Review: Severin's Journey into the Dark

    ‘The gaunt man looked at him searchingly from behind his round glasses, and held Severin’s hand in front of his face longer than he had any of the others.
    You have experienced a destiny – he said when he looked up again – a great destiny, what was it?
    I haven’t experienced anything – Severin said, and pulled his arm away.
    Then it will come – You have a hand 

                                         to be feared.’

Paul Leppin, alongside Kafka and Gustav Meyrink, was one of the 20th Century’s great writers of urban fiction; and, like Kafka and Meyrink, he took as his muse the city of Prague. Leppin’s Prague, like Rodenbach’s Bruges, is a city of insistent gloom, lassitude, and decay. Severin’s Journey into the Dark, perhaps Leppin’s most widely-regarded novel, is the sort of corrosive, suffocating book that could only have been written by the sort of wandering soul it seeks to paint a portrait of. And while the titular Severin (a reference, of course, to Masoch’s Venus in Furs—which connotation could be argued, perhaps, to suffuse the entire novel with an air of claustrophobia and pain) walks the deceptively well-lit pathway to decline, his ‘journey into the dark’ often takes second-billing to the atmosphere of pestilential deterioration Leppin conjures under the namesake of ‘Prague.’ But the city, decorated with wounded souls, is a mirror of the man: and its rain and filth and languor and gloom is as much an extrapolation of the inner decay of Severin himself as it is a symbol of anonymity and brooding fog.

The novel has a plot, but it consists solely of episodic interactions with the ghosts that comprise Severin’s circle in Prague; and we wander with him, through the soul-crushing ennui of office work, the effete salon of a withered aesthete, the private armory of a mad anarchist, the personal residence of a rakish occultist, a filthy old man's bookshop, cafes of languid dissipation and perversion: this is a Prague that knows no innocence, and hence only harm. Along the way, Severin wounds two women, damages irreparably a third, and nearly destroys a fourth. He is not an innocent caught in the sickly puddle of sludge that is leaking from the heart of Prague; if anything, his own ugliness serves its perpetuation—which makes our sympathy for this lonely victim of terror and taedium vitae all the more distressing. Leppin’s genius manifests itself when it tickles the strings of universal experience, chiefly through painting an extreme and then allowing those on the other side to identify intimations of their own potential ruin in the journey towards perdition undergone by one particularly envenomed soul.

But Severin is seeking redemption. His nihilism, anxiety, selfishness, detachment, and dirt must absolutely be viewed in this context; the complexity of Severin’s Journey into the Dark develops within its ironies: a product of the Decadence, it displays a marked indifference to the fate of prior heroes of these sorts of fictions (Des Esseintes, Athanasius Pernath, etc). There is no ultimate awakening or absolution fated for Severin: his ruin is inevitable, as is the destruction wrought at his hands. This cynical world-view, common enough in Decadent literature, is particularly poisonous and all-consuming in the work of Paul Leppin.

Severin’s Journey into the Dark haunts me in lonely moments, as I step off a bus and into the intestines of a city or as the fog begins to roll in from the sea, carrying with it the acid, agony, and oily soot of voices crying out the praises of degeneracy, sex, and sloth. I recommend it to those who can handle it: like anything caustic, a high pain-tolerance does wonders at insulating one from its destruction. For a time, that is.


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