Tag Archives: Austria

The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

The Constant Nymph (1924) was Margaret Kennedy’s most commercially successful novel, spawning both a play featuring Noel Coward and a film starring one of my favourite actresses, Joan Fontaine. As a book, it shares much with another of my recent reads, Edith Wharton’s 1928 novel, The Children: a man who enters into a relationship with an underage girl; an unconventional family living a bohemian lifestyle; and a brood of rather engaging, precocious children to name but a few. While the Wharton explores these issues from the male perspective, Kennedy’s novel places a young girl at the centre of its narrative. The individual in question is Tessa, the fourteen-year-old daughter of Albert Sanger, a brilliant yet difficult composer who lives in a rambling chalet in the Austrian Alps.

As the novel opens, Lewis Dodd, a young English composer of some promise is travelling to Austria to visit the much-feted Sanger, whom he views as something of a mercurial genius. With his rather conventional upbringing, Lewis finds himself attracted to Sanger and his ‘circus’ – an assortment of children from various marriages, Sanger’s current wife, the beautiful but lazy Linda, and various hangers-on. Their lifestyles are free-spirited and unconventional with little regard for the customs of the broader society at large. For instance, it is Sanger’s eldest daughter, Kate, who manages the household, her desire for some degree of organisation far outweighing that of Linda.

Younge Tessa is the constant nymph of the novel’s title, a wonderfully unfiltered, warm-hearted girl, who at fourteen is already wildly in love with Lewis and his passion for the arts. Lewis, for his part, is also attracted to Tessa with her wild, unfettered innocence, viewing her as the most interesting of Sanger’s daughters.

He has always thought her the pick of the bunch. She was an admirable, graceless little baggage, entirely to his taste. She amused him, invariably. And, queerly enough, she was innocent. That was an odd thing to say of one of Sanger’s daughters, but it was the truth. Innocence was the only name he could find for the wild, imaginative solitude of her spirit. The impudence of her manners could not completely hide it, and beyond it he could discern an intensity of mind which struck him as little short of a disaster in a creature so fragile and tender, so handicapped by her sex. She would give herself to pain with a passionate readiness, seeing only its beauty, with that singleness of vision which is the glory and the curse of such natures. He wondered anxiously, and for the first time, what was to become of her. (p. 68)

Tessa longs for a time when she is grown-up, a point when it will be possible for her to enter into a more fulfilling relationship with Lewis; and while nothing is explicitly said, there is a sense that Lewis understands this too, casting an air of destiny over their connection.

Nevertheless, when Albert Sanger dies, this idyll is fractured, and the family is at risk of being split up. The two eldest children, Caryl and Kate, are old enough to fend for themselves, leaving their younger siblings – Tessa included – to be catered for elsewhere. As a consequence, Florence and Robert Churchill – who are related to Sanger’s second wife, now deceased – travel to Austria with a view to bringing the children back to England.

With her traditional breeding and refined lifestyle, Florence is enchanted by the young Sangers. Nevertheless, their wild, unconventional existence proves something of a surprise, prompting Florence to decide that the children should be sent to boarding school where they will receive a proper education.

In a further unexpected twist, Lewis is drawn away from Tessa by the beautiful Florence with her sophisticated lifestyle and strong standing in society. Florence, for her part, is seduced by Lewis’s artistic temperament and role as a musician. However, their sudden marriage is not a great success, primarily as a consequence of unrealistic expectations and subsequent frustrations for both parties. While Lewis feels constrained by the conventions of London society, Florence finds her new husband rather challenging to fashion. It’s a conflict captured in the following passage, which touches on the balance between art and civilisation/humanity – one of many sets of opposing forces in the novel.

[Florence:] “Your attitude is completely wrong. You put the wrong things first. Music, all art…what is it for? What is its justification? After all…”

[Lewis:] “It’s not for anything. It has no justification. It…”

“It’s only part of the supreme art, the business of living beautifully. You can’t put it on a pedestal above decency and humanity and civilization, as your precious Sanger seems to have done. Human life is more important.” (p. 209)

Meanwhile, Tessa and her siblings are also finding it difficult to adapt to a new life, highlighting the tension between an ordered, conventional lifestyle and an unstructured, bohemian one. The constraints of boarding school prove unbearable for Tessa and her sister, Paulina, prompting them to run away with their brother, Sebastian. The relationship between Lewis and Tessa is rekindled when the latter returns to the Dodds’ London home, a move that reveals the intensity of Florence’s jealousy towards her young cousin.

As the novel’s denouement plays out, Tessa must try to reconcile her love for Lewis – something she views as her destiny – with other complicating factors, most notably her ties to the family and the constraints of a conventional society. By the end of the narrative, Tessa is only fifteen, a factor that dictates society’s view of any sexual relationship she may wish to have with Lewis.

While Kennedy has created a very interesting moral dilemma here, I feel she could have gone a little further in exploring the psychology of her characters, particularly in the case of Lewis. It’s something Wharton delves into quite deeply with The Children, probing Martin Boyne’s state of mind in her characteristically incisive style. Nevertheless, Kennedy’s central characters are recognisable, believable and beautifully drawn, factors that add an extra layer of poignancy to the novel’s ending which I would rather not reveal.

There is some terrific humour here, too. Kennedy has a sharp eye for an amusing scene, highlighting the absurdities of the Sangers’ unfettered existence and the moral outrage of Florence’s family at the prospect of her marriage to Lewis.

[Robert:] “I can’t think what her father will say. If he’s got any sense, he’ll forbid it! He’ll forbid it! But I suppose he’ll blame me. How could I have prevented it? How could I have foreseen it? Who could have thought that Florence, FLORENCE, a sensible woman like Florence, not quite a young girl either, would dream of doing such a thing. A delicate-minded, well-bred girl, to take up with a wretched mounteback, a disagreeable, ill-conditioned young cub, with the manners of…of…well, he hasn’t got any manners. And goodness knows if he ever washes.” (p. 154)

Tessa’s siblings are another source of joy, especially Paulina, whose wonderfully unfiltered letter to Lewis on the trials of boarding school life is one of the book’s most amusing highlights.

If you’re interested in hearing more about this novel, the marvellous Backlisted team covered it in one of their recent podcasts, which you can find here. It’s well worth a listen to hear more about some of this novel’s rather controversial elements, particularly the depiction of an underage relationship and the anti-Semitic sentiments the book contains. (Very much a reflection of the era in which it was written, but it’s certainly something for contemporary readers to bear in mind.)

The Constant Nymph is published by Virago Press; personal copy.

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig (tr. Anthea Bell)

This month the members of my book group are reading Jewish author Stefan Zweig’s only full-length novel, Beware of Pity, which he completed in 1938.

Beware cover

Set in an Austrian garrison town close to the Hungarian border in the months leading up to the outbreak of WW1, the novel tells the story of Anton Hofmiller, a young cavalry lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian Army. When we first encounter Hofmiller, the year is 1938, and he is recounting his history to a writer whom he meets through mutual friends. Despite being recognised for bravery, Hofmiller readily admits that he ran head first into the Great War to escape a desperate situation. He proceeds to relay his tale, a story that illustrates how ‘courage is often only another aspect of weakness.’

Returning to 1914, we find Hofmiller as a young, idealistic officer, one who is somewhat impoverished compared to his fellow cavalrymen. One day, by way of a mutual friend, he receives an invitation to dinner at the home of Herr von Kekesfalva, the richest man in the district. But unfortunately for the young lieutenant, this is where his troubles begin. Hofmiller arrives late to the dinner but is welcomed with open arms by Kekesfalva and his pretty niece, Ilona. Faced with an array of the finest dishes and wines, the young lieutenant gets carried along by the experience and his usual shyness falls away as he chats with Ilona. But as the evening draws to a close, Hofmiller realises that he has forgotten to ask his host’s daughter, Edith, to dance. When he does so, the young girl cries out in anguish; unbeknownst to Hofmiller, Edith is partially paralysed, unable to walk more than a couple of paces even with the aid of crutches. On discovering his faux-pas, Hofmiller is mortified, and he runs from the Kekesfalvas’ home in fright. Consequently, he is deeply ashamed of his actions and worries that his folly will be the talk of the town and his regiment.

At pains to make amends, Hofmiller sends Edith a basket of flowers by way of an apology and is delighted when, in return, he receives an invitation to tea at the Kekesfalvas’. All is forgiven, and the lieutenant is welcomed into the fold of the Kekesfalva family where he feels moved by the positive effect his presence has on Edith’s spirits. At the age of twenty-five, Hofmiller is rather naïve and inexperienced in the emotional complexities of human relationships. He feels for Edith’s plight and is enthused when the sympathy he shows towards the girl brightens her eyes and brings light to the Kekesfalvas’ rather gloomy household.

But as he continues to visit the family, Hofmiller begins to see another side to Edith’s character. Deeply resentful of the constraints of her disability, she can be impatient, strong-willed and extremely demanding. Her mood can turn on the briefest of gestures – charming one minute, spiteful or hysterical the next – making Hofmiller a little more attuned to her suffering:

I had to be always on my guard against crossing the barely perceptible line beyond which sympathy, instead of being soothing, injured the easily wounded girl even more. Spoilt as she was, she demanded on the one hand to be served like a princess and pampered like a child, but next moment such though for her feelings could turn her bitter, because it made her even more clearly aware of her own helplessness. (pg. 83)

Slowly but surely, Hofmiller gets drawn into to a complex web, an emotional entanglement involving the whole Kekesfalva family. Edith becomes increasingly dependent on his visits. Meanwhile, Hofmiller begins to worry about the perceptions of others – do his comrades think he is taking advantage of the Kekesfalvas’ generosity, for instance?

When Hofmiller fails to show at the house one day, Edith is distraught. It soon becomes clear that Edith does not want the lieutenant’s pity – what she desires is Hofmiller’s true affection, she is deeply in love with him. Unfortunately for Edith, Hofmiller is horrified by this discovery – he views her purely as a friend.

The situation is exacerbated by Herr von Kekesfalva’s fixation on finding a cure for Edith’s condition. He is absolutely desperate to see her happy and settled before he dies (the strain of caring for this demanding child is taking its toll on his health). As a result, Kekesfalva – perhaps unwittingly, as he appears well-intentioned – places a significant emotional burden on Hofmiller to continue visiting Edith. Every time Hofmiller tries to extricate himself from the situation, the mere sight of Kekesfalva tugs at his heart strings making it impossible for him to turn away.

At last Kekesfalva raises his head, and I see beads of sweat standing out on his brow. He takes off his clouded glasses, and without that glittering protection his face immediately looks different, more naked so to speak, more wretchedly tragic. His eyes, as so often with the short-sighted, appear much duller and wearier behind the lenses that amplify his vision. And the sight of the slightly reddened rims of his eyelids makes me think that this old man sleeps little, and poorly. Once again I feel that warm surge of emotion – an emotion that I now know to be pity. All at once I am facing not the rich Herr von Kekesfalva, but an old man weighed down by cares. (pg. 113)

By turn, Edith is equally desperate to be able to walk again for the sake of Hofmiller. She is pinning all her hopes on a new treatment, one she believes will make her better and fit for a life with the lieutenant. Unfortunately, while Hofmiller knows that this treatment will prove ineffective in Edith’s case, the Kekesfalva family do not. (Edith’s physician, Dr Condor, has confided in the young lieutenant.) This leaves Hofmiller with a terrible dilemma. Should he tell Edith the truth, that the new treatment is pointless, an action almost certain to trigger a deep emotional crisis in the girl? Or should he encourage her to embark on the therapy in the knowledge that it will buoy her spirits and buy him some breathing space albeit temporarily?

What follows is a roller-coaster ride of emotions as Hofmiller is asked to shoulder more and more responsibility for Edith and her quest for recovery. There are periods of fear and heightened tension as he realises exactly what is at stake, but there are also brief respites when he believes a solution is in sight. At times, Hofmiller convinces himself that he is doing the right thing, that a well-intentioned deception is kinder than the cruelty of truth. (Oh, the things we do to spare the feelings of others…)

Why worry whether I had said too much or too little? Even if I had promised far more than in all honesty I should have done – well, that compassionate lie had made her happy, and to make someone happy can never be wrong or a crime. (pg. 219)

Beware of Pity is a rich and gripping novel, one that sweeps the reader along to its dramatic conclusion. The characters are complex; each of the main characters – Hofmiller, Edith, Kekesfalva and Dr Condor – has their own individual failings.

Alongside the emotional turmoil, the novel offers us a glimpse of a vanished world. The descriptions of Hofmiller’s time with the regiment are beautifully rendered, as are the dinners and scenes at the Kekesfalvas’. The writing is engaging, and Anthea Bell’s translation reads very smoothly – the following passage gives a feel for the style:

A huge full moon stood overhead, a shining, polished silver disc in the middle of the starlit sky, and as the breeze, warm from the sunny day, blew mild summer air into our faces a magical winter seemed to have descended on the world in that dazzling moonlight. The gravel looked white as freshly fallen snow between the neatly pruned trees that cast their dark shadows on the open path, and the trees themselves seemed to be holding their breath, standing now in the light and now in the dark, like alternating mahogany and glass. (pg. 133)

There is even time for a brief diversion within the novel – the story of how Kekesfalva made his fortune could be a novella in its own right.

Ultimately though, this is a novel about moral and ethical choices, the consequences of our actions, and the trouble that sheer weakness can cause (perhaps even more than brutality or wickedness). I’ll finish with a quote from Dr Condor that gets to the very heart of the novel (he is speaking to Hofmiller). A similar version of this passage also appears as an epigraph.

“…But there are two kinds of pity. One, the weak-minded, sentimental sort is really just the heart’s impatience to rid itself as quickly as possible of the painful experience of being moved by another person’s suffering. It is not a case of real sympathy, of feeling with the sufferer, but a way of defending yourself against the sufferer’s pain. The other kind, the only one that counts, is unsentimental but creative. It knows its own mind, and is determined to stand by the sufferer, patiently suffering too to the last of its strength and even beyond. Only when you go all the way to the end, the bitter end, only when you have that patience, can you really help people. Only if you are ready to sacrifice yourself, only then!” (pg. 240)

For the interested, there is an excellent introduction to the novel by Nicholas Lezard here (published in The Guardian).

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig (tr. Anthea Bell) is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy (ebook).

Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig (tr. by Tess Lewis)

Peirene Press continues to do a great job in discovering top-quality European fiction – novellas and short story collections which always have something interesting to offer. I’ve reviewed a couple of their novellas on the blog, The Mussel Feast and The Blue Room, both of which are excellent thought-provoking reads. Peirene curate their books by theme, and Maybe This Time (a collection of short stories first published in Austrian German in 2006) is the third in their Male Dilemmas: Quests for Intimacy series.

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Hotschnig’s stories are quite difficult to describe, but the experience of reading this collection is akin to experiencing a lucid dream, one that blurs the margins between reality and the imaginary. In her introduction to the book, Meike Ziervogel, founder of Peirene Press, says of Hotschnig’s work ‘outwardly normal events slip into drama before they tip into horror,’ and I can see what she means by this statement. Initially, many of these stories appear to be heading in a certain direction, but then something shifts, and we begin to question our understanding of events. In some instances, the change is relatively subtle, but in others we are rapidly pitched into dark and unsettling territory.

In The Same Silence, the Same Noise, we encounter a man observing his neighbours as they sit in deckchairs on their jetty. As the story progresses, he becomes obsessed and irritated by his neighbours’ presence and their indifference towards him, so much so that he begins to feel a growing sense of paranoia:

They lay next to each other on their deckchairs, arms by their sides, legs bent or straight. For hours they didn’t move, not even to wave away the mosquitoes or scratch themselves. Every day, every night, always the same. Their stillness made me feel uneasy, and my unease grew until it festered into an affliction I could no longer bear. At first, I had thought them part of the idyll I had come here to find, but now their constant presence irritated me. When I realized how easily one could see into my house from their jetty, I felt annoyed, caught out, exposed. Under surveillance, even. Yet I was the one who never let them out of my sight. (pg. 12, Peirene Press)

As this story progresses, the narrator steps up his observations, distancing himself from his friends in the process, and he realises his fixation with these neighbours is an attempt to escape from his own life. And this brings me to one of the main themes in Hotschnig’s collection, that of identity:

They refused contact, yet they willingly exposed themselves to me. I had caught the scent of their lives, which obviously had reached some sort of premature end. I had fed on them, devoured them, and now I wanted more. I couldn’t resist absorbing their most fleeting emotions as my own, and so I carried them inside me and I lived out their disquiet, which was also my disquiet (pg. 17)

In the most unnerving story in the collection, Then a Door Opens a Swings Shut, an elderly woman leads a man – his name is Karl – into her house where he is confronted by a sprawling collection of dolls. Three of the dolls, which the woman calls ‘her children,’ represent her successful grown-up daughters. The situation takes a more disturbing turn when the woman introduces her visitor to Karl, a doll that bears an exact resemblance to the man himself. As our narrator allows himself to be drawn into the old woman’s life, there is a blending of identity between the man and the doll. It’s a very creepy story indeed, one that reminds me a little of some of Yoko Ogawa’s dark tales in Revenge.

Hotschnig explores another aspect of identity in Maybe This Time, Maybe Now (one of my favourites) in which a family come together and wait for Uncle Walter, the one member of their clan who never visits on these occasions. The narrator’s parents live in constant hope that Walter might show up one day, just to have everyone together for once. As we observe the family gathering, it’s almost as though the narrator’s parents fail to recognise others as individuals in their own right. No one else seems to matter except the elusive Walter; all other family members are subsumed into an amorphous formation. Here’s an extract from an early section of the story:

But Walter doesn’t come, at least not while we are there. We don’t make up for his absence, those of us who are present, and no matter how hard we try to distract them, to make them forget about Walter, it never works. The rest of us do count for something, but not enough compared with him, since Walter’s absence makes us all invisible in our parents’ eyes and in our own. Those who are missing are noticed, but only until they come through the door, join those who are waiting and disappear into the group. It’s always the same game, who’s there and who isn’t, how many are we now, and who might then still come and who not. (pg. 59)

As the story progresses, we begin to doubt Walter’s existence. After all, the younger family members have never laid eyes on him either in the flesh or photographs. He exists only through stories that pass through the family, through the expectations and dashed hopes that have passed from one generation to another:

In this sense, we have always lived with Walter. We know him and don’t know him. (pg. 60)

In another favourite story from the collection, Two Ways of Leaving, a man follows a woman as she goes about her day. At first we are led to assume that this man is a pursuing a stranger, perhaps for somewhat voyeuristic reasons. As the story unfolds, however, it becomes clear that these two individuals are connected is some way. Hotschnig cleverly leads our train of thought in a particular direction, only for the story to tilt slightly thereby challenging our assumptions in the process.

As I’m writing this post, I can see another theme emerging from this intriguing collection of stories – that of observation, the act of observing others from a distance, how we make assumptions about their lives, situations and motives. And there’s a good dose of ambiguity to these tales; in fact, I found a couple of them quite tricky to pin down. Hotschnig leaves plenty of space to allow the reader to draw their own interpretation of events, to make these rather eerie dreamlike stories their own. There is much food for thought here.

Stu at Winstonsdad’s blog has also reviewed this collection.

Maybe This Time is published in the UK by Peirene Press. Source: I won a copy of this book in the Peirene Press PeiQuiz – my thanks to the publisher.