Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic: Gotická duše (Gothic Soul)
Published sixteen years before this book – and therefore too early to appear on my website – J K Huysmans’ À rebours (Against the Grain) was the classic decadent novel, telling the story of a man who is disgusted with human society. It clearly influenced Karásek who, we know, read both French and German. The books, while similar in style (last scion of a noble family, a man who cuts himself off from society, strong Symbolist and religious imagery), are also different in many respects, as you would expect from the different French and Czech sensibilities.
This book is narrated by an unnamed narrator. However, before we get to his story, there is an author’s preface, in which he explains what the book is about (and what it is not about). It has almost no plot. The protagonist merely walks around his room, or wanders the streets and reflects. A nameless protagonist – without external tribulations, subject to no outside calamities. He has become separate from everything real and material. Rather than plot, a series of stories and episodes, you will find the painting of a soul, uninterrupted by plot details – a continuous flow, a spiritual stream. My book is not a narrative; I have composed it from spiritual processes. Impression follows impression. Feeling gives way to feeling. Spiritual states are in constant agitation.
This certainly sums it up. There is no narrative, as he says, in that not a great deal happens, at least a great deal outside the head of our narrator. He is the last scion of a venerable chivalric family, of which a few impoverished women remained, afflicted by hysteria. One of these women has apparently died of religious mania. He wanted to be a priest or, more particularly, a monk, not necessarily for the glory of God but for the solitude, so that he could spend his days in solitude and contemplation, away from people. He is fascinated by death and the dead. He frequently wanders Prague, a Prague which seems to be almost deserted, except for the occasional people at the stations he uses. Indeed, it seems to be a city of the dead, as he visits churches, chapels, crypts, and cloisters. He frequently ends up at the now deserted Barnabite cloisters and it is clear some denouement will take place there, as it does.
Physically, he is anemically pallid, wasted rather than thin, and he looked lifeless but inside he has a soul, at least as far as things dead were concerned. The dead came alive for him, while everything alive died before entering his soul. His inner soul is sensuous and, at times, he is carried away by the beauty and smell of flowers but this is all in his mind, not there in reality. Indeed, at times, he has the same feelings about God, feeling very much that he is at one with God and that, with God, he would participate eternally in the beauty that is concealed from everyone else.
He did train for the priesthood but melancholy, doubt and a fear of people overwhelm him and he abandons the idea. Indeed, he becomes so afraid of people that he shuns any places, even funerals, where there is a risk of meeting them. However, he later begins to somewhat regret this and yearns to have a friend. On a couple of occasions he meets someone who might be a friend but eventually pulls back from pursuing the relationship. (Though this is not mentioned, we know that Karásek was gay, so it is probable that the relationship the narrator is seeking is a sexual one as much as an intellectual one.) Sometimes, he wants people, other times not. On one occasion he flees Czechoslovakia and wanders round Bavaria for a while, before returning to Prague. But his mantra remains to flee from Judea to the mountains. Despite this, he is is concerned about what he calls the Czech soul. Indeed, he goes as far as anthropomorphising it and listening to it (or, rather, as he calls it, her) speak, though he maintains that it has now died. Nihilism, yes, nihilism is the only philosophy possible for this people he states and reviews the grim nature of Czech history. He turns to God, he turns away from God. He looks for solitude but wants some company. Christ comes to him as a silent stranger but he cannot connect with him. He visits his aged aunt and, after searching in various rooms, finds her but neither she nor her maid recognise him, the aunt assuming that he is Vilem, her dead son. The end is inevitable.
The narrator is a man who is clearly not able to fit into this world or, it would seem, the supernatural world. His world is the world of his inner sense, away from human contact, struggling with his relationship with God, if, indeed, there is a god, something he wonders on more than one occasion. His way is the medieval way of life or, at least, his somewhat idealised idea of what the medieval life might have been for the medieval ascetic, a life of contemplation but also a life very close to death and death’s images. Indeed, for someone like the narrator, who has had little experience of life, this is all that life has to offer – death.
First published by Moderní revue in 1900
First published in English by Twisted Spoon in 2015
Translated by Kirsten Lodge