The Colour of His Eyes

Michael Hofmann

  • The Whole Difference: Selected Writings of Hugo von Hofmannsthal edited by J.D. McClatchy
    Princeton, 502 pp, £24.95, October 2008, ISBN 978 0 691 12909 9

Hofmannsthal’s is a reputation in abeyance, and I am content that it should be so. There is a limit to how far it can fall – though in the English Sprachraum it was perhaps never all that high in the first place – because of ‘The Lord Chandos Letter’, the tiny but freakishly important story of 1902, the wonderful-but-never-seen play, Der Schwierige, a swansong of passivity in the drawing-room; and, above all, the opera libretti he wrote for Richard Strauss: Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Frau ohne Schatten and Arabella. These, I would say, constitute half a safety-net, half a ball and chain, meaning that Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929) won’t ever go away. All the same, when one thinks of him in English, he’s nothing like the author of a yellow ten-volume set of works that he is in German – five of plays, three of essays and talks, one apiece of poems and stories – and the usual slew of correspondence. Even there he’s not read, and it’s probably just as well.

English doesn’t really take kindly to foreign all-rounders. They don’t survive translation, and they don’t correspond to English – grocers’ – notions of what a writer is and does. Hofmannsthal, with no completed novels to his name, was probably always going to be severely handicapped. Of the three recent selections in English – a little sputter of interest from the last ten years that probably marks a diminuendo as much as a revival – only J.D. McClatchy’s makes any sort of effort to represent him in his fullness and variety, with a clutch of poems, a couple of stories, some essays, the first scene from Der Rosenkavalier, and two plays: that comedy, Der Schwierige, and the risible late tragedy ‘The Tower’, in an equally risible translation by Alfred Schwarz. The other two selections – cutting their losses, in the English manner – make the mild pretence that Hofmannsthal was your regular fiction dude.[*] One offers up a selection of short fiction and prose poems, all of it hopelessly eclipsed by ‘The Lord Chandos Letter’; the other gives us Andreas, up there with ‘Kubla Khan’ as one of the great scraps of literature, though either laxly or unkindly in Marie Hottinger’s original 1930s translation, rather than her comprehensive 1950s revision that appeared in one of three great swanky Bollingen-financed volumes – with prefaces by Eliot and introductions by Hermann Broch – that constitute Hofmannsthal’s apogee, and demonstrate how far he has declined since.

I have to say, on the basis of my rereading of these and other works of Hofmannsthal’s (I don’t do opera), and a shocked and then greedy reading of Ulrich Weinzierl’s stinging biography, that Hofmannsthal comes across as a tremendously unappealing figure.[†] To begin with, he was, if I may put it in British Rail parlance, the wrong sort of prodigy, i.e. not a rebel or iconoclast, but a young man who pleased and impressed his elders. He was a dishy and precocious 16-year-old – still chaperoned by his banker father – when he first appeared at the epicentre of the weird and fevered Viennese literary scene, the Café Griensteidl opposite the Hofburg, having outed himself as the mysterious baby essayist and poet called ‘Loris’. All the various Bahrs and Schnitzlers and Wassermanns were duly smitten. Not since Goethe had anyone written poems at such a level of accomplishment; and it’s true, they weren’t a young man’s poems, they weren’t even new poems, they were old poems: generalising, wise, consensual, to coin a word, veritudinous. In one of the Bollingen volumes, the indulgent and intellectualist Broch wrote in that mid-century Eliotic way of the poems’ ‘suppression of self’. Indeed, their experiential component was close to zero: they had no calories – but they made the reader feel warm. They had no smell, but they were perfume all right. So distant and numinous were they that finding anything as vulgar as titles for them seemed to occasion their author trouble: ‘Inscription’, ‘Song of Life’, ‘An Experience’, ‘Infinite Time’. Nothing but the blandest universals.

Rudolf Borchardt, another canny onlooker (for some reason I hadn’t appreciated quite what a snake-pit turn of the century Vienna was), observed that even if Hofmannsthal hadn’t written anything, it wouldn’t have noticeably dimmed the young man’s appeal. Before long the German poet Stefan George came on the scene – Hofmannsthal’s gay friend Leopold von Andrian described him as looking like ‘an ageing hermaphrodite’, though he was no more than a hatchet-faced 23 – and was even more smitten. A sort of – chaste? – German pendant to Verlaine and Rimbaud, he followed Hofmannsthal as far as his school (he was still, in the German expression, squeezing the school-bench) bearing armfuls of roses, until the perennially useful Hofmannsthal père saw him off and later diplomatically averted the threatened duel. ‘As a schoolboy, I can hardly fight a madman,’ a frightened-sounding Hofmannsthal wrote (he had evidently led George on). Truly, they do these things differently in France.

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[*] The other selections are ‘The Lord Chandos Letter’ and Other Writings, translated by Joel Rotenberg (New York Review, 2005), and Andreas, translated by Marie Hottinger (Pushkin Press, 1997).

[†] Hofmannsthal (Zsolnay Verlag, 2005).