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Paul Leppin, who, like Kafka, lived in Prague but wrote in German, was a decadent bohemian whose expressionistic tales of fin-de-siécle Prague are so steeped in liebestod (the "love of death") they can serve as both its summit and its death-knell.
Take "The Ghost of the Jewish Quarter" from Leppin's newly republished book of short stories Others' Paradise, about a prostitute who adores sex so much that her trade "brought a rapturous, passionate longing over her, a tingling that spread through her flesh and kindled a girlish shimmer in her eyes. With lips cracked and bruised from kissing, she intoxicated herself at the mouths of men, overwhelmed each time by the virginal voluptuousness that had accompanied her first embrace." When she contracts syphilis (before AIDS, it was the liebestod disease par excellence), she's forced to leave the brothel that's been her home since childhood, but in the hospital, she finds her passion only redoubled, and so she escapes. "Burning, in an unearthly, oppressive expectancy," she runs back to her brothel/home only to discover that it's been destroyed, literally reduced to rubble. Shrieking at the loss, she attracts a group of drunken soldiers passing by. "Amidst the debris of the gutted bordellos, Johanna gave herself to the men whom chance had placed in her path. She gave herself to one after another, and her poor body, wasted by the sickness, did not tire—in convulsive raptures of love, it dug itself ever deeper into the rubble." Now, only a man could write this, first of all, and possibly only an early 20th century Prague man—with the traditions of Baudelaire to the west of him, Dostoevski to the east, stuck in the middle with Kafka. Leppin's work is steeped in decay and the shadowy recesses of the narrow mazed streets of Prague's Old Town—shadows, decay and mazes being fairly natural literary subjects for writers caught in a giant paradox: trying to represent their own and their culture's sudden re-awakening to the centrality of sex (thanks to Freud) in a culture whose instincts were decidedly bent toward sexual renunciation and guilt. If you've been raised to think of sex as evil, and then learn to believe that sex is all that can save you, you may end up writing tragic stories about sex-drunk whores who die conducting midnight orgies in the smoking ruins of their childhood home.
Or, perhaps, more delicate, sublimated stories like "The House on the Riverbank," about three ethereal sisters whose parents have died and left them to live in solitude. "The youth of the three sisters had been orphaned early. The gravity that was their heritage would give chance no wings: their fate unfolded in an enclosure without prospect or joy." Their lonely passions are inflamed, however, by the arrival of a mysterious man—an artist, of course—who woos each sister in turn. He rejects the first two sisters, who in grief promptly drown themselves in the river beside their home, while accepting the third, who rushes to her lover "in nameless fear," a "light rose in her soul . . . ecstatic and so beautiful as to bring her to tears . . . miraculous and powerful—huge as the sun—holy as God—hallelujah—Love." Goodness. What usually redeems these eight stories from, well, from hysteria is Leppin's control over his material, an exacting economy and rhythmic dignity that serve as a taming counterpoint to the florid excesses of his fever-visions. He writes with the sense that life really is sick, hopeless, corrupt, energized mostly by a longing for death, and that the only answer is to passionately oppose it with stories of a longing for life and love you know will never triumph, in the hope of at least rendering the struggle tragic. You write grave lyrical lines such as: "Moonlight ran like trickling blood from the crosses and towers of Hradcany." Or this one, describing two lovers' room from a distance: "The curtain of the evening becomes blacker and blacker, and the hearts in the room are bright and red like church windows." Leppin's stories, which have been translated into a gorgeously restrained English by Stephanie Howard and Amy R. Nestor, remind us that at the beginning of the 20th century, writers all across Europe were confronting the suspicion that the crushing repressions and routines of bourgeois life had crept so far into Western psyches that we genuinely no longer knew what it meant to be "alive" anymore. That's why you get Henry James's Lamont Strether saying, "Live! Live all you can!" in The Ambassadors or why Eliot, looking out at London's businessmen at rush hour, deems it all "unreal" in "The Waste Land." Of course, all this leads up to Kafka, whose sense of the unreal was so great that in an early story called "Conversation with the Supplicant," he wrote, "There has never been a time when I could truly convince myself that I was alive." Leppin's panic at the growing unreality around him led to furious injections of passion into the dead heart of Prague—his work is an analogue to the scene in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta plunges the hypodermic into Uma Thurman's heart. Imaginative hysteria is one route—Leppin's route—and if it isn't ours, it's because Kafka took us someplace else, to a place where panicked passion and swooning diseased love aren't the Answer, but rather veils hiding impossibly coiled but beautiful spiritual mysteries. To read Paul Leppin, then, is to realize why Kafka became necessary: Kafka opened the door that writers like Leppin had painted black, then shut.
Others' Paradise by Paul Leppin; Twisted Spoon Press; www.twisted spoon.com. Paperback, 141 pages, $13.
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