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By Hugo Von Hofmannsthal
Selected and translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg
Introduction by John Banville
New York: New York Reviews of Books, 2005
ISBN # 0-59017-120-9
128 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
June 2013

This is without doubt one of the strangest books I’ve ever read from cover to cover! When I came across the book I was fascinated since I’ve long been interested in Vienna at the turn of the century (19th/20th), but had never read anything by Hofmannsthal himself.

The last piece in the book, the only non-fiction piece, is the title piece, The Lord Chandos Letter. The other offerings, 13 of them, are fictional pieces, all very short and most unfinished. It would seem that Joel Rotenberg, who chose these pieces, found some previously unpublished pieces from the quite young Hofmannsthal and put this book together.

There is definitely something unsettling and disappointing in reading fictional pieces that are unfinished. However, despite my frequent frustrations with that limitation, some of the writing, sentence by sentence, even section by section, was simply marvelous bits of writing. Often aggravated by the unfinished nature of the fictional pieces I thought several times of just abandoning the book and moving on. However, it was those bits and pieces of gems of fictional writing that kept me going until finally I just said to myself: read on, paragraph by paragraph and enjoy the good writing when it comes. And so I did.

Below I simply comment here and there about each piece, but it is important to keep in mind that virtually none of them are “finished.” Looking ahead, I will argue at the end of these notes that editor Rotenberg may have been more clever in this choice and order of these pieces than I knew until I read to the end and especially the Chandos Letter.

Overall I would note that the young Hofmannsthal was fascinated by the romantic notions of the occult and even supernatural. What a very strange young man he must have been.

By John Banville
P. vii-xii

Hofmannsthal was part of the Jung Wien movement. At age 17 he began to use the pseudonym, Loris. He was born in 1874 to a Jewish-German-Italian family which converted to Christianity and assumed the “Von” to their name.

The young Hofmannsthal abandoned the old esoteric “art for art’s sake” school and involved himself in the new movement where literature was “. . . a way of mediating between the life of the spirit and life in the world.”

He was part of the movement of a critique of language (Sprachkritik) being founded in Vienna by Karl Kraus and Fritz Mauthner just at the turn of the century. This view held there were no universal timeless truths since all evidence is gathered by our senses and is thus contingent.

In 1902 Hofmannsthal, just 28, published his “The Lord Chandos Letter” which gives this book it title.

He rejected the notion of “truth” being embedded in words but “. . . it is as if my body consisted entirely of coded messages revealing everything to me. Or as if we would enter into a new, momentous relationship with all of existence if we began to think with our hearts.”

Banville asks: “Can we ‘think with our hearts’?” This movement of which Hofmannsthal was a part preceded a great political collapse which Krauss called “the last days of the end of the world.”

P. xii

These works are written between 1892-1924. Most were not published in his lifetime.

P. 1 – 11

This is a short tale of a cavalry sergeant who is on a mission in Italy and has a sort of out-of-body experience while on duty and is soon shot to death by his own officer for disobeying an order.

For me this story was not an auspicious beginning. I found it confusing and, in the end, virtually unintelligible.

P. 13

This is a short sketch from 1892. It seems more like notes for an intended piece on the theme of the title.

P 15-33

A handsome and healthy young man finds himself alone after his parents die. He dismisses all but four servants and begins to live a solitary but active life, walking his city constantly, alive to all its beauty and mystery. He is well, handsome, not lonely but obsessed with death. The narrator tells us he has this privilege since he is quite healthy.

He knew his four servants well, liked three of them and tolerated the fourth. Eventually in the heat of the summer he moved them all to his summer home where he would take long walks.

After an interesting, even brilliant, opening section the story took a bizarre twist ending in an unbelievable horror. Very odd indeed.

The title makes no sense whatsoever in relation to the story. I wondered if it was actually the number of story he had written.

PP. 35-48

What’s here, a part of a story concerning a golden apple with rare spices inside, a carpet merchant, his wife and young daughter, is beautifully written, mysterious, magical, yet terrifying. Alas, the story just breaks off with a death leaving this reader apprehensive and unfulfilled.

P. 49

A short one page thought. Nicely expressed, but not very profound.

P. 51-59

Entering his house he leaves no shadows, and his wife heard everything except him. This miner come home feeling some very strange things coming and the eventually he runs away from his wife and child. Very unsatisfying.

P. 61 – 64

There is a contrast between city visitors and locals. There really is no plot, but some wonderful descriptions.

P. 65

This is a brief poetic reflection of a lover missing his beloved.

P. 67 – 70

Here we have a simple description of a boy following a servant woman, while fanaticizing about her. Well-written.

P. 71 -81

Perhaps the most gripping, yet puzzling, story of the lot. Set in Paris, a wealthy man is attracted to a woman who is seemingly a shop keeper. He sets up a rendezvous with her and seeks a second. Nothing comes of it all, seemingly because of the then raging plague. However, the writing was gripping, brilliant, exciting . . . but the plot just drifted off into nothingness. Very curious, but riveting.

P. 83 – 96

The tale is a fairly long exploration of a soldier who was in a deep mental depression and is finally able to pull himself together. Again, little happens in a normal sense of “story” in my experience, but beautifully and grippingly written!


This is a single sentence piece, but alas, rather unintelligible to me. I can’t imagine the relationship between the title and the sentence.

P. 99 – 116

The two couples are the narrator and his partner, Anna and Clemens with his partner, Theresa who is dying. It is an eerie but beautiful and touching story of two couples, one where the woman is dying and her lover is at her side. The author, however, is falling out of love with his partner. We watch the development of these two sad things at the same time. The tale is beautifully told and touching.

P. 117 – 128

This is a “letter-story” in which Lord Chandor, a man of note in English society and politics, is writing to the famous Francis Bacon, apologizing for his abandonment of literary activity.

Chandor, who is 26, can no longer write. Bacon tries to console him with a quote from Hippocrates: “One who is suffering from a severe illness yet feels no pain is sick in his mind.”

Chandor is touched by this bluntness and opens himself to Bacon in the letter. He cites some of his past successes and allows he had many plans of things to write. He had been on fire with visions and ideas, but it was all too much and too false. “. . . my soul had to sink from such puffed-up arrogance to this extremity of faintheartedness and exhausting. . .”

His old world of order and tradition, fittingness and such has evaporated. Now even the simplest object or experience can: “suddenly take on for me a sublime and moving aura which words seems too weak to describe.”

He has developed an “empathy” with all manner of things not normally thought to be of value. His world has become: “. . . as if we could enter into a new, momentous relationship with all of existence if we began to think with our hearts.”

He knows he will never write again. Yet it is in the very writing of this letter which was the best written and most intellectually satisfying and challenging of all Hofmannsthal’s writing that preceded it in this volume. Perhaps, too, it even clarifies some of the lack of plot in many of the earlier pieces – what if what Hofmannsthal seems to aim at is not to tell tales but to capture moments. Not super “special” moments or events, but everyday things and experiences which are important at that particular moment to those who experience them.

It would seem to elucidate much of what preceded it in the volume. If this is the case, then the editor’s choice of ORDERING the pieces was brilliant. As my notes suggest, a second reading may well be called for and now, armed with Lord Chandor’s Letter, I may well be more open to give myself over to the plot-less experiences without thinking the author is failing us. Quite intriguing.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett