Paul Leppin was one of the most flamboyant, charismatic figures of Jung-Prag, Prague’s German-speaking literary coterie at the beginning of the twentieth century. Even by the standards of a movement that glorified decadence, his fiction is excessive. Swarming with prostitutes, anarchists, extortionists, infanticides, child molesters, and exhibitionists, it delves into the deepest layers of depravity and moral and sexual humiliation. Leppin, immediately recognizable in his large hats and loud ties, captivated listeners, among them Max Brod and Franz Kafka, with readings from his fiction and poetry at the Café Arco. Unfortunately, however, he could not tear himself away from Prague. The year after his sixtieth birthday, the Nazis occupied the city; the author, his books banned and all but forgotten, would die shortly before the end of the war.
Leppin’s writing languished for several decades, as the Communists were no more tolerant of degenerate bourgeois literature than the National Socialists had been. But gradually, his work was rediscovered, and in 1984, some fifty years after it was completed, Blaugast: A Novel of Decline was published. The titular decline is Klaudius Blaugast’s, and it is precipitous. One dark and stormy night, the office clerk, unable to sleep, decides to walk off his insomnia and the suffocations of his monotonous profession. He runs into an old school friend, Schobotski, who offers to take him to his “laboratory” of decay, “an establishment for the initiated, for lovers of novels and other unsentimental types.” “Are you interested in catastrophes?” Schobotski challenges.
Once at the decrepit tavern, Schobotski leaves his friend in the care of Wanda, a disheveled but resourceful prostitute. With fleeting compassion and much stronger lust, Blaugast takes her home. There, Wanda spies “the trapdoor that sealed the storeroom of his repressions.” She earns her keep by orchestrating ever more elaborate orgiastic fantasies for Blaugast until, emotionally and physically depleted, he quits his job. Eventually reduced to serving Wanda and her clients, including a gloating Schobotski, he becomes too abject even for her. Crippled by syphilis, Blaugast resorts to begging and masturbating onto a plate in the tavern for a pittance. Schobotski’s experiment is successful.
Aside from its curiosity as a period piece—Otto Weininger, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and Sigmund Freud contemporaneously began their forays into the field of sexology—this panorama of depravity is of limited value. Its overheated prose and psychosexual phantasmagoria soon grow tedious. Leppin’s supporters claim that his books were instrumental in tilling the barren soil of nineteenth-century German-Czech literature and clearing imaginative ground for the next, more radically innovative generation of Kafka and Franz Werfel. Surely, they would have managed just fine without his prose.