It was about a stately pace upward here, and it was about having to be drawn downward in an easy descent, not about a frenetic scurrying up and down the chicken ladder of purposes having no form.
— Heimito von Doderer, The Strudlhof Steps
ALTHOUGH HE WAS nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature five times, Heimito von Doderer is less well known than his fellow Austrian novelists Hermann Broch and Robert Musil. Von Doderer is a fascinating figure that we would rightly first countenance with wary circumspection. Once a Nazi sympathizer, von Doderer dubbed National Socialism “eine ehemalige Geliebte” (a former lover), but as Elizabeth C. Hesson has demonstrated in her 1982 book on von Doderer, Twentieth Century Odyssey, the controversial writer did an about-face against racist ideology after reading Thomas Aquinas and converting to Catholicism. As a consequence of this reversal, he rewrote the entirety of his massive 1956 novel The Demons, purging it of lingering Nazism and all such traces of what he called “second realities” — ideological distortions of the world as it actually is. If his novels are filled with useful idiots, this is in part an artful catharsis of his own failings. “My real work consists,” he confessed before his death in 1966, “neither of prose or verse, but in the recognition of my own stupidity.” As René Girard argues in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961), it is precisely the “victory over self-centeredness,” the “renunciation of fascination and hatred,” that is the “crowning moment of novelistic creation,” and the process can therefore be found in all great novelists.
Von Doderer went on to consider diminished perception one of the great enemies of the age. This loss of Anschauung (meaning both “observation” and “intuition”), he contended, results in catastrophic oversimplification of life’s plentitude and encourages mass hysteria. The events chronicled in The Demons climax in a slow-motion narration of divergent responses to the July 1927 riot, when the Viennese Palace of Justice was burned and nearly 100 people were killed. Amidst this crescendo, each of the characters must reconcile their interior consciousness with an event of consequence to the common good. His 1951 novel The Strudlhof Steps: The Depth of the Years, released last December by NYRB Classics, continues this aesthetic, even as the events it depicts occur chronologically prior to those covered in Demons. The Demons appeared from Knopf in 1961 in a translation by Richard and Clara Winston, but this is the first English translation of Strudlhof Steps, and both its genius and Vincent Kling’s achievement have recently been honored with the Helen & Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize.
In his untranslated 1959 lecture Foundations and Function of the Novel, von Doderer argues that the novelist’s groundwork is to “hold life together, indeed, to guard it from all forms of constricting specialism.” Whereas in youth “the dividing walls between the compartments of [the] soul [are] still translucent enough,” professional narrowness threatens to paint these walls opaque. The “mere common crook” embodies the ascendancy of neatly systematized souls who face “anything and everything between the earth and the sky, unless it fell within his area of specialization, with callous indifference and dead coldness.” Strolling up and down the streets of modern Vienna, von Doderer claims, we see that the refinements of civilization have engendered both architectural masterpieces of rare grandeur and bureaucratized psyches that, for all their reductive accuracy, have the flimsiness of well-thumbed manila folders; though they can perform commanded tasks with perfect punctuality, “like those moving figures in the clocks of old town halls,” they are the “seedless fruit of baroque culture with no inner principle of decoration.” If, sometimes, the more profound frequencies of being resonate with Vienna’s denizens, it is only because they inhabit “the immense resonance chamber and violin belly of a culture two thousand years deep.”
With a contemplative realist prose that registers both the abrasions of nature (“fissures near the mountain walls, in these wounds of the woods”) and its beauties (“if anyone ever said outright that this spinach-green sublimity up hill and down dale was enough to turn his stomach, he would be considered an evil person”), The Strudlhof Steps moves beyond all-too-human anthropomorphism to paint a cosmic canvas, even as the author holds out the human as the home of what’s worst and best in this world. As one of the novel’s characters, René Stangeler, revisits his favorite haunt in search of “special homing places — a geometrical space in which inner and outer topography coincided, one could say, each gaining thereby in concreteness and luminosity.” Confronted with a snake during the novel’s Edenic set piece “Fall,” Stangeler stares, stupefied: “It was as if I were watching myself,” he says, finding in “the strain and the grace” of the creature a rich symbol for “the deepest, inmost part of me, my most secret thoughts, as they say.” For his part, Melzer, a kind of “main character” (though that category is largely exploded in this novel), encounters a number of such “homing places,” as he moves from damning introspection towards a definite wholeness.
The novel’s architectural arcs are rendered with especial devotion, and the choicest, most exquisite poetry is reserved for the Strudlhof Steps. When we pass between this “baroque portal,” lighted by a “tall candelabra” whose glow outshines the stars, we step through Vienna and beyond it, not on “some nostalgic journey through memory, either. No, it was nothing other than an inquiry, a way of questioning,” guided by the “same impulse that had once led devout pagan pilgrims to Delphi.” Crossing paths on this “stage of life ready for a dramatic performance,” characters are given choreographed chances to step aside from the paralysis of their private cogitos and ascend towards a shared experience of the real. This panoramic vision invites us to see how “every road and every path (even in our own garden) is more than a mere line of connection between two points […] but rather is a line of connection in our very being itself.” As he ascends, Melzer feels “the past” that “lay high above him”; climbing, he finds himself “plunging downward into the depths of time.” As Heraclitus would have it, “the way up and the way down are one in the same.”
Through uncannily inventive prose that melds the playful philosophical mania of Thomas Pynchon with the otherworldly order of Händel’s booming organ music, von Doderer’s transmutations turn the telescope around. Most of this massive novel toggles between two spans of time — 1908–11 and 1923–25 — during which little of significance actually happens. Instead, von Doderer invites us into an endlessly joyous celebration of being itself, drawing out the irradiance of all that simply is. Kling’s translation constantly captures this shocked delight that there is something rather than nothing. Yet even for someone with a penchant for what Henry James disapprovingly called “loose baggy monsters,” the pensive, plotless meanderings of Steps can be mildly frustrating … for a few pages. But always, when you are about to shut the book, von Doderer delivers some stunning Hopkinsesque inscape of a forest’s thisness that keeps you reading wide-eyed for the next strange insight.
After teasing the reader with the pleasures of a zany “plot” that turns on black-market tobacco exportation, von Doderer comes to the climax: happening upon the Althan Platz square at the very moment of a calamitous crash, Melzer spontaneously rushes to the aid of Mary K., who has just been hit by a streetcar. We are reminded — and, bizarrely, the nightmares of history can be forgotten amidst so much ordinariness, an oblivion both marvelous and unsettling — that Melzer has seen active duty. Though he has long been terrified of blood (even the color red chills him), he races down to the scene with a speed that surpasses even the screaming onlookers, “[e]xactly like charging full on in battle,” kneels in a spreading sanguinary puddle, feels around the wound, and finds the “dead-white” uninjured flesh that marks the spot where the leg has been severed. Fittingly, this ambling man employs his walking stick to tighten a belt into a tourniquet. Mary loses her leg, but her life is saved.
Although Melzer appears lackadaisical for much of the novel, our vision of his ethical character is suddenly illumined. For all his failings, the man is manifestly receptive to Fatologie (or “Providence”) — “the role life exacts” — a concept von Doderer found in the writings of Aquinas. Adherence to Fatologie demands that we accept ourselves as we are — not in a self-help therapeutic way, but in the sense of knowing our particular limits and merits, and following the future traced by those (super)natural contours. Most of what we mean by “me” is (to borrow from philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre) a secondhand self-image of the age — a pleasant fiction, but a “secondary reality.” As von Doderer understands it, Fatologie is a cartography of redemption, inculcating total surrender to the providential fissures running through every human life.
In his afterword, Daniel Kehlmann homes in on von Doderer’s “precious legacy of emptiness,” rightly noting that the author “grows serious whenever nothing at all is happening.” Only by “working on ourselves, by discipline and attention, sometimes even by reading a literary work,” can we become conscious of the transhistorical truths inherent in things, of the “nunc stans, which according to the medieval Scholastics is the actual truth behind the illusion of temporality.” When we do this, says Kehlmann, we approach a kind of epiphanic standstill wherein “‘the depth of the years’ […] assumes the form of a single endless summer day.” Yes, true, and yet one ordinary act shows us, if subtly, the propulsive power of history when driven by Fatologie. A traffic accident is the most ubiquitous of modern ills, but in The Strudlhof Steps, Mary’s grotesque disfigurement becomes what Flannery O’Connor would call a “figure for our essential displacement,” so that one man’s intersection of self-overcoming and surrender (the blood suddenly does not bother him) turns the “daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life.”
If Melzer manifests the most perfect path, all the characters in The Strudlhof Steps are summoned towards transcendence. The bureaucrat’s pusillanimous rules, the careerist’s callow ambitions, the rationally planned future will only serve to map us — to trap us — in a secondary reality of muddle and misdirection. By contrast, the deeper reality of Fatologie is, like the steps, “standing there for anyone who happened by, for all the self-satisfied run-of-the-mill types and even for the great unwashed.” What Aquinas calls analogia entis — the potential for any entity, physical or metaphysical, to become an analogy for something else — is central to the novel. A single metaphor stands in for everybody’s being: the curvature of the stairs, proceeding in stages, despite switchbacks and unanticipated turns, from the earth to the heights,
a path spread out to the strides of destiny, which don’t always have to shake the ground with a foot shod in armor but will often come walking, nearly noiseless, on the thinnest of soles […] tiny little heart-feet all bare and sore and needing so much care — to such a heart as well will the steps, cascading down in their splendor, offer companionship and escort.
Joshua Hren is founder and editor of Wiseblood Books and co-founder of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His books include the novel Infinite Regress and Contemplative Realism: A Theological-Aesthetical Manifesto.