#RivetingReviews: Judith Beniston reviews BARON BAGGE: A NOVELLA BY Alexander Lernet-Holenia

Alexander Lernet-Holenia and Baron Bagge were admired by no less than Stefan Zweig, who wrote to the author in 1936: ‘Truly you wrote this unforgettable novella in a state of grace.’ Only from this letter can it be inferred that Baron Bagge first appeared in German in 1936.

Widely regarded as Lernet-Holenia’s masterpiece, it is in many respects a classic novella: in a first-person narrative, the title figure, a former cavalry officer, relates his wartime experiences to a spellbound interlocutor. The interlocutor, like the reader, is faced with a hermeneutic puzzle, asked to make sense of real-world events – the narrated action takes place on Austria-Hungary’s Eastern Front in 1915 – that nonetheless appear to defy rational explanation. The foreword by Patti Smith tiptoes around the erotic narcissism of the central love story, and repeatedly hints at the dreamlike quality of Baron Bagge, in ways that are potentially perplexing for the uninitiated and amusing for those readers in the know. The mythical dimension of the narrative is nowhere mentioned.

This English translation, by Richard and Clara Winston, first appeared in 1956. Whether or not it has been updated in this reissue, perhaps by the couple’s daughter Krishna Winston, who has translated the three letters between Lernet-Holenia and Stefan Zweig that are appended to the text, remains unclear. Although this lack of information frustrates any interest the reader may have in the interpretative and creative acts that brought the translation into being, it cannot detract from the quality of the English of Baron Bagge which, whatever its genesis, makes for a crisp and engaging read. The Winstons do an excellent job of conveying the hyperreal, wintery atmosphere in which the cavalry unit criss-crosses the sparsely populated southwestern Carpathians, dotted with eerie remnants of extinct volcanoes. The attentive reader is offered subtly phrased clues, while the liberal sprinkling of place names anglicised from their pre-1918 Hungarian forms heightens the impression of exoticism.

The decision to tiptoe around the biography of Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1897–1976) is rather more questionable than the cautious paratextual framing of the novella itself. We are told that Lernet-Holenia was an active combatant in the First World War, but not that he also saw active service in the Second World War. While his lack of public support for the Nazi regime made him for some a laudable example of ‘inner emigration’, what increasingly rankled in post-war Austria was his aristocratic conservatism, which looked back nostalgically to the Habsburg era and went hand in hand with a reluctance to engage critically with the legacies of Nazism within Austria.

When the presidency of the Austrian branch of PEN, the international writers’ association, became vacant in 1969, Lernet-Holenia, by then ensconced in an apartment in Vienna’s Hofburg Palace, was the obvious candidate; but it soon became equally obvious that the revolutions of the 1960s had left him far behind. Resigning the post three years later, in protest at the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to the left-leaning Heinrich Böll, he precipitated the intergenerational rupture of post-war Austrian literature, prompting younger writers to form the  breakaway Grazer Autorenversammlung (‘Graz Authors’ Association’). But this volume offers no glimpse of such controversies. 

This new Penguin Classics edition would arguably have been well served by an afterword situating Baron Bagge less evasively within his long and productive but not uncontentious career, which spanned poetry, drama, prose fiction and screenwriting. For time is a great healer, and the centenary of his birth in 1997 kickstarted a revival of interest in – and admiration for – Lernet-Holenia’s work. In the intervening decades it has begun to enjoy a more nuanced reception that acknowledges the complexities of his political self-positioning without allowing them to overshadow the enduring literary appeal of his best writing. In the Winstons’ translation of Baron Bagge, at least the latter is fully in evidence.

Reviewed by Judith Beniston


by Alexander Lernet-Holenia

Translated by Richard and Clara Winston

Published by Penguin Classics (2022)

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Judith Beniston is Associate Professor of German at University College London. Her main research interest is 19th- and 20th-century Austrian literature and cultural history, with particular emphasis on drama and theatre history. She is an editor of Arthur Schnitzler digital, the historical-critical edition of Schnitzler’s works, 1905–1931.

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