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Katja Perat: Mazohistka (The Masochist)

Leopold Sacher-Masoch is one of those people who is remembered primarily for his name, which has become a word in English, in this case masochist/masochism. He is also known for his novel Venus in Furs which was, till recently, his only novel available in English. He is to a great extent known because of Richard von Krafft-Ebing who, in his book Psychopathia Sexualis, coined the term masochist, to Sacher-Masoch’s annoyance, as well as introducing English-speaking readers, in the translation of the book, to words such as sadism and necrophilia.

This book is not, however, a novelised biography of Sacher-Masoch, though he does very much appear in it. It is narrated by and tells the story of Nadezhda (Nada) von Moser. Unlike many of the characters in this book, she is fictitious. She had been found by Sacher-Masoch as a baby, in a basket, abandoned in the woods. Sacher-Masoch adopted her. Sacher-Masoch had two children of his own, Sasha, who died of typhus and Mitja. According to Nada, Sasha was his favourite and he really mourned his death.

Sacher-Masoch would have liked to live in Vienna but could not as there was a warrant for his arrest in Austria. It would have meant only four days in prison but that was four days too many for him. He had lived in Leipzig with Wanda his first wife. Nada was quite fond of her as she was a good mother to her. However, Sacher-Masoch sent her off to the emperor to plead for clemency. It was a long journey and, when she returned, without the clemency, he had already replaced her with Hulda, his secretary. They moved to Lindheim, in Hessen, a small town which Nada hated. She also did not get on well with Hulda.

Sacher-Masoch was well-known in Germany as a writer of novels and folk tales. Indeed, he was admired by Turgenev, among others. It is only later in life that he turned to the more erotic works we now know him for and it is on these and, more particularly, his behaviour at home, involving what we would call kinky behaviour, that Nada concentrates on.

Leopold locked himself away in his study with Hulda’s maid Bertha and all we could hear were screams and the lashes of a whip is just one example. However, his behaviour had long been erratic. When Nada was young they had had to move frequently to avoid debt collectors or seek out cheaper lodgings. As well as his erotic behaviour, he has the habit of disappearing for a few days without telling anyone where he was going. We learn early on that he ends up in an asylum, with his insanity possibly caused by syphilis. In short, it was not a particularly happy childhood for Nada, not helped by often being called the wild child.

However, while in Lindheim, bored, Nada meets Maximilian von Moser. He considered Sacher-Masoch the greatest writer after Goethe. He meets Nada and they eventually marry. As he is rich and has a house in Vienna – his parents had died when he was away on military service – she is happy to marry him. However, she says, I never got any real sense that he loved me. I only ever got the sense that he had decided to be in love. We know from the beginning of the book what is going to happen. Maximilian will kill Nada’s lover. Meanwhile she meets various famous people, including Gustav Klimt and his mistress Emilie Louise Flöge, to whom he is regularly unfaithful, Alma and Gustav Mahler and, in particular, Sigmund Freud, from whom she has treatment. She also meets and has an affair with the fictitious Jakob Frischauer.

Things do not turn out well with Jakob or Maximilian and, as we have seen at the beginning of the book, she heads for Lemberg, where Sacher-Masoch lived and she was found to see if she can pick up her life there. One of the few pieces of sensible advice she receives from a man comes from the local innkeeper, who advises her not to stay. After a bit of drifting she ends up in Trieste. Every person who doesn’t know what to do with himself eventually winds up in Trieste, James Joyce tells her on the last page. However, the last words of the book come from Freud. You can flee to the ends of the Earth, you just can’t escape from yourself.

This novel is not a straight story of the fictitious daughter of Leopold Sacher-Masoch. Firstly, it is a feminist novel. Nada lives in an era when women were definitely subordinate. She is critical of Sacher-Masoch, his treatment of Wanda and his general behaviour. However, she points out that while he likes indulging in masochism, he is still always in charge. In other words, the women may whip him but they only do exactly what he tells them to do. She argues with Freud, rejects Kraft-Ebing’s contention that for every woman her love of the man she’s chosen means everything and is critical of the fact that the early cinemas seem only open to men, which she is only able to visit disguised as a boy.

The men she is closest to – Sacher-Masoch, Maximilian and Jakob – all let her down and prove themselves to be, ultimately, typical males – bullying, controlling, sexist. They are only interested in women for sexual gratification, reproduction and to show off their conquest. Indeed, the only men that come out reasonably all right have minor roles – the innkeeper at Lemberg, James Joyce and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, with whom she shares a house, though they rarely meet, when he is writing the Duino Elegies.

She is also politically aware, opposed to to anti-Semitism (Jakob Frischauer is Jewish) and favours pan-Slavism, even though she struggles to learn a Slavic language. When she meets, at a party, a group of male doctors, she stands up to them and defends Sacher-Masoch, to the surprise of Wolfgang, her husband’s brother-in-law.

But for us, her narration works well because she has a detached, cynical view of the world. She mildly mocks not only Sacher-Masoch but many others she comes in touch with, both fictitious and historical, including her husband, Freud, Klimt and Kraft-Ebing, though having sympathy for those women who are victims, such as Emilie Flöge and Wanda.She mixes with many of the great and good of the era but is not terribly impressed with any of them. Klimt is a philandrer, Sacher-Masoch neither a good father or good husband, Freud is too full of himself and she has little time for Rílke, though Joyce looks slightly promising.

I thought this was a superb book. It was witty, dabbled around with an interesting part of history, told an excellent story, had a narrator who was not afraid to speak her mind and stand up for herself but, nevertheless, was not always sure where she was going or why, gave us a different perspective on a few famous people and mocked the foibles of those who thought highly of themselves, primarily men. I shall certainly look forward to more novels by this author.

Publishing history

First published 2018 by Beletrina
First published in English 2020 by Istros Books
Translated by Michael Biggins