JANUARY 19, 2021
LEOPOLD VON SACHER-MASOCH was the original kinky bastard. A 19th-century Viennese nobleman, he wrote the controversial 1870 novella Venus in Furs, which explored his fetish for pain and abasement, and inadvertently helped coin the term “masochism.” The Masochist, Slovenian poet Katja Perat’s first novel (beautifully translated by Michael Biggins), explores the career of Sacher-Masoch’s fictional adopted daughter, Nadezhda (commonly known as Nada), who, even after her father’s death, struggles to free herself from his influence. Not only is she marked by her childhood experience of his idiosyncrasies, but upon growing up, she finds in Austrian high society a strange echo of his perversions.
The Masochist is a novel of ideas that plays with narrative chronology. The story starts with Nada’s begetting. Leopold, for whom his adoptive daughter exists primarily as a symbol or metaphor, claims to have found her in the snowy woods of Ukraine. She grows up dogged by Leopold’s disgraces, accompanying him during his years on the run through Austria and Hungary, until, now old enough, she meets and marries Maximilian Moser, who introduces her to the glamour of belle époque Vienna.
But it is not long before Nada’s new life is disrupted by Leopold’s death. The moment she receives the news, she discovers that she is suddenly unable to speak — without the overbearing storifying of her father, she is rendered literally voiceless. Thinking that her silence is caused by her abhorrence of the German language, she implores the family’s servant, Ruslana, to teach her Ruthenian, the old language of the Slavic people. Ruslana sings a Slavic folk song, making them both cry, and then apologizes:
My first reaction was to reach for the paper, but then I thought of trying to use my voice.
“Please don’t apologise,” I said, “it was so beautiful.”
The words slid through my vocal chords with the same natural force as a torrent over steep cliffs.
“Mrs Moser!” Ruslana exclaimed, “you’ve spoken!”
Although perhaps smacking of daytime soap opera, Nada’s hysterical muteness is also a twist on Natasha’s instinctive dance in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, an effect of contorting herself to meet the pretensions of Western Europe instead of living the more substantial, nourishing life of her Slavic roots. But when her speechlessness recurs six years later, she has to find a different cure. Nada agrees to go with Maximilian to a masked ball where, ignoring Gustav Klimt (“shirtless and naked down to the navel”), she dances with Jakob Frischauer, a journalist. At the end of the dance, she takes off her mask, and he recognizes her as the daughter of Sacher-Masoch. Suddenly, once again, she finds herself able to speak: “Miles from her homeland, unrecognizable to herself as a ‘respectable wife,’ it is this second moment of acknowledgement that reorients her, and allows her to talk again.”
She is referred to the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who is intrigued by the apparent neuroses caused by her upbringing, and who seeks to impose his own framework of ideas upon her. But, perhaps because his questions echo her own so closely, she rejects his attempts to simplify her, to reduce her to a figure in a schema:
“Sometimes I get the impression,” I said, “that you make claims simply in order to maintain the impression that you’re always right.”
“Your resistance can be quite vehement.”
“Well, what about yours?” I asked.
As she slowly — possibly inevitably — descends into disgrace, Nada has a brief affair with Jakob, becoming a passive observer when he challenges her husband to a duel and is killed. We gradually come to perceive that, unlike her father’s grand, studied masochism, Nada’s self-destructiveness is simply a result of trying to free herself from the suffocating repression of patriarchy.
Her trauma is compounded by the revelation that Maximilian has been unfaithful to her with Ruslana, thus underlining the hypocrisy and corruption of their world. This leads to a third bout of silence and then a stay with Princess von Thurn und Taxis in her castle in Duino on the Adriatic coast. Here, she writes her biography, hoping to regain her voice by taking back control of her own history. But this proves an imperfect getaway since the great Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke is also there, and he persistently interrupts her solitude.
But he also provides the spur for starting her memoir. His own novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), makes “everything as unrecognizable and unsolvable as possible.” And so, by way of antithesis, Nada in her own writing describes her emotions in a plain and graphic way that becomes, at times, mechanical and stilted:
It turned out that shame was a dynamic emotion that engages the whole person. Because, like the sun, it was impossible to look at it straight on, since it would burn the viewer’s eyes out with its sheer force, shame demands of the person who is ashamed of something that he turn away from it with his utmost effort.
Thus, very quickly, we see that the novel is less about Nada’s adventures with the celebrities of Vienna’s Golden Age and much more about her attempt to reclaim herself from pontificating men.
Perat arranges the events by theme in order to test different theories about Nada: Is she really like Leopold? Or like Leopold’s lovers? Or Freud? Or Maximilian? The narration of events in Nada’s life is often followed directly by a recounting of their antecedents in Leopold’s, her experience mapping so exactly onto his that it is not until the end that she understands she has been unconsciously creating the parallels. Freud (of course) points out that her affair with Jakob arose because “you had to come up with him because he made it possible to live the way you’d been raised.”
Leopold’s naming her Nadezhda (literally “hope”) is an irony that returns throughout the novel. As a product of her era and culture, she stands no chance of living a life that would feel honest, or even her own. Perat dramatizes with great pathos how Nada’s despair defeats any chance at self-knowledge. Forever subject to the male gaze, narrative and psychoanalytic, she is trapped in unreliable truths and false revelations.
This has an effect on Nada’s telling of her story. For, although the locations are glamorous and the events dramatic, they risk being flattened by her monotonous dejection, her awareness “of man’s inherent selfishness […] that life didn’t amount to more than a ceaseless struggle of all against all.” In the end, her only moments of respite come on day trips from the castle into Trieste. Sitting in a café amid the noise of the crowds, she is able to disappear not only from her social constraints but also, more importantly, from the din of her own self-consciousness:
I didn’t do anything in Trieste, I just sat and drank coffee, often with my eyes closed, and let the smells and sounds waft over me at will. Amid the jumble of languages it was impossible to make out even what people whose language you understood were saying, so you never heard anyone lie. […] Each time Carlo [the driver] came back to get me, I thought how nice it would have been if he could have come a bit later.
As we enjoy this brief display of a broader palette of emotions, the reader feels the exhilaration of her freedom too.
In The Masochist, Katja Perat evokes two contrasting emotions. By reanimating a fabulous cast of real-life (and larger-than-life) characters, she mixes wry humor and dramatic escapades to create a romp through fin-de-siècle Vienna. Underneath this surface gaiety, however, the tone is poignant and rueful. We can’t help but feel Nada’s great frustration at her era’s blindnesses — the kernel of our own gender inequality. By bringing to life the ideas that underpin much 20th-century thought, Perat helps us see their essential, grandiose deafness.
Tom Conaghan is a Pushcart-nominated short story writer and a prose editor at Bandit Fiction. He has had short stories published in Neon and MIR Online. He is working on a novel about an 18th-century imposter.