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King of the Forest

The Viennese pornographer turned critic who dreamed up Bambi

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In 1923, on holiday in the Swiss Alps, the Viennese writer Felix Salten was so taken with the natural setting and wildlife he was inspired to write the life story of a young fawn in the woods. Salten made up the name of his protagonist from shortening the Italian word for “baby.” In case you haven’t read it—I certainly hadn’t before writing this piece; Disney movies can eclipse their source material—Bambi is an astonishment. One chapter about the final moments of the last two surviving leaves on an oak tree as winter approaches is a wonder of compression and a rumination on old age and impending death as poignant as Kurt Weill’s “September Song.” “You’re as lovely as you were the day you were born,” says the first leaf. “Thanks,” whispers the second. “You’ve always been so kind to me. I’m just beginning to understand how kind you are.”

David Rakoff
David Rakoff

In another, a fox, bleeding and exhausted, “beside himself with rage and fear,” stumbles into a clearing, pursued by a hunter’s hound. The fox first pleads with the hound, one canine to another. Then, understanding the inevitability of his approaching end, he suddenly sits erect and speaks in a voice bitter as gall: “Aren’t you ashamed, you traitor…You turncoat…You spy.”

The denunciation is taken up by others in the forest. “Traitor!” screams the magpie, “Spy!” shrieks the jay.

The dog responds in kind, denouncing their benighted naiveté. Besides, he isn’t the only traitor. What about the cow, the sheep, the chicken?

“They’re rabble!” snarls the fox—his last defiant words as the hound sets upon him, a fine spray of blood dyeing the snow.

Salten’s writing has not a trace of anthropomorphized cuteness. Bambi’s forest is peopled (creatured?) with characters by turns arrogant, venal, gossipy, and engaging—as flawed and varied as the cosmopolitan fauna Salten must have encountered daily in his life in Vienna.

Felix Salten
Felix Salten

The novel was immediately popular with both children and adults. An English-language edition followed in 1929 (translated, curiously enough, by Whittaker Chambers, who took the job to supplement the paltry salary he earned as editor of the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker), with a foreword by novelist and playwright John Galsworthy, who deemed it “a little masterpiece,” and signed off with, “I particularly recommend it to sportsmen.”

Sportsmen, however, were less enthusiastic, at least insofar as the Disney version was concerned. When the feature-length cartoon was released in 1942, the American Riflemen’s Association tried to get the studio to tack a pro-hunting prologue onto the movie, something Uncle Walt declined to do. The gun lobby was justified in its worry, since entire generations of American children would go on to identify the death of Bambi’s mother as among their earliest and most wrenching psychological terrors. (Disney used to have a stringent policy of withdrawing films for years at a time, so my pre-DVD childhood was Bambi-less. Whatever dead-cartoon-mom angst I was imprinted with was located in Dumbo, specifically the scene in which, chained inside a boxcar, Dumbo’s mother dandles him in the cradle of her trunk, the only extremity she can get through the barred window. It is unutterably sad. I still cannot watch it.)

But as harrowing as the celluloid rendition of Bambi’s maternal loss may be, it is nothing compared to Salten’s original chapter, where things are bad to begin with and only become more horrible. It is winter and the once cordial animals have begun to turn on one another in the madness of hunger. The near-famine conditions have “spread bitterness and brutality.” The crows kill the hare’s sick young son for sport. The ferret wounds the squirrel mortally, the fox has torn the admired and stately pheasant to pieces. “It’s hard to believe that it will ever be better,” says Bambi’s dispirited mother. Bambi himself is skittish and exhausted with hunger and cold.

Suddenly, one of the young bucks prickles with a vague presentiment of trouble. From the farthest edge of the wood, a murder of crows comes flying by, agitated. The magpies begin to screech to one another from the trees, and finally the deer can smell “that fearful scent [that] kept streaming on in a wider wave, sending terror into their hearts and uniting them all in one mad fear, in a single feverish impulse to flee, to save themselves.”

The forest roars with the sound of hunters advancing from all sides, snapping twigs, beating on tree trunks to drive out the animals. A pheasant flies into the air and is killed in front of everyone. “Don’t lose your head…. Just run, run, run!” one of his surviving compatriots panics to the others. But it is all too much for the bird and, crazed with fear, he too takes off into the air, only to be shot down.

“Then everyone lost his senses.” Creatures swarm over one another to get away. All is tumult and thunder and death. The old hare is murdered before their eyes, the sky is darkened by a rain of blood and feathers. Bambi follows behind his mother to the edge of the thicket. They are to run across the clearing and he is to keep running, regardless of what he might see happen to her. Well, you know what happens to her. Salten and Disney share a restraint by not showing us. The chapter ends simply, “Bambi never saw his mother again.”

* * *

Like many an artist, Salten first tasted prominence in death, though not his own. Born Siegmund Salzmann in 1869 in Budapest, he moved with his parents to Vienna when he was three weeks old. The city had begun granting Jews the rare privilege of full citizenship just two years prior, prompting a large Jewish migration from elsewhere in the Hapsburg Empire. Salten grew up poor in the Vienna slums, with little formal education. He labored in a series of menial, clerical jobs in the insurance business while sending out his work to little or no effect until 1902, when his obituary of Emile Zola, by all accounts a moving and noteworthy piece of writing, received widespread notice and provided Salten entrée into the Jung Wien, the Young Vienna Movement, a loose conglomeration of progressive bohemians. Artists and writers, most of them Jews, Jung Wien counted among its members composer Franz Lehar, playwright and novelist Arthur Schnitzler, librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Stefan Zweig. Once enfolded into this rarefied klatch, Salten became a prolific novelist and a noted theater critic for various publications, shuttling back and forth between Berlin and Vienna.

Salten received only nominal Jewish instruction, it seems. He even served as an altar boy, which might account for the novel’s vaguely Christian sensibility. Humans are referred to using the God-like “He” and “Him” throughout. It seems a fitting moniker for a largely unseen force that is quick to ire and possessed of awesome, arbitrary, and obliterating power. Ultimately, a grown Bambi realizes that “there is Another who is over us all, over us and over Him,” A force of unquantifiable strength, but one also imbued with the attributes of mercy and lovingkindness. And yet, even if Salten hadn’t known the experience directly, even the casual reader cannot fail to see in the young fawn’s life of precarious freedom and probationary ease what can only be described as a deep Jewish uncertainty. The entrapment and slaughter of the scene rings with the authenticity of nothing less than a sylvan pogrom. There is other evidence to suggest that Salten’s Jewish consciousness was not entirely dormant. In 1910, when Vienna’s beloved mayor Karl Lueger died, Salten took some heat for an obituary he wrote in the Presse newspaper criticizing the encoded anti-Semitism in Lueger’s falsely populist anti-intellectualism, that “disintegrates the physicians, insults the professors, jeers at learning.” Salten’s lingering vestigial Jewishness did not go unnoticed in Bambi either, at least not by one of the members of Jung Wien. The writer Karl Kraus, a Czech-born Jew who renounced his Judaism and was baptized as a Catholic at age 37, criticized Salten for muddying the purity of the German tongue by putting Yiddishisms in the mouths of his animal characters.

* * *

Bambi’s religion may have been a matter of some dispute, but his gender never was. He is most assuredly a male fawn, despite his name’s adoption by subsequent generations of female porn stars. It’s an oddly appropriate fate, given Salten’s own foray into filth. The Memoirs of Josephine, authored by one Josephine Mutzenbacher, was a pseudonymous “autobiography” told from the point of view of an older woman looking back over her life as a courtesan. As Josephine, or “Pepi,” says near the beginning, whoring “saved me from suffocating in the slums and permitted me to live like any woman of good society.”

The book, a prequel to Pepi’s later genteel life, documents her childhood in the destitute Ottakring district of Vienna, in a crowded tenement with her parents and two older brothers. A series of boarders who sleep in the tiny apartment’s kitchen educate the juvenile Pepi in the ways of sex, although her main and most energetic instructor is her next-older brother, along with a pair of precocious siblings who live upstairs.

Salten wrote the book in 1906, seventeen years before Bambi, and just four years after his redemptive Zola obituary. The indignities of Pepi’s youthful privation are clearly and minutely recalled by a writer whose own relief at having “gotten out” must have still been quite fresh.

There is no indication that The Memoirs of Josephine was a standout in its field, either critically or commercially. Salten didn’t vocally claim authorship of the material and, deeply felt psychological roots notwithstanding, the book reads like pretty standard porn. There is squalor, but menace and any real hardship are largely absent from the narrative. To be sure, no one is sitting down to lavish meals or clothing themselves in finery, but one can’t help wondering, why aren’t these children being beaten in dingy school rooms by ignorant, malodorous teachers with filthy beards and long fingers? Or else having their own digits caught in the gnashing maws of early industrial factory machines? Instead of the usual Jacob Riis-style hijinks one might expect from Pepi and her ragamuffin pals—stealing from pushcarts, rolling hoops, lobbing bricks through storefront windows—they seem to spend their free time (and they have an awful lot of it) screwing around. Her days stretch out before her, with hours during which to experiment with her urchin pals, with bored housewives, with a seriously unqualified governess, a great, massy coal wagoneer in the cellar, the corrupting priest Father Mayer, an “art” photographer named Capucci, and, after the death of her mother, her own father.

It’s a regular Melroseplatz. For a little girl sprung from the mind of a compatriot and contemporary of Freud, she is remarkably lacking in sexual trauma, although Salten’s explanation for this has to do with class and privilege. “In my childhood, boys and girls like my brother and I were all sexually aware and eager to practice that premature knowledge,” Pepi reports. “Boys did it with their sisters and girlfriends as a matter of course. They had never heard the word incest, or taboo, like the rich kids who had the opportunity to listen to the conversations of educated adults. Brothers and sisters of the poor proletarian class saw each other as males and females and would have been quite surprised if they had been told that relationships should make them see one another differently. When I could do any reading in my later years I discovered that the children in primitive societies felt and acted exactly as we did.”

There is the sense from these repeated, falsely erudite primitivist fantasies from an adult Pepi that the The Memoirs of Josephine aspires to something more than mere stroke book. We learn that, although it might have been Pepi’s beauty and lack of sexual squeamishness that eventually afforded her her financial independence, it was her curious intellect that led her to a life of music and art and culture (a life not dissimilar from the one that Salten himself was delivered to once he was accepted at the tables of the Café Griensteidl). It gave her existence beauty and meaning and it gave us, the lucky readers, these pages. Yet we never get even a glimpse of this earthly reward. The Memoirs of Josephine ends years before the salons, the conversations, the evening musicales. It’s like being invited over to someone’s house for supper and being regaled with the tantalizing rigors of her Cordon Bleu training and the resultant meal she’s going to cook for tomorrow night’s guest. In the meantime, all we get is repetitive, consequence-free pistoning and probing. It is surpassingly dull.

And while I cannot speak to the book’s authenticity—having never been Viennese, female, or sexually unbridled myself under anything but the most metaphorical circumstances, and even then only when drunk—it has the ring of falsehood about it. Salten’s forest seems less idealized and idyllic than his Vienna, a city he fled at the start of World War II. He settled in Zurich and died there in 1945.

Salten and his Viennese cohort were among the first Jews raised in a largely secular milieu, allowing them to live lives and make art independent of a strictly Jewish experience. They filled the exciting new void left behind by abandoned religious traditions with an exuberant secularism, which would go on to inform painting, writing, theater, psychoanalysis, and just about every other aspect of a dynamic age hurtling into the future. A few decades later all of this would fall under the entartete, or “degenerate,” rubric. Ironic, seeing as how there would be almost no more iconic a Nazi image than a proud stag in the forest.

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King of the Forest

The Viennese pornographer turned critic who dreamed up Bambi

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