A review of The Masochist by Katja Perat, translated from the Slovenian by Michael Biggins
‘If the facts indicate otherwise, then too bad for the facts.’ So begins Katja Perat’s novel The Masochist, newly translated into English by Michael Biggins and published this week by Istros Books. The latest in a line of bold and thoroughly engaging titles from this small Eastern Europe-focused press, The Masochist is a work of fiction rooted in fact – a smart retelling of a period with which readers may think they are familiar, a rebalancing of traditional gender roles, and a many-layered exploration of the individual psyche that strikes exactly the right balance between entertaining and profound.
Despite these many pleasing elements, what is perhaps most striking and enjoyable about The Masochist is the almost daringly strong voice in which it is narrated – a voice that has been captured with beautiful consistency by translator Michael Biggins. Nadezhda Moser, our flame-haired protagonist, is the adoptive daughter of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, an Austrian writer whose most widespread and lasting claim to fame is having lent his name to the term ‘masochism’. The novel opens at a turning point in Nadezhda’s life – the exact circumstances of which are only revealed to us later – and quickly reverts to a chronological narration through which we are privy to scenes from her childhood, coming of age and ultimately disastrous marriage to young Austrian aristocrat Maximilian Moser. Nadezhda’s life is characterised by confusion – events seem to follow one another breathlessly, many of them taking on a tinge of the absurd – yet throughout it all her voice remains unwaveringly clear: wry, sharp, as honest as she knows how to be.
Both this narrative structure and unmistakeable voice reminded me of another title from Istros Books, Olja Knežević’s Catherine the Great and Small, which also features a powerful female narrator and seeks to turn certain gender stereotypes on their head. Here, though, Nadezhda’s apparent strength belies a weakness: her often devil-may-care attitude hides a brittle personality, her black humour papering over the cracks running through her life. And although Leopold von Sacher-Masoch might have been the original masochist, it only takes a look at the original Slovenian title, Mazohistka, and the reading of a couple of chapters to begin to understand that the real masochist of this novel is Nadezhda herself.
The dictionary defines masochism as ‘the tendency to derive pleasure, especially sexual gratification, from one’s own pain or humiliation’. Leopold, we are told, enjoyed having his lovers dress up in furs and whip him; he also routinely attempted to prostitute his own wife to other men and regularly caused himself pain. So far, so good – this behaviour is, after all, what gave rise to the original meaning of masochism. Yet his daughter, Nadezhda, represents masochism in a more everyday sense, continually causing herself harm on an emotional level. In marrying Maximilian, a man she knows cannot make her happy, she sets out on a path that features further self-destructive behaviour: turning away from proffered friendships, beginning a catastrophic love affair, isolating herself through long periods in which she apparently cannot speak.
It is easy as a reader to judge a novel’s characters, and I often wanted to scream at Nadezhda to stop doing things she knew would cause her hurt. ‘I learned to realize that dreams that come true are called disappointments,’ she tells us in a passage told with typically wry humour, yet for all the chipper attitude with which they are undermined, sentences like this caused a catch in my throat. For Perat has made her narrator recognisable to us on some fundamental level: don’t we all tend to set ourselves up for a fall? Don’t we all – especially women – make ourselves feel guilty over events we might not have been able to help? And don’t (returning here to that opening line) the apparent facts of any story fail to leave room for the complex decisions and emotions behind them?
The Masochist is a relatively short novel, yet it asks a lot of questions, particularly around individual psychology and emotional development. Sigmund Freud has a habit of popping up in any novel set in Vienna around the turn of the century and this is no exception, yet Nadezhda’s sessions with him are merely a sideshow to the real psychoanalysis going on within these pages. Right from the very beginning, Nadezhda’s narrative is an attempt to understand herself and the life she lives – and though her progress may often seem like one step forward and two steps back, over the course of the novel she matures almost beyond recognition.
Allowing Freud to appear in her novel as a secondary character – indeed, Nadezhda often scoffs at the great master of psychoanalysis, benefitting far more from her own version of the process – is one of the many ways in which Perat sticks two fingers up at the gender inequality embedded in fin de siècle society. As much as Western Europe may have felt it was progressive, Perat’s descriptions of parties, balls and bawdy shows suggest that it was otherwise. Yet the male cultural luminaries who appear throughout the novel – Gustav Klimt, Rainer Maria Rilke, Gustav Mahler, even Leopold von Sacher-Masoch himself – are all drawn as faintly absurd figures, men who are in some way weak or ridiculous, thinking too much of themselves whilst playing second fiddle to their women. In this too I was reminded of Catherine the Great and Small; both Perat and Knežević add a good dose of feminism to their work in a way that seems slightly underhand and thus even more enjoyable.
An air of absurdity hangs heavy throughout The Masochist, which is described by the publisher as ‘a serio-comical fictional romp through the Habsburg Empire’. It often does have the pacing of a romp, but beneath the surface comedy (itself gentle and intelligent) there is great depth, and many of the themes – gender roles and identity, the part that family and upbringing play in our sense of self, the political and social upheaval felt in Europe as the nineteenth century came to a close – would probably benefit from a second reading to give them the full attention they deserve. The novel is also an exploration of the relationship between fact and fiction, both in an historical sense – in Perat’s playful use of real figures – and in a psychological one, as represented by the stories Nadezhda often tells herself whilst refusing to face up to something. ‘Why bother with facts when fiction is so much more useful?’ she asks early on; yet on occasion, when she retreats into silence, words seem to have failed her altogether.
Being lost for words is not a problem Katja Perat seems to have. One of Slovenia’s most eminent contemporary poets, The Masochist is all the more blistering given that it is a debut novel. Propelled by great energy and written in vivid, poetic prose faithfully translated by Michael Biggins, The Masochist is absorbing from first page to last and – despite what the title might suggest – an absolute pleasure to read.
The Masochist by Katja Perat, translated from the Slovenian by Michael Biggins, is published by Istros Books on 20 October and available in paperback and digital. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.