Friday, January 25, 2013

Obscenities drawn with charcoal on the bare brick - Hofmannsthal's realistic dream-like "Cavalry Story"

Leaving fictional essay “The Lord Chandos Letter” aside, I believe that the 1898 “Cavalry Story” is Hofmannsthal’s most famous story.  It appears in every gathering of Hofmannsthal’s prose and is sometimes included in short story anthologies.

A couple of Hofmannsthal’s short fictions are about cavalry soldiers, this one and the more sketch-like “Military Story” (written 1896).  They are full of convincing details about tactics, horses, weapons, that sort of stuff.  I could easily believe that Hofmannsthal was writing from experience, like Leo Tolstoy or Stendhal, except that Hofmannsthal would not* join the army until World War I and was, at the time he wrote the military stories, working on a PhD in Romance language philology.  So Hofmannsthal is really more like kid wonder Stephen Crane, pulling his apparent realism out of books and his imagination.

“Cavalry Story” begins:

On the morning of July 22, 1848, a patrol squadron, the 2nd squadron of Walmoden cuirassiers numbering 107 cavalrymen under Captain Baron Rofrano, left the San Alessandro mess before six o’clock and rode in the direction of Milan.  An inexpressible stillness lay over the open, glittering landscape; early-morning clouds climbed from the peaks of the distant mountains toward the shining sky like tranquil puffs of smoke; the corn stood motionless in the fields, and country houses and churches shone between stands of trees that seemed to have been washed.  (1)

The beginning could be straight from some regimental history, while the second sentence is firmly fictional, what with its metaphors and hint of subjectivity.  The rest of the story will be similarly split between a clear and direct presentation of military action, and passages describing the increasingly heightened perceptive or emotional sensibility of the story’s protagonist, Sergeant Anton Lerch.

The first long paragraph quickly covers the start of the squadron’s big day as they drive off an attack, take numerous prisoners, capture a spy with “detailed plans of the greatest importance,” and then a cannon, and then more prisoners.  “The squadron suffered one casualty” (2).  Sergeant Lerch is, as someone other than me might now say, pumped.  His passions are by no means tamed when he discovers that he may well be able to bivouac with an ex-lover, possibly a prostitute.  Her appearance in Milan is a coincidence, a little odd.  Lerch is excited.

The squadron returns to action.  Passing through a village, “[s]o inflamed was his imagination” the Sergeant experiences a series of almost hallucinatory sights (ellipses are all mine):

The village remained deathly quiet – there was not a child, not a bird, not a breath of air…  obscenities drawn with charcoal on the bare brick…  a weird half-naked figure lounging on a bed…  A dog ran busily out of the next house, head raised, dropped a bone in the middle of the road, and tried to bury it in a crack in the pavement…  (6)

A story that first seemed realistic has become dream-like.  Next, battle is joined, close and bloody, with Sergeant Lerch fighting at his peak.  Has he passed through the dream, or does he remain within it?  Every episode of the story increases the intensity of the character’s emotional and perceptual state, leading to – well, if this story resembles that of anyone else, it is Heinrich von Kleist, so do not expect a jolly ending.  Sergeant Lerch is not an aesthete, like the protagonist of “Tale of the 672nd Night,” but for Hofmannsthal a heightened aesthetic sense, however attained, is dangerous.

I am still not sure why.  I will keep reading.

All quotes are from the NYRB collection.

* Update: Nope, I was wrong about that. Hofmannsthal spent a year in military service in 1894, when he was 20. Not that that explains his sense of what combat was like.


  1. I like the idea of very realistic accounts trending into dreamlike states. Perhaps because at least the way I see it, this parallels day to day human perception. Most of us are rooted in reality, yet we daydream, dream, etc. Also, very quick, violent, and traumatic experiences sometimes take on the aspects of dreams. When writers tackle this sort of stuff the results can be so interesting!

  2. Yes, this story is psychologically entirely believable. Its effect depends on just the kind of psychological movement you mention.