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The Lord Chandos Letter by Hugo von…

The Lord Chandos Letter (original 2005; edition 2005)

by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Joel Rotenberg, John Banville

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1882102,912 (4.05)None
Hugo von Hoffmannsthal made his mark as a poet, as a playwright, and as the librettist for Richard Strauss's greatest operas, but he was no less accomplished as a writer of short, strangely evocative prose works. The atmospheric stories and sketches collected here--fin-de-si#65533;cle fairy tales from the Vienna of Klimt and Freud, a number of them never before translated into English--propel the reader into a shadowy world of uncanny fates and secret desires. An aristocrat from Paris in the plague years shares a single night of passion with an unknown woman; a cavalry sergeant meets his double on the battlefield; an orphaned man withdraws from the world with his four servants, each of whom has a mysterious power over his destiny. The most influential of all of Hofmannsthal's writings is the title story, a fictional letter to the English philosopher Francis Bacon in which Lord Chandos explains why he is no longer able to write. The "Letter" not only symbolized Hofmannsthal's own turn away from poetry, it captured the psychological crisis of faith and language which was to define the twentieth century.… (more)
Title:The Lord Chandos Letter
Authors:Hugo von Hofmannsthal
Other authors:Joel Rotenberg, John Banville
Info:NYRB Classics (2005), Paperback, 152 pages
Collections:Read in 2013

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The Lord Chandos Letter and Other Writings by Hugo von Hofmannsthal (2005)



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Hugo von Hofmannsthal is one of a litany of writers whose fantastic reputations have dwindled since their own day. Considered a literary phenom in fin-de-siecle Vienna, and highly regarded as Richard Strauss' librettist for some of his finest operas...moreHugo von Hofmannsthal is one of a litany of writers whose fantastic reputations have dwindled since their own day. Considered a literary phenom in fin-de-siecle Vienna, and highly regarded as Richard Strauss' librettist for some of his finest operas, including Elektra (1909), Ariande auf Naxos (1912), and Der Rosenkavalier (1911), he hadn't even hit the age of age of twenty before his writing began to draw serious attention. Today, he is mostly known for the eponymous story originally published as "Ein Brief," known much better today as "The Lord Chandos Letter."

Hofmannsthal's writing, at least all of the short stories drawn together in this short volume, have a patina of existential crisis and concern which he manages to manifest in the most interesting of ways. Old literary preoccupations like character development and conventional plot have largely been sacrificed to communicate the message that something is deeply and terribly wrong. His characters all have trouble resolving where, quite literally, they began and the world beyond them stops. Hofmannsthal makes a conscious effort to functionally blunt the senses of the reader in much the same way his characters' senses have been blunted, by the use of other-worldly, mystical, automatic associations. Descriptors that readily come to mind when I think of the best of these stories are oneiric and magical (sur)realist.

In some stories, Hofmannsthal is able to take a common message - in this case, the imminence and ubiquity of mortality - and reworks it into something wholly innovative and compelling. In "Tale of the Veiled Woman," a miner's wife eagerly awaits the return of her husband from work. We see her wring her hands, running through her mind on a loop the dozens of things that could have gone wrong at the mine that day. At the mine, the husband encounters the woman in the veil, whose presence preternaturally attunes him to the concerns of another world. When he arrives home, he notices that his body no longer casts a shadow against his house and this, quite rightly, worries him. Over the dinner table, he tries to avoid the light of the kerosene lamp; he has noticed that the face of his wife, beautiful, young, and milky that morning, is now a skull stretched over with a piece of tallow-colored skin, a walking corpse. Unable to cope with this horrible vision (is it just a vision?), he readies a chariot and escapes from his family.

In "Tale of the 672nd Night," a man lives a solitary life, accompanied only by his faithful servants who, in carefully sustained paranoid delusion, he thinks are always watching him. Seeking a debouche from his house, he sets out to escape them, only to find himself chased by a series of characters that he slowly discovers are actually avatars of his servants Caught in a dead end, trying to find still another escape, he is kicked by a horse. Efforts by local townspeople to help him are futile, and he dies in a small, dark room, totally antithetical the gigantic, empty manse he is used to. But at least he is free of the help.

The title story takes the form of a long letter to renowned scientist Francis Bacon, written from one among his circle of literary friends who wants apologize for the recent lack of literary output. In his letter, Lord Chandos details a most peculiar symptom: he is unable to formulate the most simple of thoughts. (Yes, he is writing this in a lengthy, eloquent reader, so you need a healthy suspension of disbelief.) Here, too, Chandos claims moments of heightened sensation or afflatus, but they are of no use in helping him overcome his newfound crisis: "As soon, however, as this strange enchantment falls from me, I find myself confused; wherein this harmony transcending me and the entire world consisted, and how it made itself known to me, I could present in sensible words as little as I could say anything precise about the inner movements of my intestines or a congestion of my blood." For anyone deeply invested in the task of writing, this story haunts the imagination like a specter; for all the spookiness of some of the other stories, this one looms largest. Some have suggested that this letter has autobiographical elements, as it conspicuously marks Hofmannsthal's transition from the composition of lyric poetry to drama and libretti. Perhaps it is an ode to the impuissance of literature as Hofmannsthal knew it, a cue for the ushering in of a brave, new modernism. ( )
  kant1066 | Oct 14, 2011 |
I'll just add a little to Daniel Myers's review on Amazon.com. These stories have long been classics of modernist literature, and they should be read by everyone interested in the history of Symbolism, the heritage of Poe, the history of fantasy fiction, and the development of what Robert Musil called "daylight mysticism" (that's in his "Posthumous Papers of a Living Author," also on Amazon).

What I'd like to add to Myers is that "The Lord Chandos Letter" is a very important text in the history of modernist mistrust of words. It plays a central role in Enrique Vila-Matas's "Bartleby & Co." (also on Amazon), a novel about people who have given up writing. George Steiner has written about "The Lord Chandos Letter" in "Real Presences."

"The Lord Chandos Letter" describes the author's mistrust of all words -- he is given to personal, incommunicable, "sublime" experiences, which can be set off by all kinds of small events: a water beetle rowing across the dark surface of water in a rain barrel; rats dying on the floor of a dairy barn, writhing in the lethal atmosphere of the "sharp, sweetish-smelling" poison; "a moss-covered stone," and "all the shabby and crude objects of a rogh life." In other words, he is no longer moved by the grand, beautiful, pompous, public displays of ordinary life, but only the forgtten, mislaid, overlooked, trivial, "meaningless" things that other people fail to notice. The story is fundamentally about what might still have religious meaning -- although he calls the effect "sublime," not religious. And whatever is genuinely religious must also surpass language. ( )
1 vote JimElkins | Jul 23, 2009 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Hofmannsthal, Hugo vonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Banville, JohnIntroductionsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Rotenberg, JoelTranslatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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