I picked it up mainly because it is short – around 150 pages. I wasn’t sure about the book as the author’s name – I am sure you would have guessed it already – inspired the addition of a new word to the language – masochism. But discerning readers have said good things about the book and so I thought I will read it. There are worse ways of spending a few hours, I thought.
‘Venus in Furs’ is the story of Severin and Wanda, the woman he falls in love with. Their love is, of course, not of the ordinary kind. When the story starts, Severin has rented an apartment in a Carpathian resort and is doing his dilettant-ish things there – reading, writing poetry, painting – engaging in artistic pursuits without really accomplishing anything. As he puts it –
“Well, I was nothing more than a dilettante : a dilettante in painting, in poetry, in music, and in a few more of the so-called unprofitable arts, which nowadays, however, assure their masters the income of a cabinet minister, nay, a minor potentate. And above all, I was a dilettante in life.
Until then, I had lived as I had painted and versified – that is, I never got beyond priming a canvas, beyond penning an outline, a first act, a first stanza. There are simply people who start all sorts of things and yet never finish any of them. And that was the kind of person I was.”
And then he meets Wanda. Wanda is a young widow who has rented the upstairs apartment. Severin sees her as the embodiment of the Greek goddess Venus. He falls in love with her and is obsessed with her. They meet, they talk, they get to know each other. Wanda likes Severin too. She says she loves him. Severin wants to marry her. But Wanda is a free spirit. She says that it is hard to love one person forever because the human heart is fickle and things change across time and so they should enjoy their relationship for a year and see how things go and think about marriage after that. Severin says that if they can’t get married now, he should atleast be permitted to be her slave. Wanda warns him against it. Severin is insistent. After a lot of conversation, going back and forth, they decide on it. Severin signs a contract to be Wanda’s slave. He hopes that it will tie him to Wanda for life. And though their relationship will be that of unequals, he hopes that Wanda will be his lover for life. Of course, things go sideways after that. And they go in a way that both of them don’t expect. As Severin says later –
“Everything that had occurred so far seemed like child’s play; but now the situation was serious, horribly serious.
I sensed catastrophe. I saw it before me, I could hold it in my hands; but I lacked the courage to face it, my strength was broken. And to be honest : it wasn’t the pains I dreaded, or the sufferings that could sweep over me, or the abuse that might lie in store for me.
What I felt was fear – a fear of losing the woman whom I loved almost fanatically; and this fear was so violent, so crushing that I suddenly burst out sobbing like a child.”
Well, you should read the story to find out what happened and how it all ended.
‘Venus in Furs’ is a story of love and obsession. On the surface, it could be regarded as the story of a BDSM relationship, with whipping, torture and a proper dominatrix thrown in, but that is not the whole story. As Roland Barthes said, a story’s meaning is not just what the writer intends. It is also the meaning that a reader gives to the story based on her / his life experiences and intellectual contemplation. That way, the reader plays an equal part in the creation of literary art, adding rich meaning and hidden depth to the story. (That is what Cliffs Notes do after all, don’t they – adding meaning to the story which the writer never intended?) Looking at it from that perspective, ‘Venus in Furs’ could also be a story of unconditional love, in which a person abandons everything he has, including his freedom, for his beloved, and in return hopes that she may love him back in the way she deems fit. This book shows one of the paths that such an unconditional love can take. Pop culture today makes us believe that we should let our guard down, we should love unconditionally, we should take our heart and give it to the person we love making us vulnerable and open to deep hurt, because when that kind of unconditional love gets reciprocated back, then it is one of the most beautiful, glorious things in life that one can experience. This story shows the other side of that unconditional love, the darker side. It shows what happens when the reciprocation takes a different shape and form and doesn’t even resemble love for the most part. And maybe, that is why, today we are all incapable of unconditional love. We have checks and balances in every kind of relationship we have. We assert our rights. We learn to say ‘No’. We feel that if we let our guard down, we might end up becoming a doormat, end up being trampled over. It is possible that we might enjoy being a doormat and being trampled upon, like Severin does for a while – it increases his love and passion for Wanda – but the story shows that this joy doesn’t last. Maybe too much of anything is not necessarily good. Even love has to come in small dollops. It should be evenly tempered and not belong to the extremes. Like Aristotle’s golden mean. We might love pop culture and its depiction of unconditional love, but we probably believe more in Sacher-Masoch’s vision of it and we guard ourselves against that. That is my own take on it, as a reader.
One last thing I want to say about the book is that in storytelling style, in the topics which were covered in conversation, it resembled a Russian novel more than a German one. At many places, I thought I was probably reading a Russian novel – maybe one by Turgenev or Dostoevsky. It was a strange feeling.
Here are some of my favourite passages from the book. (There is no whipping, bondage, dominatrix happenings in these passages. For that, you have to read the book.)
We were in a different world, a cheerful, sensual, radiant world. Nor did the landscape have any of the solemnity, the melancholy of ours. Far and wide, to the last white villas scattered in the pale green mountains, there was no spot that the sun did not put in the brightest light. The people were less earnest than we, and might think less, but they all looked happy.
Supposedly, dying is easier in the south.
I now sensed that there are such things as beauty without thorns and sensuality without torment.
The painting was marvelous; it was a portrait, an incomparable likeness, and it also seemed to depict an ideal, for the colors were so intense, so miraculous, so diabolical I might say.
The painter had simply painted all his torment, his adoration, his malediction into the painting.
Have you read ‘Venus in Furs’? What do you think about it?