Monday, May 20, 2013

“I’m falling,” cried the mouth - a perplexing, bizarre, Goethean, fragmented Hofmannsthal story

Kind of an orphan post tonight, a follow-up on Hugo von Hoffmansthal that would have made more sense several months ago.

Despite the declaration of renunciation described, possibly, in “The Lord Chandos Letter” (1901), Hofmannsthal occasionally returned to fiction.  Andreas (written 1912-13) is a novella that threatened to expand into who knows what.  Hofmannsthal pulled the plug on it, having finished the first seventy pages and two episodes as well as fifty pages of notes that suggest not one but several directions for the novel, each more abstract than the last.

Andreas is a young Viennese man of unformed character on a sort of Grand Tour.  He is robbed by a servant who turns out to be an escaped murderer and meets a weightless dream girl on an idyllic farm.  In Venice, he finds a room with a family that is in the process of holding a lottery to auction off their daughter’s virginity – “’Well, it isn’t really so unusual, what she’s doing’” (53) – meets a Knight of Malta, and encounters other mysteries like women who transform into other women, one of whom is probably this woman, encountered in a courtyard atop a grape trellis:

The whole pale face was wild and tense, with a flash of satisfaction, almost childish in its candour.  The body lay somehow on the light trellis of the roof, the feet probably rested on a hook in the wall, the fingertips on the top of a post.  The a mysterious change came over the expression of the face.  With infinite sympathy, even love, the eyes rested on Andreas.  One hand forced its way through the leaves, as if to reach his head, to stroke his hair; the four fingers were bleeding at the tips.  The hand did not reach Andreas, a drop of blood fell on his forehead, the face above him turned white.  “I’m falling,” cried the mouth…  (64)

Hofmannsthal was working on something that could have rivaled Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, published the same year Andreas was abandoned, for sheer weirdness.  Andreas is as Goethean as Alain-Fournier’sbook, drawing together pieces of a number of century-old books – Italian Journey, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, the Venetian Epigrams, and likely many more I have failed to identify or not read.  One of the endings seems to have that Knight willing himself to death in a Rosicrucian ceremony – I must be misinterpreting the fragment, but it invokes the semi-Masonic initiations of Wilhelm Meister.

Those metamorphosing women remind me of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Princess Brambilla, also set in Venice.

Since Hofmannsthal’s fragment is bizarre, complex, and unfinished, I am just banging books against it to see if any meaning drops out.  The colliding texts produce a satisfying clank, at least.

Well, some posts are themselves more fragmented than others, more like notes on a subject for future research.

Hofmannsthal presumably got whatever he needed out of Andreas, anyway.

Andreas can be found in Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Selected Prose, Bollingen, 1952, tr. Mary Hottinger.


  1. Your untitled Weird Austria series is becoming almost as entertaining as your famous Weird France series a few years back. This novella sounds nuts--in a good way, of course!

  2. Obviously I did not put too much effort into interpreting this thing, but it makes you wonder, doesn't it? Where does the nuttiness lead? It is nuts.

    Hofmannsthal does not give off an especially weird vibe, but some of his texts do reach pretty far into uncanny modes or are so complexly symbolic that ordinary meaning just disintegrates. Or he may well have just enjoyed some pleasurable weirdness now and then.