Cascading Splendor: Doderer’s «The Strudlhof Steps»

Cascading Splendor: Doderer’s The Strudlhof Steps

by Geoffrey C. Howes


Doderer, Heimito von. The Strudlhof Steps: The Depth of the Years, translated from the German by Vincent Kling. Introduction by Daniel Kehlmann. New York Review Books, November 2021, $24.95, 872 pages. ISBN 978-1-6813-7527-4


Doderer renders his scenes in meticulous descriptions of cityscapes, interiors, natural settings, physiognomies, and extended conversations, and in the narrator’s droll remarks. His narrator operates with sly irony, wry humor, gentle satire, and an understated fondness for his characters, including the city. The novel does not so much move us from event to event in chains of causality as bid us dwell in particular moments in particular spaces with particular people.


It is no exaggeration to say that Vincent Kling’s translation of Heimito von Doderer’s novel The Strudlhof Steps—the first in English—is a monumental achievement. Appearing exactly 70 years after the first publication of Die Strudlhofstiege in 1951, this 870-page tome assumes its deserved place alongside the translations of other great Austrian novels of the twentieth century: Franz Kafka’s The Castle, Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March, Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, Hermann Broch’s trilogy The Sleepwalkers, and Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina.

Doderer’s most popular and best-known work now finally joins the English translations of his other novels: The Demons (tr. Clara and Richard Winston, 1961, rpt. 1993); Every Man a Murderer (tr. Clara and Richard Winston, 1964; rpt. 1994); The Waterfalls of Slunj (tr. Eithne and Ernst Wilkins, 1966, rpt. 1987); The Merowingians, or, The Total Family (tr. Vinal Overing Binner, 1996); and The Lighted Windows (tr. John S. Barrett, 2000); as well as Vincent Kling’s translations of two story collections, A Person Made of Porcelain and Other Stories (2005) and Divertimenti and Variations (2008).

It was not only his previous translations of Doderer that qualified Vincent Kling for this momentous task. A respected scholar of German literature at La Salle University in Philadelphia, Kling has translated fiction, poetry, and essays by Heimrad Bäcker, Andreas Pittler, Gert Jonke, Gerhard Fritsch, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. In 2013 he won the prestigious Schlegel-Tieck Prize for his translation of Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta by the Swiss author Aglaja Veteranyi.

The Strudlhof Steps of the title are an outdoor staircase in Vienna, a masterwork of art nouveau architecture from 1910, and the novel’s chief leitmotif. It has been said that Vienna itself is a main character in The Strudlhof Steps, and indeed the Austrian capital, more precisely the ninth municipal district of Alsergrund, is the setting for most of the narrative. The geographic, topographic, architectural, historical, and cultural detail with which Doderer describes his native city and its environs is extraordinary.

Besides Vienna, the book’s main character is Lieutenant Melzer, later Major Melzer. A large cast of fastidiously drawn characters populates Melzer’s world, mostly members of the Viennese upper middle class: civil servants, military officers, businessmen, physicians, academics, artists, and their families. The novel moves back and forth, in narrative and in characters’ memories, between 1908-1911 and 1923-25. In the intervening years, the First World War has interrupted and disrupted the characters’ lives and Vienna itself. “The depth of the years” in the subtitle refers in part to the period during which the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire was reduced to a small state, the first Republic of Austria. Doderer seems as much interested in what hasn’t changed as in what has, especially in the minds and habits of its denizens.

Of course, simply having a translation of a great book is not enough; ideally it should be worthy of its source. Vincent Kling’s translation admirably fulfills this hope. First and most striking is his recreation of the narrator’s voice, which dominates this long novel. We need to be able to enjoy his company and appreciate his countless minutiae, asides, tangents, bon mots, and opinions, even more than the narrative thread itself. Kling adroitly renders the narrator’s affable yet shrewd manner by making the most of the idiosyncrasies of English.

The narrator’s voice underpins the general lavishness of The Strudlhof Steps. The thread of the plot is woven into an intricate fabric of scenes, often long and detailed, in which the lives of characters intersect. Doderer furnishes his figures with rich anecdotal histories so that one gets the sense that not merely characters, but whole worlds are coming together.

In the late Habsburg era from which Doderer’s people arise there prevailed an essentialist understanding of family roles, gender roles, social roles, and professional identities. But what might have seemed like destiny or inevitability before 1914 no longer does so in the 1920s. All is contingent, and the most spontaneous encounter can entail lasting consequences. (This was also true before the war, of course, but the aftermath of that great accident has made it more apparent.) What distinguishes Melzer is not his intellect (the narrator claims he has none), his social skills, or his sense of self, but his apparent lack of such traits. It turns out that although he was adrift and out of place in prewar Viennese society, his very lack of “character” in a traditional sense is an adaptive trait in postwar Vienna.

Doderer renders his scenes in meticulous descriptions of cityscapes, interiors, natural settings, physiognomies, and extended conversations, and in the narrator’s droll remarks. His narrator operates with sly irony, wry humor, gentle satire, and an understated fondness for his characters, including the city. The novel does not so much move us from event to event in chains of causality as bid us dwell in particular moments in particular spaces with particular people.

These particulars—the notes of the score, if you will—converge into movements in which the layered harmony and counterpoint are at least as important as the melodic figures moving through time. Tones, chords, flourishes, and leitmotifs are the elements of Doderer’s style. Kling’s translation has captured this music superbly.

One challenge in translating Doderer is this: much of his style depends on the tension between the inherent formality of German, a synthetic language, and the breezy, at times even gossipy, tone of the narrator. The result is frequent hyperbole or understatement.

English is analytic, not synthetic, and so it is often the tension between diction and content, not syntax and content, that generates irony. Kling translates the novel’s spirit within the terms offered by English rhetoric. While reading this version, I often listened simultaneously to the German audiobook and became aware that in many passages there is hardly a one-to-one correspondence between the words of German and English. But in Kling’s hands, there is a perfect correspondence between the speech intentions of the original and those of the translation.


Photo of the Strudlhof Steps by Anna Saini (source: Wikimedia Commons)

A few examples will give an impression of Kling’s handling of Doderer’s style and characters. The first instance (along with the German original) is a witty aside to the reader about constructing characters in novels that explains why we can’t expect conventional indirect speech with Melzer, all while creating narrative tension.

In a better novel, the thoughts of the solitary traveler during his journey to Vienna would now be imparted, purloined if need be or reeled in gasping and spluttering from the character being presented. Such a thing is truly impossible with Melzer, though; he never had the ghost of a thought, not now, not later, not even as a major. As far as we know, the first time he ever thought anything at all came on one particular occasion in his life, and then only at a very crucial and very far advanced phase—we will find out more about it later. Once he finally did it, he did it all the way; he didn’t waste his powder by taking premature potshots at little displays of agility and ability.

In einem besseren Roman wären jetzt die Gedanken des einsamen Reisenden während seiner Fahrt nach Wien zu erzählen und notfalls aus der betreffenden Figur herauszubeuteln und hervorzuhaspeln. Bei Melzer ist das wirklich unmöglich; von Gedanken keine Spur; weder jetzt, noch später, nicht einmal als Major. Zum ersten Mal hat er sich unseres Wissens was gedacht bei einem schon sehr vorgeschrittenen und ernsten Anlasse seines Lebens, den wir noch kennen lernen werden: und dabei hat er’s gründlich besorgt; er hat sein Pulver nicht vorzeitig verschossen in kleinen Beweglichkeiten und Geistreicheleien.[1]

The narrator is in his coy mode. He implicitly apologizes that his novel is not a better one, but then undercuts “better” novels for the way they access their characters’ thoughts, which are not just “imparted,” but possibly stolen (“purloined”) or landed like a fish on a hook. But it turns out that it is not an aesthetic or technical problem, or his own discretion, which keeps the narrator from capturing Melzer’s thoughts: it is the fact that Melzer doesn’t think. We are tantalized by the prospect that he will think once, but we have to be patient for this event (which occurs near the end of the book, hundreds of pages ahead).

By shifting rapidly between levels of diction, Vincent Kling adeptly follows the swings from false modesty, to implicit disparagement of other authors, to a gentle but withering judgment of his own creation Melzer, tempered by more diffidence (“as far as we know”; unseres Wissens), which almost strays from the topic at hand (Melzer’s trip from Bad Ischl to Vienna) to characterize this character who lacks character. Kling is creative, turning a metaphoric verb (herausbeuteln) that suggests shaking thoughts out of a character’s head, as if from a moneybag, into “purloined.” He then elaborates on the reeling-in trope by adding “gasping” and “spluttering,” retaining the humor of the original by underscoring its allusion to angling (hervorzuhaspeln). His vivid language represents Doderer’s without copying it—”ghost of a thought” and “potshots” do not correspond directly to words in the original. The final flourish “little displays of agility and ability” uses the prosodic possibilities of English words to render the polysyllables and assonance of German kleinen Beweglichkeiten und Geistreicheleien, which imply that Melzer’s modest inability to think is preferable to swaggering wit that blows its own horn.

The next example stands for the constantly tentative relationship between Melzer and René Stangeler, the second most important character, whom Melzer admires but doesn’t quite understand. Stangeler is a budding intellectual who attends prep school (unlike Melzer) and eventually returns from war captivity to earn a doctorate in history. This scene is from their youth before the war. Stangeler has just returned from a solitary hike in the woods during which he has a remarkable encounter with a large snake whose motions he feels “as if he himself were the one executing them,” and which he experiences as the “secret sharer of his solitude here in the ravine.” Meeting Melzer, he tries to convey the significance of the incident.

“You know, Herr Melzer,” he said, “as I was watching the snake there in the ravine—I just thought of this right now—it was very peculiar …”

“What was peculiar?” the lieutenant asked.

“It was as if I were watching myself.”

“And?” said Melzer, totally unembarrassed.

“I mean the strain and the grace at the same time—the stopping short, the hesitating, the twisting. Like myself on the inside, the deepest, inmost part of me, my most secret thoughts, as they say.”

Melzer stared straight ahead, out over the pond.

And suddenly, as if it were rising from the surface of the water, there was the Treskavica landscape with its bare south slope and the ride with Major Laska up to the cabin the day before the first time they went bear hunting. They’d stopped for a rest and dismounted, the major had just offered him a piece of chocolate or some cognac or whatever it was, and then Melzer had looked inside a hazelnut bush and seen a little snake, a hazel snake, moving in coils. “René!” he called suddenly, turning to face Stangeler and clasping him on the shoulder, “that’s right! I know what you mean! Just think! Exactly like yourself—I was once watching a snake that same way, too, a small one, though …”

“Like the convolutions of one’s own brain,” said Stangeler.

A tremendous outcry now went up from the tennis court.

On the brink of a possible meeting of their minds, Melzer and Stangeler are interrupted by the noisy end of a tennis game being played by acquaintances nearby, one of the random events that frequently break off potentially profound experiences in The Strudlhof Steps.

Upon closer look, we see that Melzer might not have understood Stangeler at all. The memory that rises up within Melzer is not a thought, but an image. It could even be interpreted as a parody of Stangeler’s earnest spiritual transformation. After the interruption, we have no idea whether Melzer’s small snake also reminded him of the convolutions of his own brain. Most likely it didn’t. Stangeler’s big snake simply reminded him of a small snake. And a few minutes earlier, he had given a dramatic and rather juvenile description of how the large snake might have wrapped its coils around Stangeler.

His wish to share an experience with Stangeler is touching, and Melzer is nothing if not open-minded—having no thoughts means he is receptive to others and nearly without bias (“totally unembarrassed”). Kling’s translation deftly draws the discursive differences between the two potential friends: Stangeler is cerebral, Melzer is visual; Stangeler is garrulous, Melzer often monosyllabic and halting.

Our final example is a description of the Strudlhof Steps themselves. It characterizes both the steps and, in contrast with the narrator’s words, Melzer’s eager but limited capacity for appreciating things and people around him. The time is 1925, so Melzer has the benefit of experience.

There they soon were—the Strudlhof Steps.

He stopped at the bottom.

Naturally our major, our civil servant, had no concept whatever of a genius loci, a spirit René Stangeler had been keenly alive to even during his prep-school days … . For him it was just a place holding some memories which, had it not been for a certain Editha Schlinger, née Pastré—conceivably altogether unaware of what she’d caused—might have remained covered over, hidden forever in the rubble, the stone litter of the years. As the situation stood now, however, Melzer was doubtless approaching somewhat closer to René’s manner of relating to this place. And while he may not have seen a stage setting for real life in the flights of stairs and in the terraced ramps ascending smoothly, one above another, the depth of his own existence, however modest and insignificant it might be, was yet somehow able even so to touch our Melzer while he stood there.

Here Kling’s prosody builds Melzer’s dawning awareness that the steps—even if he cannot appreciate them as the metaphor at the center of the novel about him—might surpass being a mere memory (like the small snake above) and become an allegory for “the depth of his own existence.” As he looks up from the bottom of the stairs, the rhythm of the language guides his eyes (and the reader’s) up the ramps, “ascending smoothly, one above the other,” in hesitant phrases, until the final clause tumbles back down to “touch our Melzer.”


Photo of Heimito von Doderer in 1959 by Barbara Niggl Radloff
(Source: Münchner Stadtmuseum)

German is capable of long sentences that use grammatical guideposts to keep the reader on track as a variety of words and ideas are connected to each other syntactically. English is less capable of this. Doderer specializes in such long syntactic units, and Kling is able to recreate their effects while staying within the possibilities and limits of English structure. A further description of Melzer’s confrontation with the steps provides an example (here alongside the German original).

The steps were standing there for anyone who happened by, for all the self-satisfied run-of-the-mill types and for even the great unwashed, but their design was such as to provide a path spread out to the strides of destiny, which don’t always have to shake the ground with a foot shod in armor but will often come walking, nearly noiseless, on the thinnest of soles, and in Atlas shoes, or with the short, skipping little footsteps of some poor heart exposed, running at a steady, ticking pace on its own two feet, tiny little heart-feet all bare and sore and needing so much care—to such a heart as well will the steps, cascading down in their splendor, offer companionship and escort; and they are always there; and they never grow weary of telling us that each path has a worth and value of its own and is always, in every case, more than just the goal.

Die Stiegen lagen da für jedermann, für’s selbstgenuge Pack und Gesindel, aber ihr Bau war bestimmt, sich dem Schritt des Schicksals vorzubreiten, welcher nicht geharnischten Fußes immer gestzt werden muß, sonder oft fast lautlos auf den leichtesten Sohlen tritt, und in Atlasschuhen, oder mit den Trippelschrittchen eines baren armen Herzens, das tickenden Schlags auf seinen Füßlein läuft, auf winzigen bloßen Herzfüßlein und in seiner Not: auch ihm geben sie Stiegen, mit Prunk herabkaskadierend, das Geleit, und sie sind immer da, und sie ermüden nie uns zu sagen, daß jeder Weg seine eigene Würde hat und auf jeden Fall immer mehr ist als das Ziel.[2]

This is a single sentence in the original and, admirably, in the translation as well. Its breathless enthusiasm, its piling up of metaphor and sentiment, approaches kitsch, but for a paraphrase of the feelings of “some poor heart exposed” such as Melzer, that is only appropriate. As in the previous example, the rhythm of the sequence is essential to its meaning.

After some further attempts by the narrator to convey what Melzer might be intuiting, there is another random disruption of his gathering thought: “Someone was waving to him from the lower ramp and calling loudly, ‘Major Melzer!'” It is Melzer’s acquaintance E. P. and his wife Roserl. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, an “assault of amiability,” E. P. addresses Melzer’s apparent reverie.

“What were you studying here with so much concentration, Major?” E. P. asked.

“The steps,” answered Melzer in a daze. They’d caught him in the act, as it were. “I just think they’re really wonderful.”

Compared to the narrator’s nearly baroque meditation on the significance of the Strudlhof Steps, Melzer’s brief summary is banal but amiable. He is almost embarrassed this time (they’d “caught him in the act”), but E. P. gives him the benefit of the doubt: “I wouldn’t have expected anything else from the major.” The effect of the passage depends on the carefully calibrated contrast between the narrator’s and Melzer’s forms of expression, and Kling executes this with consummate skill.

At the end of this passage (much abbreviated here), the trio of human beings departs from the Strudlhof Steps, leaving only the narrator to describe them as if they were in a painting, with visual but no more allegorical impressions. The translation executes the shift of tone and purpose, discovering where the poetical possibilities of English work well, for example by expanding the German phrase unregelmäßigen Blätterschatten (“irregular leaf shadows”) into “patched in dappling leaf shadows.”

Presently they set off slowly down the street, on their way to their evening meal. They left the steps behind, patched in dappling leaf shadows, their edges broken up and softened by overhanging limbs and by crowns of leafage. Up above, the evening began sifting its gold-red light as it came down through a broad gleaming gateway between the branches.

Sie machten sich bald danach langsam auf dem Weg, um essen zu gehen. Hinter ihnen blieben die Stiegen zurück im unregelmäßigen Blätterschatten, mit ihren von überhangenden Zweigen und Laubgekuppel unterbrochenen und gemilderten Konturen. Der Abend begann oben sein rötliches Licht zu filtern und trat in einer breiten glühenden Pforte zwischen die Äste.[3]

I have given little in the way of plot summary here, but it is notoriously difficult to summarize Doderer. In fact, the novel’s many narrative strands are not its main attraction, but a collateral benefit of entering this world of Viennese melancholy in all its abundance and complexity, guided by the genial, longwinded, eloquent narrator. What the reader stands to gain by inhabiting Doderer’s world is a finely wrought sense of a social milieu that has lost the imperial basis of its way of life, but which persists as if that foundation were still there. The characters are phantoms unaware of their spectral existence, because the elegance and splendor of the former imperial and royal capital Vienna, represented by the Strudlhof Steps, keep on being elegant and splendid. The solidity of this backdrop has allowed the actors to mistake it, and hence their roles, for reality, and the drama is still captivating, perhaps all the more so because we as readers can tell that the characters are hovering precariously over the depth of the years.

To some critics and scholars, Doderer’s novel seems anachronistic and conservative, dwelling as it does on a lost world that went missing once more after the Second World War. Published two decades after Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March and Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, novels that also deal with the end of the Habsburg world, The Strudlhof Steps can seem stuck in high modernism, or even in nineteenth-century realism. In the 1950s, after all, younger Austrian authors and artists were discovering and cultivating a long-postponed avant-garde.

But Doderer’s seemingly omniscient narrator is well aware of his limitations as he struggles to understand characters who themselves are struggling to understand their world. Melancholy is not the same as nostalgia. Doderer does not so much wish to return to the past as wonder how it can even be past when its aura is still so present, embodied in monuments like the Strudlhof Steps, which were brand new in 1910 but seem somehow ageless in 1925 or 1951. Vincent Kling’s vivid, graceful recreation of the that melancholy aura, and the narrative voice that sustains it, finally makes this modern classic available to us, and makes it worth our time and attention.


Notes:

[1] Heimito von Doderer, Die Strudlhofstiege oder Melzer und die Tiefe der Jahre. Roman. Mit einem topographischen Anhang von Stefan Winterstein und einem Nachwort von Daniel Kehlmann. Munich: C. H. Beck. Jubiläumsausgabe 2013, 65.
[2] Doderer, 331.
[3] Doderer, 333.


Geoffrey C. Howes, a translator, scholar, and writer, is professor emeritus at Bowling Green State University. He has published translations of books by Peter Rosei, Robert Musil, Jürg Laederach, and Gabriele Petricek. He was a judge for the 2020 PEN America Translation Prize and is Assistant Editor of No Man’s Land (https://www.no-mans-land.org).


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