Carletto is a man raised in privilege and wealth in Europe, where he is seen as white, if exotic. He struggles with the very question of identity after he loses his fortune and comes to the United States, where he is viewed as black.
What may sound like a contemporary debate about the complex questions of race and identity is actually the plot from the 1922 novel “The Blue Stain.”
Austrian author Hugo Bettauer’s novel might have been lost to the ages had Peter Höyng, an associate professor of German studies in Emory College, not stumbled across it in the Austrian National Library while doing scholarly research on the author in 2002.
He was struck that Carletto’s story starts, and ends, in Georgia. Along the way, it touches on the entrenched role that race has in American society, as seen by an outsider like Bettauer, a Jewish man from Austria.
Höyng became devoted to translating the story. His labor of love recently became the English-language version of "Blue Stain" — published with the subtitle, “A Novel of a Racial Outcast” —with him as editor and co-translator with Chauncey J. Mellor, a former colleague at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
“There is nothing else in German literature at the time that addresses racial issues in the United States, how racism worked not just in the South, but in New York and the North,” Höyng says. “The story itself, though, is a small but very effective way to discuss the deeply political ideas of standing up for equality and against injustice.”
Höyng had been researching Bettauer’s better-known 1922 novel “The City Without Jews” when he found Carletto’s tale. That novel remained somewhat known since it predicted the rise of Nazism and its murderous political anti-Semitism in Austria after the “Anschluss” in 1938; Bettauer himself was murdered in 1925 by a man associated with the Nazi party.
But Höyng views Carletto’s story as better written and more plausible, not just from a historical perspective but in contemporary society.
“The racial divide in this country in 2017 is again at the forefront, because there are so many layers to it,” he says. “Bettauer packages these issues in a very plot-driven story, so that we can have discussions, sensitive discussions, through his novel.”
Höyng and Mellor went line-by-line in the book, sometimes taking days to translate a single sentence. The goal was to find not just the precise word or phrase, but also the proper term from the time. Deciding on whether to call a teen-age girl a "schoolgirl," for instance, fell to research for what were more common terms in 1920s American slang.
Two former Emory College undergraduates – Jonathan Jackson and Chloe Kipka – helped with current language and precision questions.
Both are credited in the book, as is Carol Anderson, Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies at Emory, who connected Höyng with Kenneth R. Janken. Janken, director of the University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of the American South, wrote the afterword for the translation.
With the author’s notes, afterward and translation itself, Höyng believes the book could become a classroom staple for high school or college students.
The melodramatic tale in which Carletto moves from Europe and Georgia — going from the playboy son of a white European academic, to losing his fortune and slowly recognizing himself to be also the son of an African-American daughter of former slaves — is an engrossing read.
It could also serve as a 20th century launching point to transcultural racial beliefs now, Höyng says.
“The novel provides a good glimpse of racial discrimination at a specific point in time in this country, but it also offers many ways to point us to the issues that we still grapple with today,” he says.