The Waterfalls of Slunj

by Heimito von Doderer

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 582

In The Waterfalls of Slunj, Heimito von Doderer traces the fortunes and misfortunes of two generations of a British manufacturing family who set up a business enterprise in pre-World War I Austria. The work is a “total novel,” designed to capture the customs and manners of Europeans living during the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A love song to a bygone era, this epic work describes in great detail the social fabric, landscapes, atmospheric conditions, and even the sounds and odors of antebellum Vienna and its environs. Sympathetic but not overly sentimental, the novel re-creates a panoramic view of everyday life among the rich and middling sorts who lived along the gaslit, cobbled streets of old Vienna.

The story opens in the late 1870’s with the marriage of Robert and Harriet Clayton. Robert, the son of a well-to-do machinery manufacturer from southwest England, and his bride, Harriet, spend their honeymoon in the vicinity of Vienna, near the beautiful falls of the Slunjcica River. Precisely nine months later, their first and only child, Donald, is born.

Upon returning to Great Britain, Robert learns of his father’s decision to establish a subsidiary firm in the southeastern provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Having been given responsibility for opening the new factory, Robert returns to Vienna, seeks personnel recommendations from Andreas Milohnic (a hotel clerk whom the Claytons met while they were on their honeymoon in Austria) and hires a man named Chwostik as the office manager. Under Chwostik’s able direction, the Claytons’ factory becomes an efficient and profitable business enterprise, and Robert achieves social and economic prominence. In time, Donald, who spends much of his youth in England with his grandfather, completing his education, returns to Vienna to assist his father in the family business.

The novel centers on the relationships between young Donald and his family, friends, and associates. Although remarkably similar to his father in physical appearance (acquaintances refer to the father-son pair as the “English brothers”), Donald lacks the confidence and individuality of the other Claytons. Donald’s life is a series of frustrations and disappointments. A self-centered bachelor, he lacks the courage even to consummate his love for Monica Bachler, the one woman who adores him.

While on an extended business trip to England, Donald realizes that he loves Monica. Upon returning to Vienna, however, he receives a cool reception from his former admirer. Confused and exasperated, Donald leaves on another business trip. While in Budapest, he is duped into seducing Margot Putnik, the unhappily married wife of a business client. Typical of other experiences in Donald’s unfulfilled life, the intended affair is foiled by the timely arrival of Margot’s husband, Laszlo Putnik. Donald, embarrassed and broken by yet another rejection, determines to make a belated plea for Monica’s affections. Yet, before he can reach Vienna, Donald learns the surprising news that his father, now a widower of several years, and Monica are announcing their own engagement.

Failing as a lover, a friend, and a businessman, Donald loses his will to live. He visits the waterfalls of Slunj, not knowing that he is returning to the site of his conception. There he meets his tragic end. While Donald is walking over the cataracts, the railing snaps, and he stumbles over the narrow wooden bridge. Nearby rocks halt the fall of his body, but not his fears. Donald dies of fright, even though he drops only a few feet, onto a ledge and not into the falls.

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