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pseudo-autobiography, historical novel, Austria-Hungary, gender issues, feminist issues, role of women, women's freedom, social and political issues, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
by Katja Perat
On Christmas Eve 1874, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whom history would remember as the most famous masochist, left his home in Bruck an der Mur in Austria and disappeared into the unknown. The novel suggests he didn’t return alone, but with a new family member: a tiny red-haired girl he found in the forests around Lemberg (today’s Lviv, Ukraine). The Masochist is a memoir of Nadezhda Moser, the woman this little girl grew up to be, an invented historical figure who inhabits very real historical places and meets very real people of her time.
We meet her in autumn of 1911 at the castle of Duino (yes, at the same time that Rilke was there working on his Duino Elegies), where, after having lost her child, her lover, and what little love she ever felt for her husband, she is writing the story of her life in order to regain some control over it – on the recommendation of Dr. Freud. We meet her taking long walks, struggling with her task, desperately trying to figure out whether it is true that women were born to be loved and not to love, which language should be spoken in the Pan-Slavic country she was presumably destined to rule, whether insisting on corsets really makes one look provincial, and why freedom and guilt so often walk hand in hand. But most of all we meet her remembering.
Designed as a historical novel, this pseudo-autobiography forges an intimate portrait of a young, tenacious woman who, in uncertain times of intricate political, social and cultural turbulences at the end of the 19th century, chose an uncertain path – the only path that could lead her to freedom. The Masochist returns post-postmodernism to modernism and more than that it is a story of the Austro-Hungarian fin-de-siècle, contemplating the limits of female desire and freedom against the backdrop of ethnic, class and gender tensions of an empire yet unaware of its decline.