After reading Vishy’s review of Venus in Furs I happened to mention that ‘Venus’ was the only book by Sacher-Masoch that was available in English; well that was the case when I’d previously checked, however, I had another look and found that a translation of his 1883 novel Die Gottesmutter was published in 2015 as The Mother of God. It was translated by William Holmes and is available on Amazon. I’m guessing that it was a self-published translation as there are no publisher details on my kindle version. From the details on the Amazon page it’s a bit unclear whether Holmes translated it directly from the German or from the French translation, La Mère de Dieu. When I saw this was available I dropped my intended read for GLM and switched to this as I was excited to actually read something other than Venus in Furs by Sacher-Masoch. I really didn’t know what to expect but the Amazon blurb made it sound promising.
The story begins by describing Sabadil, a thirty-year old peasant from Solisko who likes spending time alone wandering in the forest. On one of his walks he stops to look in a pond and is surprised when he sees a beautiful woman’s face appear next to his in the reflection. Although he hadn’t heard her approach he finds that she is indeed standing next to him.
At his side now stood a young woman, strongly built and tall, so much so that she was looking down on him, even though he was of medium height. Her face was that of a Madonna with a white complexion, delicately tinted pink. Her blonde hair, with tawny highlights, was braided and arranged in heavy layers on top of her head. The stranger wore tall red leather boots, a percale skirt in bright colours and a dark green cloth corsage mounted on a shirt of dazzling whiteness.
Sabadil’s heart is pounding and there’s a buzzing sound in his ears; he’s smitten. He tries to engage her in conversation and is soon picking flowers for her and helping her crosss streams. Sabadil’s subservience seems natural to her and Sabadil is attracted to her ‘natural, cold and majestic’ manner. When he tries to kiss her she evades him and says that it is a sin for him to touch her and she escapes. After a period of time he tracks her down to a neighbouring village called Fargowiza-polna and first sees her driving a horse-drawn cart with a whip in her hand and later she appeared to be ordering others about. He learns from a little girl that she is called ‘The Mother of God’ and later discovers her name is Mardona. He discovers from a Jewish trader that Mardona is part of a Christian sect called the Duchobarzen who have no priests, marry and divorce freely and worship the Mother of God who is believed to be the manifestation of the Virgin Mary.
Sabadil begins visiting Mardona and sees that she is indeed revered by the other villagers. Although Sabadil is accepted into their life he does not worship Mardona as a God as the others do; he is, however, in love with her. Sabadil gets drawn further into the sect and it becomes apparent that everything is not as rosy as it first appeared. Not everyone is happy with the situation and the position of ‘Mother of God’, being essentially an elected position, has to be defended against usurpers. When Mardona feels that her position is under attack she feels it necessary to issue severe punishments on those who are deemed guilty. When Sofia, a young attractive woman, is judged to be guilty of adultery she is taken out, dragged through the streets and stoned by the others. Only Mardona’s intervention prevents the crowd from killing her. While witnessing this Sabadil is horrified and mesmerised by it and also a little turned on.
Sabadil stood at some distance away, observing Mardona closely. He never had seen her so beautiful, despite her angry face and quivering lips.
The sect, however, is part of a larger world and can’t hide from the police and accusations of attempted murder. But Mardona is quite capable of manipulating those outside of the sect as well as those within – she just has to use different tactics.
Possibly one of the most interesting characters in this book is Sukalou. He’s introduced as a comic figure, basically someone who is constantly hungry and begs food from others whilst pretending to be an ascetic who has been fasting for days. Here is how his entrance is described:
Suddenly a man arrived who immediately caught Sabadil’s attention, or, rather, did not arrive. He simply poked his nose, long and pointed, through the gap in the barely opened door, followed by his bald head, revealing a face with blinking eyes and ears adorned with thick silver rings. […] But he did not come in right away. A few moments passed; then his long neck extended through the opening in the door. After this came a boot with a worn heel and finally Sukalou in person dressed in an extremely long light blue coat. He remained near the door, drew from his pocket a small birch bark snuff box, delicately pinched a little of the tobacco between finger and thumb and snuffed it with a triumphant air, as if challenging everyone to do likewise.
Although a comical figure, he also gets involved in some of the political manoeuvrings and subsequent punishments.
I won’t reveal any more of the story as it would spoil it for anyone who fancies reading the book for themselves. The ending is particularly powerful and a little unexpected although we can see which way the story is heading. But as powerful as the ending is, curiously, the translator decided that he didn’t particularly like it and decided to write a few more chapters. I have to say that I disagree with him and prefer the way that the original novel cuts off at the most dramatic point. There is nothing particularly wrong with Holmes’ added chapters as they form a type of epilogue to the story but I don’t think it adds anything to the novel. At least we are warned that these chapters have been written by the translator and so can decide for ourselves whether to read them or not. As far as I can tell the translation was excellent and the style of the novel was very readable. The translator also included many notes that I found useful.
The Mother of God would certainly be interesting for anyone who’s read Venus in Furs not least because it also shows Sacher-Masoch’s obsessions of dominant females, subservient males and the abuses of power that appeared in his more famous book. But it does show what a great storyteller he was and that he could incorporate his obsessions into different types of stories and the novel is easily as good as ‘Venus’, maybe better. I’d love to read more by him.