Books cited in this review:
Severin's Journey into the Dark: a Prague Ghost Story (Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 1993)
Others' Paradise (Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 1995)
Blaugast: a Novel of Decline (Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 2007)
Paul Leppin, a German-writing author born in 1878 in Prague, is returning from the negligence around his work that set in soon after his death in 1945. As such he, for a time, joined the ranks of those whose work was wrongfully erased from the canon. Just recently the author who, during his lifetime held the title of the “king of Prague bohemians,” has been rediscovered. Leppin, who most of his life worked as a postal clerk, began his literary journey with short stories and poetry, starting in 1905 with his first novel, Daniel Jesus, which was praised by German expressionists, but scorned by the Czechs as a pornographic piece of work, and as such a literary scandal – however it still established him as a leading figure of young German authors in Prague. Known for his decadent life as an important link between Czech and German literature, Leppin had to pay a great tax of oblivion, best explained by his scandalous writing, and even more so by the pressure and censorship he experienced during the German occupation and the succeeding communist regime, adding to his near deletion from the literary canon. Despite suffering great physical and mental turmoil, as a result of contracting syphilis towards the end of his life, Leppin still wrote, with the help of others, almost until his last days in 1945, when he died, almost completely forgotten.
Most of his work was saved only because an anonymous person found his archive in the middle of the streets of Prague, and brought it to the Strahov monastery, where it can still be found. A lot of credit goes to literary researchers after Czechoslovakia gained independence, for recognizing the quality of his work and furthering its reach through translations. In the last decade, readers have finally also received English translations, issued by the publishing house Twisted Spoon Press, introducing Leppin’s work to an ever-broader audience.
Currently, we can speak of a re-awakening of his work among Czech and European readers. His work draws upon the European tradition of decadence, while at the same time dabbles in expressionism. As such, it features an existentially-lost individual, as well as a criticism of the world, once more relevant today. If we take a look at the first book translated to English, Severin’s Journey Into the Dark, first published in German in 1914, we see how Leppin uses the erotic tradition of European decadence to show the psychological drama of the protagonist. The reader accompanies him in his journey through the burrows of Prague, following his internal decay. In a similar fashion to Kafka and Mayerink, Leppin takes urban landscape as the foundation of his work, showing it in the example of Prague as the metropolis of human scum, exhaustion and the darker sides of human existence in general. Prague acts like a ghost town, and even more like the mirror image of the protagonist, Severin. The name of the young clerk, who spans reality and dreams, trying to find escape from the internal misery that takes over him, is leading us to the novella Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, which greatly influenced Leppin’s protagonist. He also seeks sense in love and searches for others, manifested through forces known through Freudian psychoanalysis – it takes a twist for the worse, through female dominance and sadomasochism, leading Severin to ruin in darkness. Within the two parts of the novel, “One Year of Severin’s Life” and “The Spider,” Leppin engages a third-person narrator who excels in the use of language and in compiling dark dream sequences to drive us further into darkness. For the most part, the narrative organizes around Severin’s path from monotonous bureaucracy, his visits to salons, with their perverse aesthetic, his night wanderings through the city, and especially around his relations with other lost souls of the city. In this, Leppin manages to capture the diverse social structure, from the dirty Jewish bookseller, eccentrics, drunks, syphilis-infected prostitutes, to occult individuals, like the character Nikolas, in whom we can see Gustav Mayerink. A special place in the novel is taken by female characters, as the nihilistic protagonist seeks his salvation selfishly through them. Leppin uses female figures to depict the social problematic; they establish the motif of good and evil as Severin, in his relentless search for love, destroys one love after another. We witness this throughout the first part of the novel, which includes scenes of an almost sadistic extortion of women and even toying with death, a recurrent theme in Leppin’s works.
The reader also gains insight into the broader picture of society. The female characters, with their roles and positions in society, not only mark the relationship with the protagonist, but also the societal structure of the beginning of the 20th century. If, at least for a short time at the end of the first part, Severin finds consolation with a Slavic girl named Zdenka, the title of the second part, “The Spider,” already hints at the coming of his end. This comes in the form of femme fatale Mylada, who seduces him so that he finds himself on the other side of the spider’s web. Through their sadistic relationship, the protagonist is brought to complete departure into darkness, to physical and mental decay – however, the main quality of the novel is not only the depiction of lost souls at that time, the eroticism hidden in the subconscious of the city, but also the broader social problematic of Prague.
This is also one of the central motifs in the collection of short stories, Other’s Paradise, encompassing eight tales, first published in German in 1921. Stories that mostly depict Prague protagonists take their motifs from decadence, for example “The Ghost of the Jewish Quarter,” where once again Leppin shows syphilis through a protagonist, a prostitute, who in her unstoppable wish for physical contact, infects the whole city. In turn, it then depicts the dead part of the city, the Prague Jewish ghetto. Similarly decadent motifs can also be seen in “The Wonderdoll,” where a young boy falls in love with a wax figurine which, due to the strength of his love, comes to life and they then drown together in the Vltava. That way, Leppin continues to tie himself to decadent imagery, but also adds fantastic elements of Prague legends, as well as transforming the motifs themselves. Such transformations can be seen in “The Doors of Life” and “The House of the Riverbank,” where in the narrative fairy tales are transformed by switching lyrical parts and broken-off sentences. This we could already understand as hints of the beginning of modernism and the avant-garde. Even more so, if we take into account that Leppin also used intertextuality, noticeable in the flow of consciousness swaying between reality and dreams in “The Dream of the Silver Eaves.” All this is joined by sudden twists, joining absurd and dark humor, like in “Other’s Paradise,” where Master Thomas falls in love with the feet of a young lady which he observes through the small window of his cellar workroom. Even though he never meets the lady, the moment he sees her brings meaning to his life, and his demise. The stories show a mixture of genres and themes in depicting Prague and its protagonists, however Leppin sometime falls into schematics and lacks refinement, as is noticeable in the last story, “Retribution,” which actually represents the beginning stages of Blaugast, published posthumously.
We can understand Blaugast as the logical continuation of both the aforementioned works. The novel was first released in totality in 1984, and again delves into the dark Prague atmosphere. Severin’s journey into darkness is deepened. Like Severin, the titular protagonist, Klaudius Blaugast, is an official who follows his sexual desires down the road of dehumanization and destruction. An ambivalent relationship with women is characteristic of him, as well (as it is of Severin). The novel opens with a dark night in the Prague streets, when the protagonist meets an old schoolmate, Schobotzki. It is he who seduces him with “the science of decay.” Again, it is primarily of a sexual nature, where we can once more notice the allusion to the novella, Venus in Furs. With the introduction of the evil prostitute, Wanda, the dehumanization of Blaugast accelerates. Together with his fate, which develops to the point when all that is left of him is just an empty shell of a body, Leppin does well to interchange present with past memories and the awakening of Blaugast’s sexuality, from which he derives his guilt, and the eternal quest for love and comfort in motherliness, which he seeks in women. The final decay of the protagonist aligns with the advance of his syphilis, in brutal scenes of his fall to the end of the social ladder, when he becomes just a toy in the corrupt bourgeois society, using him for their personal pleasures – when, for example, he masturbates onto a plate or imitates a bird's song. The advance of the sickness also brings about paranoia and dream hallucinations, adding guilt to obsession, as his state of existence, which forces him to run from the prostitute Wanda.
Leppin uses guilt with religious attributes to depict intimate and societal repressive mechanisms, present in everyday life, as well as shows how society, through its norms and rules, is the means of its own decay. This is a novel that could be considered the last European decadent work, and it therefore also carries the typical experience of war, which already brings it closer to the literary movement of Expressionism - the decay of the protagonist can also be viewed as the decay of the societal system of Europe. In that way, the novel can be regarded as a significant upgrade from Severin’s Journey. The work uses the psychological drama of the protagonist and sews it together with well-thought-out language, full of detail, fantastic hallucinations, to draw out the human and social psyche and its problems. Unlike Severin, the novel concludes with rather a cliché, where Leppin again uses the motif of duality (generally used in decadent literature), in the form of the character Johanna - the prostitute with a proverbial “heart of gold.” She can be seen as the antipode to the evil Wanda and, in the end, takes the failed protagonist into her care. Even though it would, at first, seem that the ending is somehow optimistic, it can, at the same time, denote Blaugast’s weakness and the double morals of man – he becomes a passive creature, unable to live his life.
So why read Paul Leppin? For the most part, because this forgotten writer isn't only an extraordinary notary of a “lost Prague,” and the psychological turmoil of his protagonists, but also because he shows us the hidden sides of human nature, and the double morals of society, very much still present today. With shocking and rich language, he takes us on a path that spans lyrical (dis)illusions and the horror of the world, but most importantly can open the door to an examination of our own unconscious, which demands and screams for self-reflection.