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What the Swedes Read: Paul Heyse

by Daniel Handler
Illustration by Charles Burns

What the Swedes Read: Paul Heyse

Daniel Handler
11 Snaps
  • LAUREATE: Paul Heyse (Germany, 1910)
  • BOOK READ: In Paradise, translator unknown

Paul Heyse, the winner of the 1910 Nobel Prize in Literature, lived from 1830 to 1914, but I swear I knew the guy right after college. It seems a hundred years ago now. My girlfriend and I lived in a tiny apartment, listening to a lot of bands from New Zealand. I was trying to write a novel and she was trying to draw. When night fell we’d walk a couple of blocks to a colorful bar and sit in a booth with our artsy comrades, and I swear Paul Heyse was there, engaged in catty gossip and bold artistic proclamations until the two were indistinguishable.

When I look back on that time it seems like pure freedom and happiness. And yet, of course, I was worried all the time. I didn’t like being a struggling writer, trying to wrestle with the world in bad bars with my loser friends. The only way I got through it was by telling myself that this restless and scrappy time would seem glamorous and bohemian in retrospect, that the personal dramas and professional crises would become the quaint anecdotes of a person whose life had actually begun. As it turns out, I was right.

So was my pal Paul Heyse. His two-volume novel In Paradise, one of the books cited by the Prize Committee, basically takes place in that bar—although admittedly the bar is in 1869 Munich—and a few cheap rented rooms nearby. There’s a sculptor. There’s a painter. There’s another painter. There’s a musician who also does some painting. And there’s an artist’s model, and guess who has a crush on her.

This is an old setup, and Heyse doesn’t exactly make it new. But he does make it good. Each character has some baggage that gets passed around—a youthful mistake, a failed love affair, a sinister secret—and there’s a snappy pace to the proceedings. But in counterbalance to the flushed embraces and the tearful confessions, Heyse zeroes in on the restless unhappiness of rarified youth, the ennui that accompanies a class of people with no responsibilities whatsoever, who may laugh and shout all day in a beer hall but get a little lonely when they go home:

He had now attained what he cared for more than anything else. No one could enjoy more perfect freedom than he. No one could begin life afresh more untrammeled by social forms… And when, notwithstanding all this, he went to bed with a heavy sigh and waited long for sleep in vain—why was it?

Like the plot, this sort of thing isn’t exactly original, and in many ways In Paradise is the least startling Nobel book I’ve read so far.  But Heyse finds a balance between its grand bohemian gestures and its quiet shivers, between its heady manifestos and its soap opera twists, that make it a splendid entertainment.  And like all splendid entertainments, we know it’s coming to an end. The bar is called Paradise, and if that’s too subtle a hint for you, Heyse has the artists put on a puppet play, a perfect manifestation of the frippery of the clique and the integrity of their beliefs:

“The little drama…was in reality the introduction to a longer play, designed to be produced upon some future evening.  In rhyming verses it set forth the history of a musician, an artist, and a poet….[with] final verses promising the Paradise associates that…in the end, the true and beautiful should triumph and the fell scheming of the brothers and their fathers should be brought to naught.” 

Sure enough, there’s “fell scheming” on the horizon.  The Franco-Prussian War is brewing, and the gang soon becomes “a mere handful of rather morose and chilly comrades, who did not thaw out even over their wine.” [vol2, pg. 158]  Some of the plot twists become more desperate, and occasionally bloody. Heyse himself, like his characters, grows less sure of his artistic enterprise, explaining that “The novel steps back modestly when its elder brother, the epic, in glittering armor and with clang of arms, enters once more upon the world’s arena.” 

This, too, is a hallmark of many reckless-youth stories – the World Event that sweeps everyone’s innocence away, from the attack on Pearl Harbor that interrupts all the romantic entanglements in From Here To Eternity, to the 9/11 attacks that close Paul Auster’s recent novel Brooklyn Follies.  In the case of In Paradise, the second volume is less fun – particularly in my reading, as I could only get a hold of the second volume in a dreadful Print-On-Demand edition, with such a fractured text that the flyleaf has this in its Frequently Asked Questions: “Why is text missing from my paperback?  We created your book using a robot who turned and photographed each page.  Our robot is 99% accurate. But sometimes two pages stick together.” Luckily for me, the second volume is where I wanted to skip pages, as Prussia’s troubles with the French Empire push aside the juicier troubles of our young artistes.

Normally I’m disappointed when a book abandons breathless entertainment for loftier ambitions.  The fragility of these tipsy dreamers is evident enough without connecting them to a fraught national scene, and the feeling that Heyse was on a neighboring barstool is a much better reason to read a hundred year old book than the lesson that that war is hell.  It is the great reads, not the grand gestures, that endure, and when a book feels obliged to stretch towards some Large Importance, they too often end up lifting the author but not the reader.

But I was heartened by the fact that Heyse’s heart isn’t really in it.  Even as the mood darkens, In Paradise spends most of its time on the battles Heyse clearly prefers – those of aesthetic argument and romantic entanglements:

“There you hit it exactly!” cried Schnetz, flying into a rage, and throwing his whip down on the table.  “That is why we never come across a single sprig of fresh verdure in our social relations! That is why we must eternally carry about lies, narrow-hearted makeshifts, and mean reservations…And this modern world will never grow healthy again until the two sexes become tired of this childish mummery and meet each other half-way in an honest endeavor to give truth a trial, without prudery and without coarseness!” 

This reminds me very much of a long conversation I had with a friend, when I was maybe 25, at another friend’s wedding.  Two other friends had slept together and refused to talk about it, which was strange, because the rest of us were willing to talk about it all night long.  It was a beautiful night, and the moon was full over the kegs of microbrewed pale ale. In a few years nobody would care about any of it, but that night it was of the utmost importance.  I was considering writing a short story about it. And Paul Heyse, I can’t help but think, was there, too. I think he was DJing.

 

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