In his fiction, Hugo von Hofmannsthal is a ghost. His invisibility amazes me. Arthur Schnitzler for decades obsessively rearranged the same story; each Hofmannsthal story exists is unique, which is frustrating. Repetition is easier to understand.
When I say “each Hofmannsthal story,” I mean all five of them, all published before he was 28 years old. In the last one, the “Lord Chandos Letter” (1902), which I am perhaps abusing by calling it a story, Hofmannsthal obliquely announced his renunciation of prose fiction, and poetry, too. Afterwards, he wrote essays, criticism, plays and libretti, but no poems and no stories (discounting an unfinished novel).
Thus my failure to understand the valuable service New York Review Books did by assembling The Lord Chandos Letter and Other Writings (2005, translations by Joel Rotenberg). I first thought the book was a bit of a ragbag. Just 128 pages, several of them blank, for such a varied and productive writer. Several of the pieces are prose poems, several are unfinished. What a mess – but I was wrong, the principle of selection was not eccentric but completist.
For the sort of reader to whom poetry is tedium and the idea of reading a play or, you gotta be kidding me, an opera libretto is laughable, the NYRB book is the way to read Hofmannsthal. Other valuable collections of Hofmannsthal’s prose exist, but they omit published stories and some good scraps. End of bibliography.
“Tale of the 672nd Night” (1895) is the earliest story. The title tells me that I am in the world of the Arabian Nights. A wealthy young Persian man cuts himself off from the affairs of the world on order to devote himself to beauty:
For a long time he was drunk on this great, profound beauty that was his, and all his days were more beautiful and less empty among these objects, which were no longer dead and insignificant, but a great legacy, the divine work of all the generations.
Yet he felt the triviality of all these things along with their beauty. The thought of death never left him for long, and it often came over him when he was among laughing and noisy people, at night, or as he ate. (16)
When I said Schnitzler, but not Hofmannsthal, was constantly rewriting one story, I was unfair. The difference is Hofmannsthal keep changing the form and style of the story.
Even his few servants begin to torment him simply by their human existence:
A terrible apprehensiveness came over him, a mortal fear of the inescapability of life. What was more terrible than their ceaseless observation of him was that they forced him to think about himself, an effort that was fruitless and thus exhausting. (20)
But soon whatever remains of his concern for his servants leads to a bizarre series of adventures (surreal and Kafkaesque would not be bad descriptors) in which his search for beauty betrays him. By the end the story is not at all like anything I remember from the Arabian Nights, but rather more like Heinrich von Kleist. Life is escapable after all.