Heimito von Doderer Essay - Critical Essays

Heimito von Doderer Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

Heimito von Doderer’s fictional world is a delightful mixture of excruciatingly close adherence to precise description of concrete details and an equally strong dedication to belief in the mysteries of the fantasy world. It is known, for example, that Doderer would examine meteorological records in Vienna simply to ensure that his description of the weather on a particular day would be in absolute congruence with the facts of that day in history. His descriptions of Vienna, to cite another example, are so accurate that the reader of his fiction can rely on them perfectly and use them as a traveler’s guide without fail.

As a trained historian—he had a doctorate in medieval history from the University of Vienna and was a member of the Institute for the Study of Austrian History—Doderer approached his task as a writer with an uncanny appreciation for details and valid facts. A part of his training required that he learn the various languages and dialects that were in use during medieval times. Consequently, when the plot of The Demons called for the inclusion of a manuscript on medieval sorcery found in the library of a castle that dated back to those times, Doderer was able to create a fictional manuscript that truthfully reflected the topic of witchcraft in the fourteenth century. Furthermore, the manuscript—which is fifty pages long in the printed text—was written in the South Bavarian dialect of Early New High German. (The translators have rendered the manuscript in the language of William Caxton, the first English printer, who flourished in the second half of the fifteenth century.)

The fantasy world is created with the same attention paid to order and detail. In virtually all Doderer’s major works there appear forms of dragons. These mythical beasts took on various guises, as Doderer explained in his essay “The Return of the Dragons” (1958). In his own lifetime, Doderer experienced the appearance of strange creatures: a lobster or crab found in the French Bay of Toulon that was more than three feet long, well over twice the previously known size of this species; an eel-type fish caught in the Danube near Vienna that was about five feet long, with a head whose circumference was well over two feet and a weight close to sixty pounds; a grass or ring snake that he saw as a youth near his summer home draped across a brook like a garland, which he estimated to have been close to ten feet long.

These examples of strange creatures may not in fact resemble the terrible monsters with crested heads and tremendous claws, often spouting fire, which the medieval knight fought to gain the love of a fair maiden. They are, however, modern manifestations of the same concept. Doderer reproves the nineteenth century zoologists for excluding this ancient form of animal from their taxonomic descriptions of the animal world merely because they could find no living examples of the dragons. As one proof of their continued existence, Doderer gives the example of the famous Komodo dragon, a lizardlike animal found in the wild interior of the island of Java, which is almost twenty feet long and has all the physical characteristics of the dragon except that, when angered, it spews a very foul smell rather than fire. Despite such evidence, Doderer concludes, the scientists of the nineteenth century established a “type of zoological totalitarianism in which things (such as dragons) cannot be, which are not allowed to be.” One should, he adds, be cautious when walking through the woods alone. Suddenly, passing a cavernous ravine, one may encounter a ferocious beast that needs to be slain before one can gain the love of a fair maiden.

Virtually all Doderer’s novels and short stories, even many of his “shortest” stories, are detective stories in which the psychological and biographical motivations of an individual or group are examined. The results of such an investigation lead generally to a greater apperception of the self or the group. The cause of the “crime” is normally found to be the character’s living in a state of nonacceptance of reality. Doderer calls this the “second reality.”

In the essay “Principles and Function of the Novel” (1958), Doderer states that to bring about the “first reality”—whether for author, character, or reader—it is essential to go through a process of experiencing an event, of forgetting that event, and finally of remembering. “Writing,” Doderer maintains, “is the unveiling of grammar through a sudden burst of coincidental remembering.” The remembered experience undergoes a conversion to the medium used by the writer, namely language. At this point, the significance of the experience is also examined and transformed by the writer as moralist. Consequently, the completed work is a psychological novel of development. The individual character has undergone a process that not only has led to that stage of greater apperception of the self—the “first reality”—but also has made him become a more humane individual.

In the same essay, Doderer also speaks about the structure of the novel. A lifelong admirer of Ludwig van Beethoven, he compares the novel to the symphony, an elaborate composition in three or four movements: The novel, like a symphony, comprises an exposition in which numerous...

(The entire section is 2177 words.)