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A Continent in Confusion

ISSUE:  Spring 1929

The Old and the Young. By Luigi Pirandello. Translated by C. K. Scott-Mon-crieff. 2 Vols. New York: E. P. Dutton. $5.00. Caspar Hauser. By Jacob Wassermann. Translated by Caroline Newton. New York: Horace Liveright. $3.00. The Triumph of Youth. By Jacob Wassermann. Translated by Otto P. Schinnerer. New York: Horace Liveright. $2.00. Theresa, the Chronicle of a Woman’s Life. By Arthur Schnitzler. Translated by William A. Drake. New York: Simon, and Schuster. $2.50. The Land of the Children. By Sergey Gus-siev Orenburgsky. Translated by Nina Nikolaevna Selivanova. New York: Longmans, Green. $2.50. The Mad Professor. By Hermann Sudermann. Translated by Isabel Leighton and Otto P. Schinnerer. 2 Vols. New York: Horace Liveright. $5.00.

Here are eight volumes that make up six novels to a total of 3,020 pages or virtually one million words, and the sole bit of happiness to be found anywhere is in the hearts of a few of the characters so long as they are chasing after that elusive thing, truth, fiction, or whatever it may be; or in the souls of those who are deviating from the paths of established truth previous to the crash that is inevitable if not imminent. These five writers—two Germans, one Austrian, one Italian, one Russian—depict Europe in revolt. They show us the Continent, that particular part of the Old World from which the proudest parts of our vaunted civilization have come, in a state of confusion. Men distrust each other; women connive for the favors of men; children are born only to grow up into an unlovely maturity, or to die before they, know the years of seasoned thought. And with the exception of Schnitzler’s “Theresa,” the Church plays an ugly role while politics could scarcely be delineated in less attractive fashion.

Pirandello starts us off in the Sicily of the 60’s, gradually invades the Rome that knew Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel, and which was determined to exploit the sulphur pits of Sicily to the easement of her own taxation agonies. Wassermann brings us on up into South Germany where the inertia of the human heart allowed the potentially splendid Caspar Hauser (the name of the Baden foundling who struggled on to the streets of Nuremberg in 1828, and who has always been regarded by Wassermann as the rightful heir to the throne) to live an underground life and to die the death in the dark. Then Wassermann shifts a little to the west and reproaches the Catholic Church for its efforts to eat out the heart of another lovely lad. Schnitzler takes us over to Vienna and sets forth a woman who knew better but who could not do better in a world where wagging tongues were as thick as radio poles on the roof of a city flat.

We follow then Orenburgsky over into and all over Russia where crime, ignorance, and debauchery, science, art and hope are reported on by an individual who is also a person. And then Sudermann brings us back into Koe-nigsberg, the city of Kant’s pure reason, and shows that the moral law could hardly have been within the people of that venerable university town while the starry firmament above, if it shone at all, did so to the end that sharp practices might be the better guided to their nefarious ends.

It is, all told, a sombre set of canvases. And yet, the real key to this Continent in confusion is struck by the Russian Orenburgsky: he sees hope; he feels that conditions must improve for they cannot get worse. That note indeed is sounded again and again in each of these novels, and there is not a dud among them. Pirandello can at least point with the pride of hindsight to a united Italy. Wassermann has by no means given up his fight in behalf of Caspar Hauser, and now that the monarchy has been overthrown and the archives made accessible he looks for new light that will prove that “Caspar Hauser” was the son of Stefanie Beauharnais. Nor could the Church today anywhere do what it tried to do to the young Baron Ernst von Ehrenburg, the hero of the “The Triumph of Youth,” the youngster who could tell such a fascinating story to his juvenile mates that heads too old for fancy and hearts too prejudiced for justice thought he was in league with the Devil.

Schnitzler has his heroine, Theresa Fabiani, die praying that the courts may deal gently with her son Franz, born out of wedlock, and her murderer. Had not she herself wished that Franz might die when he came into this world such an unwelcome guest? Schnitzler never moralizes; he writes the news; the editorial he leaves to the reader. And the news in this case is so graphic and gripping that certainly no other young woman will go to Vienna to make her living as a governess where temptations, as Schnitzler sees it, stalk abroad in daylight and croon like so many sirens once the sun has set. Orenburgsky entitles the last of his book “The Invisible City.” He may be visionary but he has at least a splendid vision, that of a new dawn in Russia, where the people have thus far been childlike in their groping and coping with the inevitable. And the Minister of Education in Republican Germany could hardly, even though he wished to, appoint a man to an important university chair with the actual faculty opposed as it was to the calling of Professor Sieburth.

Indeed, each of these novels seems to have been written in terrorem as a warning. If the human family proves as heedless and headless now as before, it will be no fault of the writers; for they have acquitted themselves like men. These books should all be bought and read by, those who want vigorous stories crowded with facts, knit together with skill, and illumined by the inner fire that radiates from gifted lives well spent.

The first impression one may derive from a comparative study of these novels is the huge difference in the amount of work that went into the writing of them. With Wasser-mann’s agile imagination, and his perfected craft, it must have required precious little labor to jot down “The Triumph of Youth.” The man who took it upon himself to have justice done the young hero was Friedrich von Spee (1591-1635), the poet whose ambition it was to outsing the nightingale. His role locates the time, place, and action. This agreed upon, the tale was already told—except of course for the actual telling. In Schnitzler’s “Theresa” we have even less evidence of antecedent preparation. All that was needed was affair familiarity with Graz and Salzburg and full familiarity with the layout of Vienna, and Schnitzler’s ability. But what a colossal amount of work, of study and investigation, of search and research must have gone into the novels of Pirandello, Orenburgsky, and Sudermann! The one is a history of United Italy in the making; the other of Russia first enthralled, then revolutionized, then sovietized, then exploited; the other of Germany from the days when Bismarck went to school and joined a fraternity to the days when it became evident that before the Teutonic ship of state got much nearer the rapids the pilot would have to be dropped. Yet the dullness that hovers over so much written history is a stranger to these great creations.

At high noon on March 21, 1891, Luigi Pirandello was made a Ph. D. by the University of Bonn. His dissertation, written in German, was on the dialects of Girgenti. It is rather hard to believe, but it was out of this thesis that “The Old and the Young” grew: the centre of gravity of the entire novel is Girgenti in Sicily; and when the delegates from that town went up to Rome, they “polished their dialects as well as they could.” All honor, then, to Germany! It is a novel of tremendous sweep: its plot could not be given in fewer than five thousand words; there are over one hundred characters and about fifty towns and villages. But it is not dull reading, though it is hard to keep the yarn untangled at times: so many long Italian names. In truth the sole name that does not end in a sonorous Italian vowel is that of “the insolent Fr. Mac-Glynn, a Catholic priest in New York.” And so much history: “Sicily entered the great Italian family with a public debt of barely eighty-five millions of capital and a small balance of about twenty-two millions.” But in return for this statistical matter, so much philosophy. The figure of the public men in public places, little fellows but somehow staying aloft, and the comparison of them with kites pulled here and there by those whose feet are on the ground—this figure has already shown signs of becoming common property in these United States. Then the statement that philosophy can always find a justification for success. That is worth its weight in precious metals.

But why “the old and the young”? The reason for the title—the translation is literal—becomes obvious in the first chapter: it is the traditional struggle between the young who don’t know and the old who can’t do. But in one place there is a family scene that has rarely been equalled since civilization passed beyond the papyrus age. An old, near-senile bounder marries for political reasons a buxom, blithe, and debonair chit. She has a child of whom her husband is not the father; but he has had an heir of whom his wife is not the mother. She pays virtually no attention to her baby, but her desire to appear before her husband as a dutiful wife is so strong—she can visit the galleries of legislative halls with much more right if solidly married—that her husband actually surprises her one day fondling her purple ten-pounder. Though chagrined, she grinned. It is a scene of immense mischief. Forget all about the serious conflict between the political generations! Here is the real reason why the title “I Vecchi e I Giovani” is so apt.

As to Sudermann’s “The Mad Professor” it deserves to take its place alongside of his other great works—and Sudermann had some dozen masterpieces to his credit when death claimed him on November 21 last. There is one thing however that worries the present writer. The title in German is “Der tolle Professor/’ The word toll, though cognate with English “dull” means, in addition to “mad,” also “frantic,” “hare-brained,” “crazy,” “cracked,” and so on. It was not only Sudermann’s Professor however who lived under the cloud of this bad eminence. The University, made immortal by Kant, the town made glorious by Queen Louise, the educational system of Imperial Germany as this was manoeuvred from Berlin were all just as toll as the Professor. Was it really so bad? If so, whole shiploads of us have long been deceived. But it makes admirable reading: informative, imaginative, epic to the core, and never cluttered up with such descriptions of scenery and such impertinent moralizing as mar so much German fiction. It is good too that it has all these virtues and still others unlisted, for there are spots where the novel is in distinctly bad taste. In his philandering the Professor made himself silly; the funeral (Sieburth commits suicide on being made a full professor) is grotesque.

As to Orenburgsky’s “The Land of the Children”—it too can be modified by all the commendatory adjectives that one ordinarily hauls out on occasions of this sort. But a serious question will not remain unasked: Has the writer done his native land a favor? We knew that Russia suffered hardships under the Czars; but was it an inhuman hardship? We knew that the Russian soldier fought a losing fight in the World War from the beginning; but was it so senseless as all this? We knew, if only, by intuition, that the horrors that followed on the heels of the Revolution and then at the hands of the Reds, the Whites, and the Greens (the volunteers) were genuine horrors; but were they really so diabolical? We had thought they were rather man-made horrors. But beginning on page 309 and ending on page 312 is a definition of “revolution.” It is much to be doubted whether anything equal to this has ever been published west of the Atlantic. And Orenburgsky himself asks: “How can light be born of darkness?”

The translations of all of these books are good. Caroline Newton’s of “Caspar Hauser” is the best. Knowing from personal experience how difficult it is to give a translation that will satisfy all, particularly at the price paid in this country, the present writer hesitates to comment on the rendering of Schnitzler’s “Theresa.” He had read the German just before the English was placed in his hands. The German stuck. The English, though right readable, is full of egregious errors some of which throw the entire story off the right path and out of key. At the very beginning, the translator obviously confusing Ober Leutnant (First Lieutenant) with Oberstleutnant (Lt. Colonel) makes Hugo Fabiani a distinguished Austrian army officer retired at the age of sixty as a Lieutenant. If that old and so low in rank his distinctions could not have been existent. A little farther on an expression which, correctly translated, would read “His wife visited him once a week” is rendered “His wife visited him on eight successive days.” Another expression which, correctly rendered, would read “Though she was quick to grasp, her diligence and concentration left much to be desired,” is translated “She had soon been made to realize that diligence and attention were not in themselves enough.” Such errors give a quite misleading idea of Arthur Schnitzler, who writes the simplest German of any man now living.

At the very beginning of Orenburgsky’s great novel, Vavila Demianitch, about as near the hero as one can get, is gathered in from the wilds, put on a troop train, and freighted to the front. He fancies the train is a village on wheels, a line of huts coupled together and rolling along the countryside. But let us remember all things. In our own A. E. F. lads, many of them from the South of “noble experiment,” quartered at Camp Upton on Long Island, thought, when brought around by boat to Hoboken to be parcel-posted over there, that they had already crossed the Atlantic. It is a terrible thing to go through life in the deadening dark of ignorance.

On page 331—there are 421 big pages in all—Vavila’s would-be friends are advising him to quit; to give it all up as a bad job. He says, in the course of too many pages, No, I cannot. If I have to I’ll become a Communist, but I cannot go back to the old life. His friends then put down a barrage of questions about truth: what is it? where does it come from? what does it do to the holder thereof? He cannot answer them; no one else can. Vavila is certain of only one thing: “Whether there is truth in the new life or not, I do not know; but I do know there wasn’t any in the old.”

That is precisely where the human family stands in the novels before us. Nor are these million words used to set forth detached or impossible affairs. Though fiction, they present phases of the truth. Truth may be stranger than fiction; it frequently is. But fiction may be so well conceived that it makes the reader feel like doing anything but returning to the old life.


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