So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Love: The Legacy of Cain. Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch

Love: The Legacy of Cain contains new translations of three love stories by the infamous author of Venus in Furs, whose name has come down to us primarily as the term for a variety of sexual behaviour. But do not expect to find women with whips standing over cringing men in these tales. Sacher-Masoch was a much more complex writer who was considered a new Goethe by some of his contemporaries.

This book is a very good English-language introduction to the writings of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Not only does it provide new translations of three of his novellas, but it also has a six page Afterword by the translator that shows how these works fit into Sacher-Masoch's body of literature and literary themes. The author was planning a series of 36 novellas to be collectively called The Legacy of Cain. It was to consist of six stories on each of six themes: Love, Property, The State, War, Work, and Death. Only the two cycles on Love and Property were finished and finding English translations of any of them besides Venus in Furs requires the resources of major university libraries. This book contains the first three novellas of the Love sextet along with the prologue to the series which is called "The Wanderer." There appears to be an awakening scholarly interest in Sacher-Masoch's writings. This is the second book of translations by Michael O'Pecko, and Virginia Lewis has also recently translated a new book of the author's Jewish stories.

"The Wanderer" is the prolog to the whole Legacy of Cain series. In it a civilized man who is out hunting comes across a holy mystic wandering in the Carpathian mountains. The holy man attacks the narrator for being a hunter, a killer. A discussion begins in which the mystic claims we are all infected with the legacy of Cain's sin. The just person can only flee the world and its enticements to avoid the six things that are Cain's legacy: Love, Property, The State, War, Work, and Death. Confronted with this "Truth" the narrator returns to his village to ponder. The prolog ends and the stories begin.

Don Juan of Kolomea tells the tale of a man who falls in love and marries. He is blissfully happy until his wife has children. Feeling neglected by her, now that she spends her time with them, he seeks out lovers. But he can never recover the feelings of true love that he first had with his wife.

The Man Who Re-Enlisted tells another story of true love led astray. This time the lovers are young and poor. They are deeply in love, but her great beauty draws the attention of a rich man. She chooses security and wealth over true love and poverty. Yet this is a small town and the two must see each other in passing as the years go on. We see the man's unending love yearning for the unattainable through the eyes of his fellow villagers.

In Moonlight, a married woman becomes bored with her life in the country and takes her husband's friend as a lover. Everything comes crashing down when her husband finds out, and she is left only a shadow of her former self, playing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata night after night.

These stories take us into another world. This is the 19th century in the Carpathian Mountains of rural Austria-Hungary. The people who live here were called "Little Russians" because they spoke a dialect of Ukrainian. Today we know them as Rusyns or Western Ukrainians. If you are looking for the Hollywood version of love that conquers all, these are not the stories for you. But if you want to see how the impulse of love plays out against the realities of 19th century life and, despite the intensity, doesn't always have a happy ending, you will find much to enjoy here. Sacher-Masoch will take you to another time and place and fill your soul with the poignancy of his characters.

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