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.

There is no agreement on the colour of Kafka’s eyes, but – like his hero and model Goethe – Hofmannsthal brought out the fetishising recorder in everyone and, as with Goethe, the recorders were often people of a literary and speculative bent. His eyes, flirtatiously stylised in a sidelong smoulder, were noted, but so was his voice: screaky, a little high, almost a falsetto, unpleasing, though lower and more sonorous in a tête à tête, according to his friend Jakob Wassermann. And then there was the handshake, the hand oddly quick about its business, quickly extended, firm, but then seeming positively to repulse the other hand. Even Hofmannsthal’s bottom came in for commentary, from the diarist Harry Kessler, who used to notice such things; unkindly and anti-semitically, he observed ‘its levantine tendency to breadth’. Given a person of such acute, so to speak, personal interest (despite the Broch-delighting ‘suppression of self’), one of the most celebrated conversationalists of the age, it’s perhaps no surprise that Hofmannsthal’s Werk was felt in many quarters not really to have been the point: wildly overestimated (Canetti), an expression chiefly of his morbidly intense snobbery (Schnitzler), more Gotha – the German version of Burke’s Peerage – than Goethe (Walter Jens). It was, in sum, an arid and misconceived, and perhaps most of all, unnecessary adjunct to what was best appreciated as a live act to delight the happy few.

Vienna was designated by Hofmannsthal as the centre of a persistent giddiness, ‘eines chronischen Schwindels’; add another ‘n’ and you get something truer, ‘eines chronischen Schwindelns’, a chronic deception or swindle. Hofmannsthal disdained the standard middle-class public for literature and theatre and no doubt opera (certainly he disdained the Strausses, whom he found severely trying in person, though he was delighted with the way Richard transformed his earning potential). Of impressively aristocratic bearing himself – enough anyway to satisfy the culture-producing sections of society, which ironically or agreeably dubbed him ‘the Crown Prince’ – and good-looking in uniform and on horseback, he was persistently, fatally drawn to the upper echelons, who not only didn’t read his books (they didn’t read any books) but promptly took him for a newspaperman and a Jew, and forgot his name. When the war came along Hofmannsthal, who had resigned his cavalry commission, found himself earmarked for infantry and cannon-fodder, and inelegantly panicked. Strings were pulled, and he was reprieved to fight the war pen in hand, complaining eloquently the while about the sheer torment of not being allowed to go to the front. No one had told Hermann Bahr, who published an open letter praising the handsome bard’s valour: it all went into Karl Kraus’s universal exposé, The Last Days of Mankind.

As late as 1923, Hofmannsthal appeared to believe that the war, where Austria was concerned, had been defensive; one wonders how he could have thought so for five minutes. A highlight was a visit to Andrian in Warsaw on a Vera Lynn mission, in 1916, to lecture on ‘Austria as reflected in its literature’. ‘It’s so peculiar,’ he wrote to Gerty Schlesinger, his wife (first married, then straightaway baptised),

to find myself in the middle of the War in this social whirl, the ‘famous man abroad’, inundated with invitations and calling cards, teas, autograph hunters, villas, all Your Honour this and Your Grace that, hors d’oeuvres and champagne, Countesses and Marquises, displays of roses, splendid cold duck and paté de foie gras, strawberries and cream, macédoine de fruits, antiques, charity events, two theatres both of which keep a box reserved for me every night, and so on and so forth.

The antiques, by the way, will have included porcelain, of which Hofmannsthal was an enthusiastic collector, and no doubt prices in occupied Warsaw were suitably depressed. Almost everything about Hofmannsthal is based on strenuous pretence: the touch of ‘old Austrian’ feudalism, the wanting nothing to do with money, the dislike of the telephone (‘detestable means of communication’ – though in the local exchange, his number was 3, one of the very first), the hot little friendships and quasi-amours, the meaningless and defensive gallantry to women (‘he has something of a diplomat – an octogenarian diplomat’ was Kessler’s verdict), the bizarre final request (which impressed Eliot) to be buried in a Franciscan monk’s habit. If he hadn’t died in 1929, chances are he would have blotted his copybook by his admiration – apparently fairly widespread in those circles in Austria – for Mussolini. He coined – a Reagan of the 1920s – the expression ‘conservative revolution’. Rudolf Borchardt – though clearly a piece of work himself – described his ‘friend’ as having ‘the soul of a slut, the trustworthiness of an old streetwalker’. Compared to him, Rilke looks modest, straightforward, and a good citizen.

In the course of his life, Hofmannsthal steadily withdrew from literature; it was only when he was a young man that he was uncomplicatedly – though ‘uncomplicated’ doesn’t seem like the right word either, perhaps ‘derivatively’ would be better – close to it. After the war, his output split in two: the ‘comedies’ he thought Austria required, and the essays and speeches and reflections compounded of ambition, pompous self-stylisation and ink. Almost all his poems, verse dramas and prose ‘tales’ – which is absolutely the right word for those preposterous tinted bits of historicising guignol for a teenage readership – are from the 1890s. The boyishly wizened curlicues of romance and exoticism and militaria – ‘Cavalry Story’, ‘Military Story’, ‘Incident in the Life of Marshal de Bassompierre’ and the like – are the perfect product of a nation and a culture that could shine at manoeuvres, but knew, where it had a mind, that it would fail catastrophically at war. It’s fantasy writing, with waxworks in braided tunics and heaving slow-mo camisoles, bouts of intense, hebephrenic description – everything is ‘indescribably’ or ‘inexpressibly’ or ‘unspeakably’ this or that – and usually with a trick ending tacked on: a window, a horse’s hoof, a gunshot, a plague germ.

The sentences are so overstuffed that the overall effect is both bumpy and pedantic:

During a certain period of my life, I used to cross the Petit Pont (for the Pont Neuf had not yet been built) several times a week at a certain hour with some regularity in the course of my duties. I was then recognised and greeted, for the most part by a number of artisans and other working people, but most notably and most regularly by a very pretty shopkeeper whose establishment was distinguished by a sign depicting two angels, and who curtsied deeply whenever I passed during those five or six months and gazed after me as long as she was able.

Does the voice – an officer, after all – need to be that of such a windbag? (Both in vocabulary and syntax, the generally fussy and sometimes unconvincing translations by Joel Rotenberg – here quoted – leave something to be desired.) It’s all creaky ekphrasis, a slide show of stitch by stitch, drip by drip brocade. Imagine a film by Klimt. Movement is almost always out of control: ‘He set out and travelled alone to the city. There he was determined above all to visit the house in which the ambassador of the King of Persia lived. He had the vague hope that he might somehow find a clue there.’ This is typical in its over-emphasis. It’s a perfectly ordinary moment in the story, which needs one or two functional sentences, not ‘above all’, ‘determined’, ‘vague’, ‘hope’, ‘somehow’. ‘He berated her with knife-sharp words that actually made her stop in her tracks’ could go in an anthology of bad writing: the ponderous verb at the beginning and the platitude at the end, the hapless adjective and misused adverb in between. One longs for something with real fear, real gusto, real momentum, like Stephen Crane, or Poe.

Dynamism is foreign to Hofmannsthal. He only does static: ‘The great log continued to crackle as its heart fuelled new flames whose tongues drove off the weighty dark with bursts and streams of ruddy light.’ Here the sentence works, but its mere functioning is so distractingly noisy – another subject, another verb! – it might as well not have done. Even the log is really a sofa in disguise. Probably more typical is this fragment, another moment of frightful guignol: ‘He was the awful one who lurks in the dark and jumps out at the crossroads, in him was the nervousness of a startled deer, and he felt all the terror he was radiating running down his own spine.’ This is pitiful, an attempt to accelerate a naturally staid pace, the scrappy energies going all over the place in a helpless effort to generate excitement.

There is an argument to be made that no writer born before, say, 1880 entered the 20th century in a wholly positive frame of mind. The 19th had already got to them. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Hofmannsthal experienced a crisis of language – or as he would have put it, a crise de langue – for which the classic site is the ‘Chandos Letter’, though it’s all over his writing, and I suspect may have been more like a Grand Universal Crisis of Everything. To a schoolfriend he said (and if he said it once, he said it a hundred times): ‘I have no aptitude for the immediacy of experience.’ If the crossroad-lurker-deer-terror-radiating-spine scene above is what happens when he tries to describe reality ‘fresh’ or ‘live’ or ‘in the wild’, then perhaps a distancing and controlling form like a letter is better suited to him – at least it gives him the chance to say: ‘here’s one I wrote earlier’ – and indeed, Hofmannsthal was a devotee of fictional as well as actual letters. Also, if he can arrange his descriptions in reverse – as retreat, as failure, not as first apprehension, but as last, desperate clinging – they will be given a sort of drama that their hysterical ‘forward’ counterparts lack.

And this is precisely what happens in the ‘Chandos Letter’, which is a sort of resignation letter from the fictional Chandos to Francis Bacon, backdated three hundred years to 1603, but sufficiently close to Hofmannsthal’s own positions and concerns that most of his friends read it unhesitatingly as a personal document rather than as any sort of invention. Chandos, Hofmannsthal writes over 11 exquisite and faultless pages, can no longer write. ‘I have completely lost the ability to think or speak coherently about anything at all,’ he says. His brilliantly eloquent, restrained and classically correct letter to his older friend and patron is part-announcement, part-apology. All he has left is a sort of unthinking life in the country, ‘not too different from that of my neighbours, my relatives, and most of the landed gentry of this kingdom’, spiced with stray, almost perverted sidelong glances at life in one or other of its multitudinous forms, his eye ‘lingering for a long time on the ugly puppies or the cats slinking lithely between flowerpots’. These little items of description – water-beetles, rats – are of a sort you find throughout Hofmannsthal, but here, where they are not wadded details but, so to speak, the entire sum of what may still be seen, all that’s left of a broken encyclopedia, they become very affecting. It is ironic that this ‘renunciation’ is perhaps the only piece of Hofmannsthal’s oeuvre that demands to be read.

And then there is Andreas, or more plausibly the first ten pages or so of Andreas (the translation is Mary Hottinger’s revised version rather than the original one, now reprinted):

This is a fine thing, thought young Herr Andreas von Ferschengelder, on 17 September 1778, for his boatman had unloaded his trunk onto the stone steps and pushed off again. ‘What am I to do now? The fellow goes off and leaves me standing here, there is no such thing as a coach in Venice, so much I know, and as for a porter, why should one ever come to such a God-forsaken place? I can speak their language – what good will that do me? They’ll do what they like with me all the same. How do I speak to utter strangers asleep in their beds? Shall I knock on their doors, and say: “Good morning, neighbour”?’ He knew he would do no such thing. Meanwhile steps were ringing on the stone pavement, sharp and clear in the morning stillness; some time passed until he heard them close by, then a man in a domino emerged from an alley, caught his cloak about him with both hands, and made straight across the square. Andreas took a step forward and bowed. The domino raised his hat, and with it the half-mask fixed to the inside. There was a trustworthy look about the man; to judge from his bearing and manners, he belonged to the best society. Andreas was anxious to hurry; it seemed unmannerly to detain a gentleman on his way home at such an hour. He hastily explained that he was a foreigner, from Vienna; just arrived from the mainland by way of Villach and Gorizia; then, realising that all this information was superfluous, he was overcome by embarrassment and stood stammering Italian.

It is one of the great beginnings: a simple situation developed with wit and dread and manners. It is odd to think of it being written in 1911 and 1912 – just as Kafka was working on his first novel, Der Verschollene (or Amerika: The Man Who Disappeared), with his young innocent, Karl Rossmann, newly arrived in New York harbour, equally cast out, equally preoccupied with luggage, equally at the mercy of strangers. Where Kafka goes heroically and indomitably on – after all a continent lies ahead of him – Hofmannsthal, after ten pages, goes back in time to something that Andreas had experienced in Austria, on the way (it’s also quite good, but very different). This inability to go forward is what undoes Andreas and undoes Hofmannsthal too: the propulsion in him was always tiny, and he betrays it anyway. After a hundred pages, at the end of one draft, Hofmannsthal starts again, this time in diary form – remember the penchant for letters – but you naturally lose the immediacy of the character and the play with his innocence. And then there are notes and jottings. They are not like Musil’s notes for The Man without Qualities, which continue the ramifying spill of narrative, all there, all live, all possible, only needing to be decided; here there is stalling, a thinking-over of everything: ‘Andreas: two halves which gape asunder. Andreas’s character not yet formed: he must find himself in these vicissitudes.’ A cerebral sauce of anxiety and ambition gets poured over everything, quotations from Goethe and Novalis, the Neoplatonists, Grillparzer, Goldoni. To me it is the same ‘calcification’ that overtook Hofmannsthal in his forties and fifties, and from which he ultimately died, long before his time and much too late, once – and everybody helpfully stood by to point out how utterly ‘Austrian’ this was, to have outlived one’s own hoped for future – once his son had shot himself. A smaller coffin, someone claims to have seen, was dropped on a bigger one.

[*] 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).