Eduard Mörike
translated by Leopold von Loewenstein–Wertheim
Oneworld Classics ($14.95)

by W. C. Bamberger

Eduard Mörike first published this novella in German in 1856. There have been attempts for at least the last half-century to elevate it to the status of a recognized classic. George Steiner, for example, has called it “a novella to set beside Thomas Mann’s I or Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata.” Yet it remains an enthusiasm for specialists, and neglected by most.

Mozart’s Journey to Prague is a much sleeker, more modern work than most of its 19th-century contemporaries. Mörike’s voice, while still retaining some of the emotiveness of the Romantic period just passing out of style, is in sensibility closer to that of modern self-aware fiction than it is to the narrative style of his own time. The first page, for example, moves from straight narration, to a quotation from a letter generally describing a coach, to this: “Anyone familiar with the taste prevalent in the seventeen-eighties can complete this vague description of the vehicle with a few touches of his own.”

When the narration goes on to describes details of this coach, we understand that the narrator is making it all up—and wants us to realize that fact. There are only a few such overt instances here of this tone, but enough that we don’t forget for long that what we are reading is imagined, idealized. Mörike uses this awareness to create an overall air of tall-tale charm: the descriptions, the stories told by the narrator and by Mozart himself—who at one point recalls a series of water tableaux he saw when he was thirteen—are impossibly detailed, reminiscent in fact of Raymond Roussel.

The plot itself is very simple. Mozart is on his way to Prague for the premiere of Don Giovanni, and during a stopover he absent-mindedly eats an orange from a valuable tree. When the owners of the tree learn who he is, Mozart and his wife are invited to spend the night in their castle; there is a banquet, a telling of stories, and a brief musical program by a young woman and by Mozart himself. The following day the Mozarts are presented with a fine coach, and go on their way.

The book proceeds through this minimal action by way of small, self-contained scenes, achieving its effects cumulatively. It does this very well, with each charming yet almost static vignette reinforcing those that have come before, as well as those that follow. With small touches here and there, almost without our noticing, a fleshed-out portrait of the composer’s emotional life is presented.

Mozart’s personality here is much the same as the one familiar to many from Peter Shaffer’s play and the film of Amadeus—giggly, childish, addicted to the social whirl. The narrator is both enraptured of Mozart (or, more precisely, the idea of him) and coolly thoughtful. After describing the experience of hearing the beginning of a familiar great work, he says,

The party at the castle, however, was placed very differently from ourselves. This work, which we have known all our lives, they were to hear for the first time. Apart from the good fortune of hearing it performed by its author, they were not nearly as well placed as we are today; because a pure and perfect interpretation was really not possible then and for one reason and another could hardly have been hoped for . . .

This layering of the imagined charms of the past onto the mid-19th-century present colors the narrator’s voice throughout. Overall, the effect of Mozart’s Journey to Prague is like a Calder mobile, its beauty coming from the balance of each individual part with all the others.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010