Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1690
A retired civil servant, Section Councillor Georg von Geyrenhoff keeps a chronicle for a group called “Our Crowd,” which has come together in Vienna during the fall of 1926 and the spring of 1927. As narrator, Geyrenhoff commissions the novelist Kajetan von Schlaggenberg and the historian Rene von Stangeler to assist him in writing this diary, while numerous lesser characters become unwitting collaborators, spies, and reporters of unwitnessed events. The final report on the people and events is not issued until twenty-eight years later, in 1955.
There are 142 characters, of which more than thirty are main characters, while about three dozen play not insignificant roles in the development of the novel. Additionally, another two dozen or more appear as nameless and minor or auxiliary characters in this 1,330-page novel. It is not possible to speak of a plot of The Demons in the traditional sense; one simply observes the development of various characters, some events, and several documents as they are presented by the chroniclers.
With the benefit of hindsight, Geyrenhoff is “preparing to summarize and revise the whole story” now, in 1955:Terrible things took place in my native land and in this, my native city, at a time long after the grave and lighthearted stories I wish to relate here had come to an end. And one thing that lay curled amorphous and germinal within the events that I must recount, emerged dripping blood, took on a name, became visible to the eye which had been almost blinded by the vortex of events, shot forth, and was, even in its beginnings, recognizable—gruesomely inconspicuous and yet distinctly recognizable for what it was.
The historical events that Heimito von Doderer describes in great detail, although they are almost totally peripheral to the development of the main characters, are those which led to the burning of the Palace of Justice in Vienna on July 15, 1927. By the mid-1920’s, there had been many confrontations in Austria between right-wing Fascist and left-wing Socialist paramilitary groups. Often these clashes occurred in the countryside adjoining the Hungarian border, in the Burgenland province. It was in the village of Schattendorf on January 30, 1927, that members of the Socialist Republican Protective Association staged a march. In the novel, they are met by supporters of the right-wing Veterans of the Front, who fatally wound a war veteran, Mathias Csmarits, and a young boy, Pepi Grossing. Although two men were charged with the murders, when they came to trial on July 14, 1927, they were acquitted. This was the fifth time that crimes of violence committed by right-wing organizations had gone unpunished. The Socialists saw this as another example of injustice to the proletariat and resolved to stage a peaceful strike and a workers’ march in Vienna on the next day. The peaceful protest march turned to violence, and the marchers set fire to the Palace of Justice. Doderer notes that the destruction of this great symbol of justice “signified the Cannae of Austrian freedom. But no one knew that at the time,” least of all the characters of the novel.
Historically, it can be seen that the open fights between the Republican Protective Association (the Socialists who comprised about 40 percent of the population) and the Austrian Fascist Party (the Home Defense Front, which was a very small political entity) led to the internal weakening of Austria at a time just shortly after the collapse of the six-hundred-year-old Habsburg monarchy. This internal crisis in the mid-1920’s made it possible for Fascist Germany to annex Austria in 1938 and led to destruction and defeat in 1945. Doderer recognized this as an important moment in history, when his native land began the pursuit of an ideology—he calls it a “second reality”—that could only lead to destruction. The chronicler Geyrenhoff had to experience the totality of that “second reality” before he could tell the whole story from the perspective of twenty-eight years later.
Geyrenhoff does not write about each main character in diary fashion. If one can speak at all about a plot in The Demons, it would be the efforts of Financial Counselor Levielle to cheat Charlotte von Schlaggenberg out of her inheritance. From this situation emanate a multitude of subplots, many highly convoluted and fragmented, not necessarily following a common chronology and not always set in Vienna during that 1926-1927 period. Geyrenhoff advises the reader in the “Overture” to the novel: “[I]n fact you need only draw a single thread at any point you choose out of the fabric of life and the run will make a pathway across the whole, and down that wider pathway each of the other threads will become successively visible, one by one.”
Charlotte von Schlaggenberg, usually called “Quapp,” is an aspiring violinist. She is of the opinion that she should become a soloist and learns only in time, as well as through failure at an audition, that she has no real musical talent. In time she also learns that she is the illegitimate daughter of the late Captain Georg Ruthmayr, a wealthy landowner, and Baroness Claire von Neudegg. Her problems are solved when she inherits large sums of money from the estates of her natural parents.
The financier Levielle is the villain of the novel. As executor of Captain Ruthmayr’s will and financial adviser to Ruthmayr’s widow, Friederike Ruthmayr, Levielle stands to have access to great sums of money, especially if he does not reveal the facts of Quapp’s parentage. Geyrenhoff and a group of boys retrieve the captain’s will, locate Alois Gach, who witnessed the will when he served as a sergeant in Ruthmayr’s regiment, and send Levielle packing for Paris.
Quapp’s brother, Kajetan von Schlaggenberg, is a professional writer and Geyrenhoff’s collaborator in writing this chronicle. He only agrees to help, however, if he can include his own “Chronique Scandaleuse,” a manuscript that makes up the chapter entitled “Fat Females.” Geyrenhoff agrees to use only a small “censored” portion of this document, which serves as an example of “Kajetan’s Theory of the Necessity of Fat Females to the Sex Life of the Superior Man Today.” In the introduction, Geyrenhoff suggests that “this minor insanity clearly exposes how utterly foolish so-called ‘ideologies’ in general are, by contrast with the life they would hope to improve.” In spite of the perverse humor this chapter adds to the novel, it is an important example of Doderer’s attempt to reveal how an ideology can be rendered a scientific theory through the employment of “pseudoscientific words” and an acceptable “methodology.” Geyrenhoff writes, “In times to come, we would find similar words playing the same role in a different context: ‘Provocateurs,’ ‘saboteurs.’... In times to come, we would find altogether different things being turned inside out—among them, for example, conscience.”
Another manuscript included in the novel is usually identified by the name of its author, Ruodlieb von der Vlantsch, and entitled “Specyfyeth of how the sorceresses delt wyth atte Neudegck whan that they were taken Anno MCCCCLXIIIJ.” The manuscript is written in the Bavarian dialect of Early New High German, and the translators have rendered the late medieval manuscript in the language of William Caxton, the first English printer (c.1422-1491). In order to assist the modern reader, who may have difficulty in understanding the older language, Rene von Stangeler reads the manuscript and offers interlinear glosses.
The story which the manuscript relates is the trial in 1464 of two women charged with practicing sorcery. This trial examined an aspect of sorcery which had not been considered at that time, namely, the sexual power of magic. According to the manuscript, the master of the castle, Achaz Neudegg, tried to gain control over two women under the guise of a trial. Each evening, the women were brought before the judges to confess that they were witches, which they denied. The bailiffs, Heimo and Ruodl, then took them to a special torture chamber where they were undressed and struck with a light satin-covered rope. The only harm they suffered was the indignity of appearing nude in the presence of the bailiffs. Achaz Neudegg participated only as a voyeur, while the bailiffs became personally and sexually involved with the witches. Heimo thrived in this “Sodhom and Ghommorah,” but Ruodl, “an innocent lamb,” suffered great pangs of conscience. Each time Ruodl reflected on what he was doing, he realized that his lustful desires were the result of a divided personality over which he had no control. He observed, “[I]t was like a border goeth thurgh me, on one syde am I Ruodl and on tother am I al wode.” Again, Doderer has created a character who experiences a “second reality,” a personality alien to himself.
The castle in which the medieval manuscript is found has just been inherited by Jan Herzka, who enlists the aid of Rene von Stangeler to read and interpret the text. Rene also oversees the modernization of the castle and is given the publication rights for the manuscript. With this good fortune in his professional life, Rene now enjoys a marked improvement in his relationship with his fiancee, Grete Siebenschein, and is regarded as a favorable choice of husband by the Siebenschein family. The family has created a typical bourgeois concept of life and has imposed this “second reality” on their prospective son-in-law.
A third manuscript included in the novel is “Kaps’s Night Book.” It is a diary by Anna Kapsreiter, a relative of the victims of the January, 1927, Schattendorf killings. The two chapters of the novel devoted to this manuscript record only thirteen dreams. Although the dreams are related directly to Anna’s waking life, they reveal a highly prophetic insight into the life and times of many characters and events treated in the novel. Whereas the other two manuscripts reveal a “second reality” from a contemporaneous and a historical perspective, “Kaps’s Night Book” demonstrates a future “first reality”: a valid apperception of events of which Geyrenhoff speaks when he talks of “terrible things [that] took place in my native land and in this, my native city” twenty-eight years after the personal and historic events that constitute the novel.
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