Leopold von Sacher-Masoch: The Letawitza

This story was originally intended for an anthology of obscure and semi-obscure authors. The project was scrapped by the publisher, but obviously I still have the material. The translation is not mine, but the bio as well as one of the footnotes are.

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895)

Austrian lawyer and writer, chevalier of the Legion of Honour, who published also under the pseudonyms Charlotte Arand and Zoë von Rodenbach. As a young man he taught at the University of Graz. In Leipzig he edited the review Auf der Hohe. He then moved to Paris where he pursued a strictly literary career. His grand scheme, probably modelled after Balzac’s Comedie Humaine, was to write a series of 36 novels under the title The Legacy of Caine, but he was only able to complete about a third of the work.  In 1873 he married Aurora von Rumelin, who wrote a number of novels under the pseudonym of Wanda von Dunajew, which is also the name of the heroin of Sacher-Masoch’s novel of humiliation and suffering Venus in Furs, virtually the only novel of his which is still read today. The following story originally appeared in the Revue Des Deux Mondes.

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.jpg

The Letawitza

By Leopold von Sacher-Masoch

Translated by Sarah Dean

It was an unlucky day for the chase: two hazel-hens and a big vulture comprised the whole booty. “It is the fault of that confounded sorceress!” exclaimed the gamekeeper, taking off his hat, and wiping the large drops of perspiration on his forehead on the puffed sleeves of his shirt; then he handed me some brandy in a gourd, yellow and chubby as a Barbary ape.

At dawn we had, it is true, in starting out on our expedition, met a little old woman, all withered up, who was searching for mushrooms in the brushwood; and now evening was falling, and there was nothing left for us but to return to the house. The sun was setting, red and angry, behind the huge blocks of granite that like great crumbling towers overhang the grey, jagged sides of the Carpathian Mountains. Nothing else was to be seen, unless it were an old stunted trunk, which, stretching out from the rubbish over the slippery declivity, seemed to reach towards us its long, gnarled arms. It stood projected against the sky, with its bent back, its hanging chevelure and mossy beard, absolutely like our Jew; but it clings, firm and immovable, to the rock, as he also knows how to hold on energetically to whatever his thin bony hands have once seized[1].

We descended rapidly by a path draped with bilberries and rhododendrons, our dog panting painfully behind us, and passed under the green canopy of pines. The subdued noise of a distant waterfall accompanied us. The tall, green, feathery tree-tops, which shot up toward heaven with solemn majesty, began to mingle with the golden, rosy horizon, while from their slender trunks escaped their amber-coloured resinous juice. Red and purple berries, with the large forest flowers, made designs like a many-coloured embroidery upon the velvety moss which spread among the interlacing roots; and deep shadows fell from above upon the branches, like black drops between the motionless needles.

A few minutes longer, little clouds hovered in the west, bathing themselves in the rosy sea; then a line of purple extended along the horizon. Above the ground the soft, tremulous air was filled with innumerable little flies transparent as spun glass, and vapours, that might have been taken for white veils of an impalpable material, ascended with brilliant reflections from the tranquil valley, already plunged in night. The bushes, the trees, the mountains, seemed to shoot up in the golden atmosphere and lose themselves in the infinite, while their shadows stretched out ever farther. In the west, a star glittered above the pines, which stood erect against the sky like black swords, or like iron pickets around a park. The songs of birds had ceased. Here and there, only, a whistling sound pierced the forest, and some affrighted animal fled among the branches. The pearly sky had become blue, and gradually darkened. The shadows closed around, and at last were inextricably mingled with the impenetrable mass of slowly thickening gloom. Having, at this moment, reached the foot of the wooded hill, we followed a narrow path which wound around between common pastures and potato-fields. Suddenly the dark space between two rocks towards the west was illuminated, and began to flame as if some village were on fire; then, after a moment, the moon unmasked her golden disk, suspended majestically in the obscurity of the heavens, and diffused over the country her mild, consoling light. A current of cool air passed over the stalks, the grasses, the leaves of the trees, and the dismal summits of the pine forest; everything began to swarm, to flutter, to murmur. Far in advance of us the lights of a village gleamed like glow-worms lying in the grass, and overhead the immense vault was strewn with innumerable stars, like the bivouac fires of a grand army. The moonlight lay along the branches like threads of silver, and all the hills, all the ravines, were swimming in this magical reverberating light, which produces in us at the same time such calm and such melancholy.

As we reached a little cluster of birches, a flashing rocket traversed the sky and disappeared in space. The gamekeeper crossed himself, and stopped short. “Too late, the evil has come,” said he.

“What evil?”

“Didn’t you see the star shoot?”

“Certainly.”

“It will be transformed into a letawitza.”

“How is that?”

“In every shooting star there lives a demon which falls upon the earth,” replied the gamekeeper in a troubled voice. “If at the instant when one perceives it he recites a certain formula, the witchcraft is conjured away, but if the star touches the earth it takes the form of a woman of great beauty, with long blonde hair which flows and glistens like stars. This beautiful creature is gifted with a strange power over every human soul. She draws young persons to her in the golden network falling over her white shoulders. At night, when all sleep, she bends over them and embraces them,-embraces them pitilessly, until they fall dead.”

The gamekeeper had not finished his recital when we seemed to hear afar off, as it were, a deep sigh. This wail burst upon the solemn silence which hung over this sombre copse in the midst of the birches with their perpetually agitated leaves, whose trunks, white as the dead in their winding-sheets, seemed to stand upright around us, mute, and pointing their fingers at us.

“What was that?” I asked.

“An undine, or possibly a roussalka[2]; perhaps even the letawitza.”         

“I thought it was a bittern, rather.”

“Well, call it so, it is a bittern,” returned the gamekeeper with a sort of pity. “In any case we’d better continue our course.”

We had taken but a few steps when a flame about the height of a man rose up beside us in a thicket of dwarf alders. It waved to us, bowed down to the earth, and then began to leap before us as if it had a mind to accompany us.”

“A will-o’-the wisp!”

“The lord grant it may only be a will-o’-the wisp!” said the gamekeeper in a low tone; “but I’m afraid the day will not end well.”

“Are there some marshes near here?”

“Yes, certainly. There is even a pond. It must be off here to our right.”

Reaching the end of our path, we saw, through the thicket, what seemed a mirror reflecting the light of tapers. I went towards it.

“You are not going to expose your soul to such danger?” groaned the gamekeeper.

Without replying to him, I parted the branches and opened for myself a way to the edge of the pool. The will-o’-the wisp had disappeared, but the bittern renewed its melancholy cry. The gamekeeper recited his conjuration aloud. We stood upon the border of a large sheet of water, which, lighted by the moon, stretched out at our feet. Some alder-bushes, erect among the brambles, were mirrored mysteriously in the lake. Their roots bathed in it, their long branches trailed in it like floating hair. It was both sad and impressive.

Suddenly, a childish laughter burst forth, pure, clear, and mocking like the tinkling of a silver bell. Bubbles rose to the surface of the water. Luminous little waves agitated it, a thousand sparkles played about each other on the pool, and, in the midst of a whirl of foam, we saw come forth a young woman of strange beauty. Her thick blonde hair, overflowing her marble shoulders, diffused itself in a starry shower. She fixed upon us two large black eyes, radiant and full of mockery.

“God have mercy on my poor soul!” cried the gamekeeper. “Shut your eyes!” and he drew me along. “We must fly!” repeated he in a trembling voice, “fly! or it is all up with us.”

A second burst of laughter, yet more Satanic than the first, resounded harshly in our ears.

I followed the gamekeeper. An unknown power, which I could not explain to myself, gave me wings. We traversed, always running, thickets, marshes, meadows. Arrived at orchard, we arrested our course to take a breath.

“You are nothing but an ass!” said I, by way of conclusion.

“Much better be an ass than be damned.”

“Fly before a pretty woman!”

“Ah, yes! she was pretty,” returned the gamekeeper; “but she does not belong to the earth. It is the letawitza, the shooting star which has assumed a human form. You did not, then, observe her hair? Wouldn’t you have called it a trail of stars floating on the surface of the water?”    

“I am going back down there! I must see that woman.”

“Are you, then, possessed by a devil?” said the gamekeeper, petrified; “if you laid before me a hundred ducats, if you offered me the whole world, I would not stir an inch from here.”

“But, if I offered you a glass of brandy, would you accompany me?”

“Brandy? what brandy? not rye brandy, I hope.”

“Some slivowitz, if you like.”

The good man heaved a sigh, whistled to his dog, and slowly directed his course towards the pond. I followed in his path, several steps to the rear. A gold-coloured will-o’-the-wisp accompanied us, as if to lighten our way. While we followed the fantastic flamelet, which passed sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left, whirling under the branches, lengthening itself out on the moss like a snake, or hovering in the air above us, we found ourselves up to the knees in the swamp.

The moon was hidden behind a cloud, as if she were in a conspiracy with the elves to mystify us. The alders, until now motionless and silent, rocked with a dull, rustling sound. The jarring cry of the bittern struck harshly on the ear. Then the water plashed almost over us. It was the dog, which plunged in and with sturdy barks announced to us that we had reached the end. I leaped precipitately over the thick branches, and found myself on the edge of the lake, where the moon, smiling and disentangled from her veils, seemed to contemplate its peaceful face.

The woman with golden hair had disappeared. We saw her neither in the waves where just before she had glittered like a star, nor on the shore, where her white form had stood in relief like a luminary against the blackness of the alders. Now all reposed in mournful silence: not a ripple upon the water, not a breath among the leaves. And in the middle of the pool rose majestically towards heaven a pale water-lily, mounting upward like a white flame.

The gamekeeper drew a long breath.

“God has protected us,” murmured he, “but let no one say now that it was not the letawitza.”


[1] The imagery in this passage is blatantly anti-semetic. Unfortunately at the time this story was written, racism was all too common, even amongst otherwise intelligent men and women.[2] The siren of the Ruthenians.

4 Responses to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch: The Letawitza

  1. Volly says:

    Thank you for publishing The Letawitza that is a very interesting example of Masoch’s prose indeed.
    I’ve just noticed one little inaccuracy in your footnotes.
    The footnote 2 mentions Little Russians when actually they should be referred to either as Ruthenians or Ukrainians (Little Russia is a term used during the Russian empire and applied to the Ukrainian territories).
    The Ukrainians in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were called Ruthenians (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruthenians).

  2. brendanconnell says:

    Volly, thanks for your comment and the information about the Ruthenians. I will change the footnote!

  3. [...] of trivia: Sacher-Masoch’s grand-niece was Marianne Faithfull’s mother. Here’s a translation of his short piece, ‘The Letawitza.’ Peter Tupper has a blog post about him as [...]

  4. [...] of trivia: Sacher-Masoch’s grand-niece was Marianne Faithfull’s mother. Here’s a translation of his short piece, ‘The Letawitza.’ Peter Tupper has a blog post about him as well. Sacher-Masoch’s name was co-opted as a label [...]

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