Translated from German by Georg Bauer

The old man’s head is buzzing, memories of his youth filling him with melancholy and dissatisfaction. Not because these were unhappy days but because it’s been downhill since then. The world has gone to pot. World War One heralded the dissolution of the Hapsburg Empire, and now, in 1924, hyperinflation is causing even more chaos. But this man does not feel the decay of the outside world as profoundly as he does his own. He keeps returning to his glory days, the days when he, at the age of 16, was heralded as prodigy and took the literary world by storm. Now, at the age of 50, his muse has deserted him and his hardened arteries are giving him bother. It’s no wonder that Hugo von Hofmannsthal is feeling and acting like an old man.

He has returned to Fusch, a spa resort outside Salzburg, where he spent many idyllic vacations with his parents. But the Grand Hotel, reflecting the reduced circumstances of the world in general, is nothing but a ramshackle inn. His favourite walks are not as he remembered them. This bench is not in the right location; this chair is not comfortable; the air pressure is too low, too high. These grumblings are nought other than external manifestations of his internal discomfort. Coming to Fusch, alone, because he can’t write with his family around him, hasn’t resolved his writer’s block. He misses his wife. He misses his friends, some no longer so friendly. So he resorts to imaginary conversations with them, and nostalgic reminiscences of the literati he knew in other times: bicycle rides with Schnitzler, that time he hid to avoid coming face-to-face with Rilke …

The only person he has any meaningful contact with during this time in Fusch is a certain Dr Krakauer, who treats him after a health scare. Krakauer seems to establish a friendship with Hofmannsthal, but there is something ambiguous about him. He might just be a man on the make. In any case, having returned after some time in America, Krakauer is a nod to Hofmannsthal’s The Letters of A Man Who Returned. Similarly the issue of Hofmannsthal’s battle with his words a nod to The Lord Chandos Letter. The novel itself is Kappacher’s homage to Henry James’s The Middle Years, which Kappacher translated into German in 2015.

Palace of Flies is, indeed a very literary novel, replete with writers, publishers and a host of intertextual references. Written in close-third stream-of-consciousness, the flies buzzing in Hoffmannsthal’s head flit from topic to topic, returning always to those youthful days when words flowed effortlessly from his pen. Despite keeping up external appearances, Hoffmannsthal’s inner fragility and distress at the loss of his creativity, the dust on his butterfly’s wings *, is made tangible. It is heartbreaking.

• cf Robert Walser’s poem Was fiel mir ein?