The Prague that I visited last week was unlike the gloomy city with decaying streets portrayed in Paul Leppin’s Severin’s Journey into the Dark: A Prague Ghost Story.
First published in German in 1914, the tale follows Severin, a young office worker who wanders the night streets of Prague looking for salvation from the wretchedness that inflicts him.
Leppin’s prose is compact, vividly describing the motley crew of Prague inhabitants which includes a former opera star, a Jewish antique book dealer, an elegant bourgeois man, a Russian anarchist and dancing girls.
Karla smoothed her black velvet dress with nervous fingers and leaned toward him. The fiery beauty of earlier days slowly awakened in her raw, lacerated voice, where it sounded like the tone from a cracked glass. She spoke about the radiance her life had had when she still wore the hat with the red ostrich feather. About the young man Severin has seen on the street that time, who had loved her. She spoke of the abysses and plains of fortune. She whispered and faltered, and suddenly the charming Magdalene smile he had been waiting for all evening was on her lips again.
Severin’s Journey into the Dark takes the reader into the lonely soul of the protagonist. It is hard to like him for he is a selfish man and callously tramples the hearts of women who have fallen hopelessly in love with him. Often he seems like an empty shell of a man drifting through the streets of Prague. Perhaps that’s why the novel is partly titled “A Prague Ghost Story”.
This is a short and intense read, set in a bygone era in Prague – which is Leppin’s hometown. The city, at night, is moody and mysterious with decadent gatherings behind closed doors. I found the ending to be abrupt but at the same time, it seems befitting of Severin’s bewildering character.
I wonder if the book took references from Leppin’s own life. He was a civil servant, working as an accountant for the postal service. Parallel to this, he had a remarkable literary career and was a leading figure of the Jung-Prag (Young Prague) generation of German-speaking writers in Prague. Leppin was nicknamed “king of Prague bohemians” for his decadent lifestyle and love for parties.
Max Brod – one of his contemporaries – aptly commented that “Leppin was the truly chosen bard of the painfully disappearing old Prague, its infamous sidestreets and debauched nights … he was at once a servant of the devil and adorer of the Madonna.”
Translated into English by Kevin Blahut, Severin’s Journey into the Dark was published in 1993 by Twisted Spoon Press, an independent publisher based in Prague. The slim novel is elegantly designed and beautifully produced. A pleasure to hold in the hands, and to read of course.