As one of many underrated authors recently dredged up by the New York Review of Books, Arthur Schnitzler’s canon of work beyond Traumnovelle, best known for being Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation in the form of Eyes Wide Shut, is at last being acknowledged. With the release of Schnitzler’s novella Late Fame on the publisher’s imprint, modern readers are given a glimpse into a problem that has apparently plagued the writing world since its the incorporation of “glamor” into the profession: the abounding presence of poseurs young and old.
Though Eduard Saxberger has long ago retired the notion of himself as a poet or writer of any kind since settling into the monotony of being a civil servant quite nicely, a fortuitous encounter with a member of a group calling themselves, without any sense of shame, the Enthusiasm Society changes his perception of the life he’s led thus far. When he’s invited by Meier, an aspiring poet himself, to join him and his compatriots at a local cafe they haunt to discuss, primarily rather than literature, the ways in which those who have actually found success are undeserving and talentless, Saxberger accepts, suddenly taken in by the reverie of nostalgia.
After being complimented on the genius of his lone volume of poetry, Wanderings, published when he was in his early twenties, Saxberger all at once feels a flood of memories, inwardly spiraling, “Artists, artists—how that word sounded! All at once there rose up in him muddled images of distant days and forgotten people. Names occurred to him, and what had become of them—and then he saw himself as you see yourself in a dream, as a young man, saw himself youthful, laughing, talking, as one of the best and proudest in a circle of young people who stayed apart from those following the beaten track and did not want to be anything but artists…”
Suddenly awakened from a decades-long coma spent as a civil servant, Saxberger abandons the acquaintances of his workplace in favor of joining the Enthusiasm Society nightly in their gatherings. Among the group is a novelist, a playwright, a critic, several poets and an aging theater actress, who, naturally, comes on to Saxberger in his new stead as “venerable poet.” Though initially flattered, Saxberger can’t help but assess her as follows: “Her features were not unappealing and from a distance they even exhibited a kind of nobility which, however, disappeared up close. Then you saw the slightly crude shape of her mouth and the strangely ravaged lines of the face itself.” They are the same ravaged lines of his own face, lately taken to upturning more in the wake of this so-called late fame his Wanderings has been experiencing. Susceptible to the praise of his newfound admirers, he laps up such encouragement as, “The Wanderings couldn’t have been written while you sat in your office day after day. You can hear in those proud verses that they were made by someone who had cast off the shackles of the everyday.”
With the sudden revelation that his entire post-poet existence has been a lie and an utter waste of time, Saxberger becomes increasingly allured by the artist lifestyle, unboundedly intoxicated by his nights out with the Enthusiasm Society. Reinvigorated by the borrowing of the rose-colored glasses of their youth, Saxberger happily agrees to join the assemblage onstage for a revue of their work to be shared with the public. The problem, of course, is that Saxberger hasn’t written a word of the project he’s been talking up all these months spent in the cafe. Schnitzler’s commentary on the often unfounded pretension that seems to drive those “artists” left “undiscovered” is at its most biting when Saxberger must at last confess that he hasn’t any new material, ergo forced to revert to Wanderings for the stage. Though going into the performance with the feeling that it will result in his mass appeal–the complete fruition of late fame–a comment overheard from the audience cuts Saxberger back down to size, making him question why he bothered to leave the comfortableness of his tried and true life.
Perhaps it is the blunt delicatessen owner of another usual haunt of Saxberger who puts it best with regard to “artists” when Saxberger tells him and his co-workers that he was a poet in his youth: “…why are you telling us this? If you’d never written any poems, that would be much stranger!” This to-the-point dig at Saxberger’s belief that there is something genuinely special about him or his writing is part of Schnitzler’s own self-doubt and experience in long flirting with the literary realm. Though his preference was always to be a writer, he followed in the footsteps of his father to become a physician in the rather niche field of laryngology. Trading the dreams of being a bona fide author for the pragmatism of becoming a doctor, there can be no ignoring Schnitzler’s persona in the conflicted feelings of Saxberger.
To be sure, there are few of us who haven’t romanticized this concept of what it means to be a part of the artistic community. The supposed enchantment of drinking absinthe and talking about ideas with individuals as ardent and intelligent as you are. But what ultimately comes to pass is a harsher realization than you yourself not having “what it takes” to achieve fame: that everyone around you is equally if not more self-delusional regarding their abilities and sense of entitlement to accolades and prosperity.
So it must be that Saxberger eventually finds himself “returning from a short, troublesome journey to a home that he had never loved.” Cutting to the quick of motivations behind what compels a person to attempt his hand at writing, Schnitzler–in the short span of just 128 pages–demystifies the long held belief that artists are partaking of their art from a place of purity as opposed to unbridled egoism.