Paul Leppin (1878-1945) is best known for his short novel, Severin's Journey into the Dark (A Prague Ghost Story), a grim tale of one man's psychological turmoil and inability to find contentedness even when he's happy. I've read "Severin's Journey..." but I find this anthology of eight short stories showcasing Leppin at his best; there is a greater wealth of profundity and pessimism in these stories. I would suggest that any reader new to Leppin start here. Not all of the short stories are great and one did leave me disappointed, but most of them are powerful albeit bleak vignettes. Leppin is a truly underrated decadent writer who eschews the erotic in favor of death, misery, and decay. Sex is present in his works, but with the exception of some scenes in the "The Wonderdoll," Leppin's descriptions are subtle and should not titillate or offend anyone.
What I find so great about these short stories is Leppin's somber atmosphere and evocation of a melancholy Prague. Leppin's stories are grounded in murky and decrepit settings: gloomy streets barely illuminated by streetlamps, moonlit nights of isolation, dark confined spaces fit for brooding. Every protagonist in these stories is ultimately a victim of their own desires. They yearn for something but either cannot achieve it or hold onto it. Ultimately, they are subjected to a tragic end; either madness, death, or hopelessness defeats them.
Without spoiling too much, the following is a synopsis of each story with occasional commentary on my part:
The Wonderdoll - This is my favorite work of Leppin's and, in my opinion, the best work of this anthology. It's such a moving and perverted story that contrasts horrific scenes with romantic love: a young boy falls in love with a life-sized wax doll of a beautiful woman who actually reciprocates his feelings and magically comes to life.
There is a touch of horror in this story that is uncharacteristic for Leppin. One disturbing scene is worth excerpting: "Curious things stood grouped next to one another: severed heads and hands with long white fingers... On a yellow hide on the ground there lay a man who rolled his eyes frightfully - he was naked and his chest had been ripped open so that his heart could be seen... The instruments of torture dug into their ashen skin and contorted their mouths into grinning madness."
Clearly, this is no innocuous fairytale. At one point, the boy lustfully kisses the doll's breast, after which the doll becomes animated and returns the affection. Beyond this hint of necrophilia, the subject is even more shocking because of the boy's age: it is never explicitly revealed, but Leppin describes the boy's age in such a way that he must not even be a teenager yet. The ending is dark and unsettling.
Others' Paradise - An angst-ridden tale of an antisocial shoemaker condemned to a life of monotonous work. His only view of the world outside is through his shop's window. Since his shop is below ground-level of the city streets, he can only see the lower legs and particularly the shoes of people passing by. One pair of shoes worn by a woman catches his eye and he develops an obsession for her; he pins his hopes on her and finds meaning in his life simply by watching her pass by. The ending is genuinely sad.
The Dream of the Silver Eaves - The recollection of a happy memory of lost love. Even though the majority of the story describes the bliss of first love, there is a pang of melancholy because all of it is merely a memory. There is no explanation of why the narrator has lost his first love. After completing the story, the narrator writes, "Outside it is dark and the streetlamps have gone out. Before me a strand of blond hair lies on a red letter, a picture lies next to it, and on the picture is written: NEVER LEAVE ME!" But the implication is that he has left her. Leppin seems to be conveying that passionate youthful love is fleeting and always bitterly ends.
The Funeral of Herr Muckenschnabel - A bookkeeper confined to the daily grind of paperwork wishes there was more to life. "It was always the same - birth and life, the office and death." A very identifiable notion in our modern age. The bookkeeper is convinced life is just woeful monotony: "Highwaymen's romances, horror and devotion, love and God existed only in books" he thinks. This is another bleak story of a man who yearns for death, but ends up slipping into madness. He starts seeing people in the streets as figures from his ledgers; men become "bloated zeros" and "indolent nines."
The Ghost of the Jewish Quarter - A doom-laden and twisted tale of a prostitute working in a sordid and filthy ghetto of early 20th-century Prague. She enjoys her work unlike other prostitutes and finds fulfillment by giving herself to men. When she contracts a disease and is confined to bed, the deprivation of intimacy is too much to bare. The ending is weird and a little sickening.
The House on the Riverbank - Three women fall victim to the charms of a young man. They fall in love and know happiness only to be discarded by the libertine. In typical decadent fashion, the ending is oppressively dark; it suggests the existence of a tragic life cycle that breaks the spirits of so many women.
Retribution - An old man on his deathbed recalls a horrible thing he did in his past. The memory seems to come from some sinister and mysterious force and manifests itself in order to enact revenge.
The Doors of Life - This is the longest of all the short stories and I found it very difficult to read. The plot is almost surrealistic and I couldn't grasp the symbolism on a first reading. Even after a second reading, I did not understand what really happened: at its basic level, the plot concerns a woman closed off from the world who pursues her passions only to return to her previous state of misery. It's a lot more convoluted, though, with bizarre obsessions and a confusing narrative.
Bottom line: If you like cheerful and optimistic stories, do not read this. If you enjoyed Severin's Journey into the Dark (A Prague Ghost Story), you should like this anthology. As I said before, almost all of these eight short stories are more captivating than "Severin's Journey..." I think Leppin is better equipped to deliver his message and cast his spell when he does it in under 15 pages. Recommended for fans of Kafka, decadent literature, and especially Meyrink's The Golem (Dedalus European Classics).