure satire into the tragicomic. Any self-doubting creative struggle may look much like another, and the elusiveness of “the right atmosphere” can cause genuine torment. Similarly, Saxberger, beset with pleas to comment on others’ work, shows a mixture of aversion and subjectivity that is both absurd and plausibly lifelike. Considering a book of poems by the Enthusiasm Society’s young chief organizer, Meier, Saxberger wonders if it’s as good as his own, while admitting to himself that he’s unable to make heads or tails of it. (This doesn’t stop him from bluffing and, in offering some objections, delighting in the feeling that he is “gaining a greater and greater ascendancy” over the author—a staple of literary power games everywhere.)
Are Saxberger and the Enthusiasm Society terrible writers? From all we observe and hear of them, it’s likely. However, Schnitzler doesn’t let us see any of their efforts, apart from a line or two from a speech. Rather than constituting a dodge, this has the tantalizing effect of splicing the question of talent from personality, of status from impressions of how status is expected to appear. Dealing in externals alone, “Late Fame” ’s comedy of emptiness invites us to reflect on the impurity of fame, and the part of play-acting in literary reception and appraisal altogether.
It’s not completely unrealistic that Saxberger’s long-forgotten book is decent and would have led to other works with more recognition. Likewise, as a thrown-together literary clique simmering with pretension and infighting, Enthusiasm surely has counterparts in the real world (although they may not be quite so bold as to say aloud, “Talentless . . . is what we generally call people who sit at different tables from us”). In fact, some of the group’s members do quite realistically win modest opportunities on the basis of their crazy reading. They’re mocked in amusing reviews—one talks of “several artistic colossi unknown to a wider audience,” and of their art being “a harmless pastime”—and they call the reviewer an idiot and turn on one another. Yet such things are par for the course in their world, the bumps that inevitably accompany gains. As for Saxberger, he’s wounded when a voice in the audience calls him a “poor devil,” but also gets congratulated on his “lovely poems.”
In different ways, Schnitzler patterns Saxberger’s ride as a fairy tale, depicting his second literary go-round as a fatalistic and bewitching spell. “You wrote ‘The Wanderings,’ and the man who wrote ‘The Wanderings’ is one of us,” he hears early in the narrative, and throughout the story he takes heady walks, echoing his book’s title, that are both urban and evocative of paths in a deceptive forest. The decision to frame Saxberger’s “short, troublesome journey” in such terms lends the satire a distinct note of universality, a hint that, literary fame being what it is, any writer could fall prey to similar follies, a confounding interplay of the real and the imaginary. An author yelling “Idiot!” and “Cretin” at an absent newspaper reviewer can’t be that uncommon. And who are one’s audience and one’s enemies? It’s like when, at their coffeehouse, one of Enthusiasm’s members rants about a rival group and points accusingly at another table, only to find that nobody is present. Perhaps certain satires and a dark kind of fairy tale have this in common, that sometimes, in wrestling their way through to the bottom of something, they end up implicating us all, finally saying simply: “Beware.”