There's an inscription under the title, a line of Tacitus, from his Histories, I, i:
Malvolence wears the false face of honesty.
You could almost miss it, tucked down there on a page most of us flip past without thinking. Indeed, I had just read the Overture when I remembered it was there. But perhaps we're better off forgetting about it right now.
The translators, Richard and Clara Winston, provide a helpful note for our journey. They indicate that many regard the book before us as the most important Austrian novel of the twentieth century. And if that isn't enough for you, there's a promotional page at the back which tells us that Alfred Knopf himself addressed the American public in a letter extolling the virtues of The Demons. The Americans didn't bite.
So, unlike, Joyce, Kafka, Mann, and Faulkner, von Doderer remains a mystery to we English speakers. You won't find him on all those academic literary blogs, or the blogs that talk about being in academic literary studies. But at least we have a translation of him, unlike poor Teodor Parnicki, who sits there, untranslated, into the world's second language.
So we are alone with von Doderer, here, and only here.
For a good long while now I have been living in what used to be Schlaggenberg's room.
Our narrator is called Georg von Geyrenhoff. He is a retired civil servant. He was clever enough to get some money into American stocks so that when the Great War came and went, while the great and glorious Austro-Hungarian Empire vanished from the face of the earth, and along with it everyone's money, he managed to hang onto a tidy sum, and is, according to himself, now retired from the civil service for an excellent reason - moral shame.
As things were, I preferred not to stay on in a post which offered little in the way of meaningful work and contribution to society, and merely provided a dull livelihood, for I was beginning to feel in an increasingly oppressive fashion that this livelihood was won at the expense of my toiling fellow-citizens.
Amen, von Geyrenhoff. From the depths of my soul, amen.
He tells us that he is writing the chronicle of his "crowd". We know nothing yet of this crowd, but we encounter one member, perhaps, a Financial Counselor Levielle. He is French, easily angered, and quite patronizing toward von Geyrenhoff. I suspect he is the other side of the coin of resentment von Geyrenhoff speaks of. Leveille toils as well, and yet clearly feels none of the shame our narrator does. Our narrator is a likeable man.
And yet - in fact you need only draw a single thread at any point you choose out of the fabric of life and the run will make a pathway across the whole, and down that wider pathway each of the other threads will become successively visible, one by one. For the whole is contained in the smallest segment of anyone's life-story...There we have in a tight analogy a good chunk of the Monadology of Leibniz.
The Overture is von Geyrenhoff on narration. He tells us how he writes things, how he fixes dates, how he is not involved in the events of the book, and yet he is intimately involved with the crowd. He's interested in trivial details, details that have much more meaning to him than the big story.
But really, the Overture is about von Geyrenhoff's view. From his studio, to the Romanesque church. And perhaps a bit further.
And this hand points for me beyond the ridiculous boundaries of an individual life, and above all these husks and boundaries, points like the outstretched hand of a gigantic clock whose extension in space is like a shot and rolls like the boom of a cannon through all my chambers.Tacetus.