Hofmannsthal ranks as one of the greatest writers of prose in this century. His production is basically divided into two areas: the essay, and prose fiction. By essay, we also mean articles for journals or papers. Some have claimed that Hofmannsthal was primarily a poet, and if this is so, then it is reflected in the imagery and lyricism of his prose.
Hofmannsthal was a master essayist. The following is excerpted from Bangerter's Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1977):
Bahr, then already an established writer and critic, had read a review about his own works written under the byline "Loris." Extremely impressed by the article, Bahr was eager to meet its author, whom he pictured as being "somewhere between forty and fifty, in the maturity of the intellect - otherwise he could not possess this resigned calmness,... apparently belonging to the old nobility, where beauty, moderation, and dignity are inherited effortlessly, educated by the Jesuits at Kalksburg, hence the dialectic energy, the logical acrobatics, the chess-player nature of his understanding." A day or so after reading the review, Bahr was sitting in the Café Griensteidl. "A young man with incredible energy" came up and introduced himself as Loris. Barh summed up his reaction in these words: "On that occasion I must have had the most foolish look on my face that I have ever had in my life." (Bangerter, 3-4)
We notice that what was emphasized was Hofmannsthal's maturity and sophisitcation of style, as well as his own energy and drive. Throughout his life Hofmannsthal wrote more than 200 essays, ranging from "Beethoven to Eugene O'Neill, from Czechoslovakia to Africa, from classical antiquity to Buddhism." (Bangerter, 21) It is in his prose that we recognize Hofmannsthal as a Renaissance man, a fully rounded man of great intellect and varied interests. Not only the content of his essays spanned such a wide range - the forms, too, were crafted to precisely fit the content, and as such Hofmannsthal's essays represent more than just commentary, they are little jewels of art.
One of his most famous essays is Ein Brief, a letter from Philipp Lord Chandos, the younger son of the Earl of Bath, to Francis Bacon, in which Chandos explains his lack of correspondence. Chandoes, once a young poet (much like Hofmannsthal!) has ceased to write, and in this letter, he explains his moral and intellectual situation to Bacon. He has experienced a spiritual crisis; he had in his younger years observed a great unity in nature, but now this bond is broken, and he is unable to continue writing. Chandos' problem reduces to a crisis of language (Sprachkrise).
Language is a tool for representing thoughts and objects. However, these representations are not the objects themselves, and so there is a gap between the object and its corresponding linguistic marker. In addition, language is inadequate for the task of representing objects or ideas - it is necessarily a translation from the world of ideas and concepts. Also, language is the means by which people communicate, and paradoxically, language is what makes it impossible to communicate, since there is no guarantee that different people use language in the same way.
The irony of all this is that Ein Brief is an extremely elegant and eloquent description of Sprachkrise. As Bangerter states: "The images are bright, colorful, and vibrant. The selection of words and the organizaion of ideas are flawless. Each sentence, each phrase is constructed with care and precision, is impregnated with life and meaning." (Bangerter, 28) The essay itself refects concerns Hofmannsthal had about his own art, and it is shortly after Ein Brief that he effectively ceases writing lyric poetry, and instead devotes himself to the theater.
Hofmannsthal also wrote short works of fiction. His first work of fiction, Das Märchen der 672 Nacht, (1895) was Hofmannsthal's attempt at a fairy tale, but the result turned out to instead be "a rather cold, uncomfortable, though highly polished and poetic story." (Bangerter, 33) Although its language is not that of a fairy tale, it does have many of the dream-like qualities of Romanitic fairy tales. It is the story of a merchants son, who decides to withdraw from society and its meaninglessnes, retreating to a country home with several servants. He lives comfortably, until one day a servant of his is accused of misdeeds. The merchant's son takes this to be an accusation against him - his servants are extention of his identity - and he goes back to the city to remedy the situation. After several Kafkaesque situations, he is kicked by a horse and later dies. Symbolically, the son tries to remove himself from society, and in so doing destroys part of his identity. The individual and society form a single unit, and in withdrawing to the country, he is denying part of himself. As in his poetry, we see the theme of alienation.
Hofmannsthal's most famous work of short fiction is probably Reitergeschichte (1908), the story of one Wachmeister Anton Lerch. The story takes place during the Austrian campaigns in Italy in 1848, and in particular it involves battles fought at and around Milan. While riding through one town, Lerch spies a familiar looking woman, who turns out to be an acquaintance from his past. She is slavic and exotic, and in seeing her he begins to think of giving up his career. He wants nothing more than to experience the comforts of a middle class life. Later, Lerch meets his double. The interpretation of this scene unclear; some claim the double is from his future, a warning, whereas others claim that it is from his past - an opportunity to return to a life of duty. Clearly, however, it is a sign of death. Next, Lerch enters a battle, during which he kills a soldier and captures his horse. After the battle, Lerch's commanding officer demands he give over the horse, and when Lerch refuses, the commander puts a bullet throug his head. Lerch sees his encounter with the woman as a preview of a comfortable life, and that in his military service he is missing out on the less formal aspects of life. One could argue that he is looing for harmony in life. Yet, the reality is that the soldier Lerch, the man of structure and duty, has been confronted with a Dionysian force - the sensual slavic woman - and this encounter breaks through the illusion of his life. He is done for. The following scenes simply illustrate how the irrational has penetrated his life and consumed him, and his final act of disobedience is actually a death wish.
Reitergeschichte illustrates the influence that Nietzsche had upon Hofmannsthal. The framework - the Dionysian, for example - is all Nietzsche, and the dialectic between them allows a quick comparison with such works as Thomas Mann's Der Tod in Venedig.
Although the mature Hofmannstal focused primarily on the theater, he did not give up writing prose. He also wrote an unfinished novel, Adreas, oder die Vereinigten, which is modeled after Goethe's Wilhelm Meister. In addition, he composed a prose version of his opera Die Frau ohne Schatten. In short, Hesse did not write much narrative prose, but those few things he did publish are important additions to the genre. In addition, his essays form a considerable body of work, important both for its breadth of scope but also for its perfection of form.
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