According to a reviewer in the Slovenian newspaper Delo, “the most appealing aspect” of Katja Perat’s The Masochist (Mazohistka) “is its infinite power of linguistic invention, one that makes you appreciate the Slovenian language.” To be sure, the translation of the novel by Michael Biggins provides us with a compelling narrative voice (the protagonist’s) that seems authentic enough for the era and social setting (early twentieth century, upper class Vienna) that the novel depicts — compelling at least as such a character might address us in English. Obviously, however, this is quite far from demonstrating the novel’s “linguistic invention,” and of course can tell us nothing about the power of the Slovenian language.
Thus in reading The Masochist in its English translation, we are, at least if we accept that an important — perhaps the most important — feature of The Masochist is its adventurous prose style, missing out on what potentially makes the novel most distinctive. And since prior to the publication of this novel Katja Perat was known primarily as a promising young poet, we have little reason to doubt that her work in the original might indeed prompt readers to “appreciate the Slovenian language” more keenly. Our inability to share this appreciation in a translation is, to be sure, no argument against the efficacy of translation more broadly, but it ought to restrain the critic, at least, from making unsupportable claims about a translated work under review.
What sorts of explications and judgments, then, could credibly be made of The Masochist? While we may not be able to so clearly recognize the poetic effects Perat creates, we can nevertheless examine the virtues of the narrative itself, conveyed by the novel’s protagonist, Nadezhda Moser. The story that she gives of her life is part introspection, part confession, and part careful observation. The narrative relates a story of maturation of sorts. It includes Nadezhda’s reminiscences of her adopted father, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (we are told that the celebrated author of Venus in Furs found her orphaned in the woods in the Ukraine), whom Nadezhda describes as a self-absorbed and mercurial personality but not really as depraved, which his posthumous reputation might lead us to expect. Ultimately Nadezhda comes to finally escape the formative influence of her father (although these influences are also responsible for those elements of her character that allow her to ultimately claim her independence), as well as her bad judgment in marriage and romance. But the narrative is also something of a picaresque historical procession through the pre-World War I Austro-Hungarian empire, in which Nadezhda encounters many other prominent cultural figures, including Rilke, whom she meets while visiting Duino, and James Joyce, whom she encounters (without knowing who he is) at the novel’s conclusion.
Nadezhda depicts these scenes while also examining and questioning her own actions along the way. Much of the former is done through dialogue, which actually carries most of the novel’s narrative weight and creates interesting character sketches of the historical figures (especially Joyce and Sigmund Freud). The latter at times perhaps slows narrative progress a little too much but does also help elevate Nadezhda to a greater level of complexity as a character, at least as we know her through her retrospective narration, which seems honest and insightful enough, even as she renders scenes that reveal attitudes and behavior that make her seem less self-possessed. Thus the translation does prove effective in establishing a convincing narrative voice that conveys important elements of character more than reproduces any overt stylistic flourishes that might echo the “linguistic invention” available to Slovene readers. To this extent, readers of The Masochist in translation may be less aware of Perat’s poetic prose, but few are likely to experience this as something that undermines the cogency of Nadezhda Moser’s voice.
Nadezhda, of course, is not just the narrator but the novel’s main character, whose story of a proto-feminist awakening from her loveless marriage and assertion of freedom from the influence of both Sacher-Masoch and her husband provides the novel’s emotional and thematic core. Nadezhda’s story is embedded, however, in a background narrative in which she immediately escapes her father’s environment by marrying the Viennese aristocrat Maximillian Moser, through whom (as well as the reputation of Sacher-Masoch) she becomes acquainted with many celebrated artistic and intellectual figures of Central Europe. She becomes a patient of Freud as her unhappiness in her marriage deepens (eventually leading her to engage in an extended affair, which ends very badly indeed for all parties). As she ponders leaving Maximillian, she goes to stay with a princess in her castle in Duino, where she meets Rilke. What makes these encounters more than just a gimmick to “historicize” Nadezhda’s plight is that many of the “real-life” characters are depicted in ways that don’t merely reinforce stereotyped perceptions of them — Rilke is portrayed as something of a clod, Freud seems surprisingly unstuffy, and James Joyce comes off as friendly but rather forlorn. In this way, these figures become less tied to our preconceptions of them and come to seem more like genuine characters in Nadezhda’s narrative.
Although Nadezhda does not tell her story in straight chronological order, proceeding more associatively both backward and forward, at times with fairly abrupt transitions, the novel still seems very much episodic. The story could be regarded as a kind of delayed coming-of-age narrative whereby Nadezhda matures into not only a more expansive world beyond the insular world in which she has previously moved (mainly through her visits to the more heterogeneous city of Trieste), but also into a firmer commitment to her own integrity and self-reliance as a woman, in a social sphere still regulated by and for the prerogatives of men. But the novel isn’t organized by the dramatic conventions of this sort of narrative. Instead, it has a looser structure, the episodes linked through something like a discursive train of thought rather than a plot per se. But this hybrid structure works effectively to make The Masochist both less formulaic than it might otherwise be and more than the expedient instrument for clever impersonations of cultural luminaries from the past, perhaps conveying an impression of immediacy allowing Nadezhda to act as a witness to a social system in eclipse.
That Nadezhda Moser circulates among such figures also helps make her growth into greater self-confidence and assertion of autonomy all the more impressive, since to assert oneself in such a milieu at all would be intimidating, but the effort to do so as a woman is surely even more fraught. In ultimately deciding she will no longer “live a lie” by pretending to be content with her role as Maximillian’s wife, Nadezhda also finally does escape the legacy of Leopold Sacher-Masoch, at least in relation to his most notorious activity. Nadezhda has herself engaged in a form of masochism, silently experiencing humiliation by her own passivity, her reluctance to challenge the expectations of the part she has been asked to play. She has received little pleasure from performing the role, however, as even her affair was really itself just one of the accepted demands of that role as carried out in the culture she inhabits — and which, of course, shortly will be brought to its end.
The Masochist seems a recognizably “European” novel in its subject and social satire, although it also reminds us of the Slavic presence in the old empire: Nadezhda takes lessons in Cyrillic from her Ruthenian housemaid, who also sings a song from the “homeland” that brings Nadezhda to tears. The city of Trieste, where we find her at the novel’s conclusion, was known for its mixed population of Austrians, Italians, and Slovenes (and more). If Trieste is as close to current-day Slovenia as the novel gets, The Masochist nonetheless summons a persuasive recreation (which Biggins’s translation does indeed admirably evoke) of a foundational period in the region’s history, even if the foundations are in the process of crumbling.
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