Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Venus in Furs (1870), trans. Joachim Neugroschel
What it’s about: Galicia, the late 19th century. The unnamed narrator dreams of being visited by a beautiful woman in a fur coat, who debates with him about the sexual power of women over men. He wakes up and goes to visit his friend Severin, a Galician nobleman who owns a painting of himself crouched submissively at the feet of a beautiful woman wrapped in furs. Severin reveals to the narrator his written account of an extended love affair with Wanda, a Russian noblewoman he met on holiday at a hotel in the mountains. Severin and Wanda quickly declare their love for each other, and he shares his desires to submit to a woman, citing historical and Biblical precedents for women’s dominance over men and his childhood memories of being violently flogged by a fur-wearing aunt. Though Wanda initially complains that Severin has corrupted her, she participates eagerly in his fantasies, making him her servant, and regularly binding him and flogging him with a whip, always dressed in her furs. Wanda persuades Severin to sign a contract declaring himself her slave and giving her permission to do anything to him she wishes, including killing him. The couple move to Florence, where Severin lives as her servant ‘Gregor’. Wanda commissions an artist to paint her as “Venus in Furs” with Severin crouched at her feet. Wanda becomes progressively more brutal to Severin, and eventually takes another lover, a handsome Greek aristocrat whom she praises for his dominant nature. Severin begs Wanda to give up the Greek and marry him instead; Wanda appears to agree, but tricks Severin and allows the Greek to flog him brutally while she watches. Severin releases himself from Wanda’s service and returns to Galicia caring for his dying father and eventually inheriting the family estate. Two years later, he receives a letter from Wanda enclosing the painting. Severin tells the narrator that Wanda’s actions have “cured” him of his desire to be submissive. The story ends with Severin declaring that women are the enemies of men and that the sexes will only become companions when women become the equals of men in education and work.
Why it’s a classic: In many ways, Venus in Furs is the ultimate “classic novel”: a book that’s commonly referenced in the culture (most recently as the inspiration for a Velvet Underground song) but that almost no one has actually read. It’s also a story that is inseparable from its author, due to the appropriation of his name by Richard von Kraft-Ebbing to describe the “perversion” of sexual submissiveness in his 1886 text Psychopathia Sexualis. Though Sacher-Masoch didn’t consent to the use of his name, it appears that his writings and sexual inclinations were already well-known: many of Kraft-Ebbing’s case histories in Psychopathia Sexualis are of patients who desire the sado-masochistic relationship described in Venus in Furs, or who reference Wanda as the ideal of a dominant woman. By all accounts, Venus in Furs is a very thinly veiled fictional account of Sacher-Masoch’s own sexual interests. The Wanda of the novel is named for his wife, who later published her own account of their marriage and her various efforts to satisfy his sexual desires. My Penguin Classics edition even publishes the text of Wanda and Leopold’s slave contract, worded almost identically to the contract signed by Wanda and Severin in the novella. Since its publication, Venus in Furs has never been out of print, despite frequent and prolonged censorship. It’s both endearing and a little creepy to think of generations of male masochists thumbing eagerly through contraband copies of this unashamedly dirty little book, seeking some external acknowledgement of their desires, and even the occasional woman leafing through the pages for tips on how to convincingly dominate and humiliate a man.
Bouquet or Brickbat: A meekly proffered bouquet. I came to Venus in Furs with extremely low expectations, based on past reading of the Marquis de Sade and other historical pornography, which tends to be repetitive and exceptionally dull. I also wasn’t convinced that Sacher-Masoch’s sexual inclinations would be very femme-friendly, despite the scenario of a woman being worshipped and in a position of power. What purported to be a subversive tale about gender-role reversal might, I suspected, turn out be business-as-usual: a man projecting his desires onto a woman, who is cast in a sexualised role-play that’s just as much of a straitjacket as the Angel in the House stereotype.
In many ways, Venus in Furs lived up to my low expectations: the narrative voice and point-of-view is Severin’s, in which Wanda feels more like a male fantasy of a dominant woman rather than a character in her own right. Wanda’s superiority is only allowed in the highly ritualised context of their sex games. Severin, despite his final call for equality between the sexes, is an old-school misogynist: his narrative is peppered with references to women as goddesses, demons, devils, vixens and enigmas, and with frequent allusions to cruel and domineering women from history, (Catherine the Great), the Bible (Delilah, Judith) and popular literature (Manon Lescaut), and the novel’s final image is a most unflattering description (quoting Schopenhauer) about women as “the sacred monkeys of Benares”.
Elsewhere, Sacher-Masoch’s sexual politics seem somewhat confused. For every proto-feminist outburst from Wanda or the narrator’s dream woman (“We are faithful as long as we love, but you demand faithfulness of a woman without love, and the giving of herself without enjoyment. Who is cruel there – man or woman?”), there’s another batshit crazy utterance that could only come from a male writer in the grip of his sexual obsession: “The more devoted a woman shows herself, the sooner the man sobers down and becomes domineering. The more cruelly she treats him and the more faithless she is, the worse she uses him, the more wantonly she plays with him, the less pity she shows him, by so much the more will she increase his desire, be loved, worshipped by him. So it has always been, since the time of Helen and Delilah, down to Catherine the Second and Lola Montez”. Even when Wanda calls Severin on his misogyny (“You view love and especially women… as something hostile, something against which you defend yourself, although in vain, something whose power over you, however, you feel as a sweet torment, a prickling cruelty: this is truly a modern attitude”), she’s as maddening inconsistent as he is, eagerly reverting to gender type and assuming a submissive sexual role with her Greek lover who she dubs “a real man“. The story also plays out a number of racial and ethnic stereotypes that have dated rather badly. Severin’s numerous allusions to Wanda resembling Catherine the Great is shorthand for 19th century fantasies of the barbarism and despotism of Russia. Worse still is the strange, almost supernatural appearance of three “Negresses” who serve Wanda and participate in Severin’s floggings, while he admires the beauty of their “almost European features”.
That said, I couldn’t help but be charmed by Sacher-Masoch’s little tale, which is deftly written, bolts along at an engrossing pace, and is often very funny. Wanda and Severin’s love for each other is sincere and passionate, and their explorations into sadism and masochism have a two-steps-forward, three-steps-back rhythm that feels completely plausible. “Have I hurt you?” Wanda murmurs, moments after striking Severin in the face. Even Severin, who is never in doubt about what he wants, trembles with fear when faced with signing a contract that would allow Wanda to kill him. Occasionally this careering between tenderness and savagery is exasperating, but mostly it feels truthful to the experiences of new lovers navigating unchartered emotional territory.
The story is helped enormously by Sacher-Masoch’s brisk prose style, which saves things from getting too repetitive (even in the ridiculously action-packed final section), and the decadent glamour of its setting in late-19th century Hapsburg aristocracy. Wanda and Severin glide about in a world of secluded alpine hotels, opulent sun-dappled apartments in Vienna and Florence, horse-drawn carriages, candlelit ballrooms, and Wanda’s endless array of figure-hugging ball gowns and luscious fur coats. The lovers are young and beautiful, and Wanda is described like the heroine of a Klimt painting, with milky white skin and fetishistically curly red hair. One senses that had been set in a council estate in the north of England with two fat middle-aged chavs, it wouldn’t have had quite the same enduring appeal.
Ultimately, though, Venus in Furs deserves its place as a classic for its admirable (if not always successful) attempt to dramatise unorthodox sexual desires, and explore the difficulty of renegotiating sexual rules within a highly constrained world. Of particular interest to me is Severin’s passing acknowledgement of his sexual attraction to the Greek aristocrat: “He was a handsome man, by God. No, more: he was a man such as I had never seen in the flesh. He stands in the Belvedere, hewn in marble, with the same slender and yet iron muscles, the same face, the same rippling curls…. Now I understood male Eros and admired Socrates for remaining virtuous with Alcibiades.” Severin’s subsequent claim that he has been “cured” by the Greek’s brutal flogging is the least convincing part of the story, signalling perhaps Sacher-Masoch’s reluctance to fully explore the homosexual aspects of his desire.
I had expected Venus in Furs to feel like sweetly out-of-date, a relic from the gilded Hapsburg age in which human sexual behaviour was more heavily prescribed. The highly clandestine bondage scenes he describes can now be found in video format in a matter of seconds on the Internet, and post-50 Shades of Grey, every household seems to own a set of whips and nipple clamps. (The wearing of fur coats is, sadly, much less acceptable in modern times). Despite this, I was surprised at how genuinely transgressive the story felt – a testament, I think, to the intimacy of Severin’s first-person address, and the interplay of wit and earnestness with which Sacher-Masoch tells his fantastic tale. In many ways our society isn’t as liberated as we’d like to imagine – male masochism tends to be represented in negatively or as the butt of a joke, still a perversion of our cultural expectations that men be dominant and brutal. With that in mind, perhaps we all need a little more Severin in our lives, to remind us of the exquisite pleasure of submission.
As a postscript, I’m also tempted to read Confessions de ma vie, Wanda von Sacher-Masoch’s memoir, published in 1907 after Leopold’s death. Wanda, possibly still furious that Leopold had left her for a younger woman, wrote what Larry Wolff describes as “an astonishing housewife’s lament, a harried account of trying to raise [their three] children and make ends meet, while keeping in mind that at the end of a long day she still had to put on her furs, pick up her whips, and become her husband’s merciless ideal.” A woman’s work is truly never done.
Quotable Quote: “The moral is that woman, as Nature has created her and as she is currently reared by man, is his enemy and can be only his slave or his despot, but never his companion. She will be able to become his companion only when she has the same rights as he, when she is his equal in education and work.”