Walter Kappacher: Der Fliegenpalast (Palace of Flies)
Though not particularly well-known in the English-speaking world except, perhaps for writing the libretto of Der Rosenkavalier, Hugo von Hofmannsthal is certainly well-known in the German-speaking world. He was a renowned poet, wrote many plays and founded the Salzburg Festival with director Max Reinhardt. Von Hofmannsthal wrote Jedermann [Everyman] for the festival, which was directed by Reinhardt. (Reinhardt would later direct the best ever film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream .)
Though primarily a poet and playwright, von Hofmannsthal did write some prose fiction. A collection of some of his stories is available in English. His one novel was never finished but has been published in German.
This novel is about ten days in August 1924 he spent in Bad Fusch, a mountain resort around one hundred kilometres from Salzburg, nominally to work in peace and quiet though, as we shall see, it does not all go to plan.
We know that he is fifty at this time. The last time he had visited Fusch was 1908. His wife and children are staying in Altaussee, where he will later join them. We know or, at least we know if we read up a bit about him, that he will die in five years time. We know that he already has health problems. Early in the book, he has a dizzy spell and collapses. Fortunately a doctor is near at hand and no harm is done. However, it is not the first time this has happened and he does complain of pains. The doctor recommends a visit to a cardiologist.
As mentioned, he is fifty, but he does seem like an old man. He complains about how things have changed. People no longer sit on park benches, people talk too much, things are just not what they used to be.
However he he felt like a person who had failed in the second half of his life, and will later refer to Titian who, at the age of ninety-nine said that all his old works were amateurish tinkering, that it is only now that he has attained certainty.
He is here to write and is working on three pieces, two plays and a novel. One is his play Der Turm [The Tower] which we know he will finish and, indeed, of which there will be several versions. However, he is really struggling with his play Timon der Redner [Timon the Orator], which he will not finish. Nor will he finish his only novel Andreas, which he is also working on.
It soon becomes abundantly clear that, for a variety of reasons – his health, the economic situation , with inflation taking off, struggling with his writing (he himself had been sitting in his room for the most part, at a little table by the window, unable to believe that his imagination, his associative faculties, had once again completely abandoned him.) and even such things as the death of people he knows or knows of (both Kafka and Joseph Conrad have recently died) and what he sees as constant pestering by people wanting him to write or do something for them – he is feeling a sense of world-weariness or, as we can say in German, Weltschmerz.
His problem is that he does not like being bothered by people (he is tired of the prattle of the so-called cultured people!) but misses intelligent conversation. He had wished for an undisturbed stay in Fusch, and—so far, at least—his wish had been fulfilled; at the same time, he had the impression that he had never before been so alone anywhere. Interestingly, he sees both sides of the equation, mentioning writers whose fame has faded and who miss it.
He does find the intelligent conversation he seeks with the doctor, Doctor Krakauer, who is the personal doctor of a baroness whom von Hofmannsthal is less enthusiastic about. He tries to avoid her and, indeed tries to avoid other people. The staff are told not to mention his name, so that strangers will not know he is here. However, with the doctor he feels that he can unburden himself.
He does talk about literature and we learn a lot about his literary interests, from Plato to Henry James and including such writers as D’Annunzio, Valéry and Rilke. However he is very scathing about people of the upper classes who read popular writers like E. Marlitt.
The two books of his own he discusses in some detail, both with the doctor and with himself are Die Briefe des Zurückgekehrten [Letters of the Man Who Returned] (not available in English) and Der Brief des Lord Chandos (Letter of Lord Chandos), though just called The Letter in the collection mentioned above. As he says, made-up conversations between famous people are a genre which really attracts him and he even considered making a career out of writing such works but realised it was unlikely to be lucrative enough.
I would also mention his reference to Hitler. He mentions Hitler’s imprisonment for his failed putsch and the fact that his friend Peter Altenberg said this artist Hitler would one day be talked about far and wide.
This really is an excellent novel, showing an artist struggling with his life and soul. We know that his best work is behind him – his collected works have already been published – and that he will publish little in the remaining five years of his life. We know that he will travel lot, be sympathetic to Mussolini and face personal tragedy. However, the anguish, the sense of being lost, even out of his time despite his still relatively young age is sympathetically and expertly portrayed by Kappacher.
First published in in 2009 by Residenz Verlag
First English translation in 2022 by New Vessel Press
Translated by Georg Bauer