The Austrian Riveter: Heimito von Doderer. The Strudlhof Steps by Vincent Kling

Many readers who have started The Strudlhof Steps confess, often with embarrassment, to giving up in boredom or bewilderment after fifty or a hundred pages. As its translator into English, I have heard this statement over and over for many years from seasoned readers. What they are anticipating is so different from what they find that their frustrations multiply and they bail. This novel is frequently abandoned because of what it is not. To approach understanding what it is, then, we need to clear away what it isn’t. Doderer’s critics repeatedly compare him to Robert Musil and Hermann Broch, but he himself often insisted that they are more firmly rooted in 19th-century fictional practice than he is. Beginning with his title, Doderer adroitly misleads the reader into expecting a somewhat old-fashioned,crowd-pleasing, plot-driven ‘good read’.

And it is, but in its own way. Characters are memorably drawn, but except for Melzer they all remain types instead of fully rounded personalities, the same at the end as they were at the beginning. The settings are strikingly vivid, but they function as props brought on and rolled away, like Prospero’s cloud-capped towers, only as the ubiquitous narrator needs them. This novel teems with episodes and incidents that don’t cohere into a unified plot: an intrigue centred on smuggling, a long-lost twin, a happily-ever-after ending that deliberately risks sentimentality – not one of which comes close to holding the structure together.

Doderer was a litterateur distrustful of literature. Searching for his own approach at the start of his career, he vehemently rejected the ‘writerly’ art of authors like Thomas Mann, labouring instead to set prose narrative free from standard constrictions. To do so, he had to dismantle ‘well-made’ practices, fragmenting the continuity provided by content and relying almost entirely on the coherence of form. After all, the governing central unity of The Strudlhof Steps resides in the steps themselves, an aesthetic and functional triumph of structure that creates and enables meaning, since any ‘one of the flights of steps becomes in itself a device of style, a means of achieving expression’, a guardian and guarantor of an order ennobling everyday life. Doderer’s project was not compatible with the received conventions of the novel, then. Musil and Broch expanded within traditional frameworks; like Fielding in Tom Jones, they reconstructed. Doderer, like Sterne in Tristram Shandy, deconstructed, a process this novel’s appealing surface makes it easy to overlook.

In his earliest days as a writer, around 1921, Doderer devised a working substitute for standard narrative, incorporating strategies of oral delivery with emphasis on musical elements like tempo, rhythm, and frequent motivic repetition to create structural unity. His biographer Wolfgang Fleischer notes that Doderer was striving at that time ‘to liberate narration from bookishness … the divertimento form he devised … struck him as most apt’ (my translation). Narrative tempo, deployment of motifs, and rhythmic dynamism were meant to predominate through this technique, according to Doderer’s most eminent critic, Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler. And Doderer’s own comments about the divertimento distinctly relegate content to form: ‘Toss your plot lines around every which way … And if you manage to combine three of them through the common denominator of a final movement, then you have created a divertimento’ (my translation). He marked his manuscripts with musical directions such as rallentando when he gave readings from them. He repeatedly invoked with deep reverence the example of Beethoven and consciously modelled his proposed tetralogy (only The Waterfalls of Slunj was finished) on Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. (Doderer’s Divertimenti and Variations were published in my translation by Counterpath Press in 2008.)

So, The Strudlhof Steps, likewise in four parts like a symphony, comes into its own when it is ‘heard’ rather than ‘read,’ ith attention to tempo, motivic repetition, phrasal balance, cadence and rhythm, and other acoustical, musical effects pre-dominating over story development. The development is there but can’t be grasped without listening carefully, after which insights emerge into both genre and form – neither of them conventional. Read for story and be thwarted; listen for sound and the story will emerge.

Vincent Kling

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