A frighteningly unsentimental novel of human degradation with echoes of both Kafka and Dostoyevsky.
Written in the 1930s (the author died in 1945), the novel anatomizes the humiliation and decline of Klaudius Blaugast in the seamy underside of Prague. The story begins with the title character accidentally meeting Schobotzki, an old school acquaintance, in the streets of Prague. Schobotzki, a charismatic but nasty piece of work (and later termed “the most corrupt, the most evil…the Devil incarnate”), startles Blaugast by inquiring about his interest in “the science of decay” and in “catastrophes.” It turns out the decay he refers to is primarily sexual, for Schobotzki introduces Blaugast to Wanda, a prostitute specializing in degradation and debasement—not that Blaugast, a self-described “pilgrim in the mire,” needs tutoring in these areas. We’re introduced to memories from Blaugast’s early sexual education, out of which he comes to the staggering revelation that “guilt, guilt, guilt was life, guilt that rose up, delirious, in convulsions, to break down, tortured.” Blaugast’s journey borders on despair, for on some level he’s looking for God and love, both of whom seem to have deserted him in his “depravity and wickedness.” Blaugast’s abasement eventually becomes an obsession, so much so that to the disgust of Wanda he quits his job and thus deprives her of one reason for her leechlike attachment. Johanna, a girl from Wanda’s “stable” (and with a proverbial heart of gold), steps into the breech, a Sonja figure who, in taking care of Blaugast, finds herself “slowly submerged into a realm far removed from the mundane—a realm she had hungered for her entire life.” It is a spiritual rather than a carnal union with Blaugast.
While Leppin’s style is not as spare as Kafka’s, the nightmare he chronicles reminds us of our own connection to what Leppin calls the “Ur-forest,” the dark realm of our repressed selves.