The appearance of the young Hofmannsthal is and remains notable as one of the greatest miracles of accomplishment early in life; in world literature, except for Keats and Rimbaud. I know no other youthful example of a similar impeccability in the mastering of language, no such breadth of spiritual buoyancy, nothing more permeated with poetic substance even in the most casual lines, than in this magnificent genius, who already in his sixteenth and seventeenth year had inscribed himself in the eternal annals of the German language with unextinguishable verses and prose which today has still not been surpassed. His sudden beginning and simultaneous completion was a phenomenon that hardly occurs more than once in a generation.

Stefan Zweig The World of Yesterday

I can’t say I recognised Hofmannthal’s genius on first encounter. Perhaps reading his short stories while whirling round Vienna in all its wonderfulness rendered me too distracted to appreciate them fully. Now I’m generally the unforgiving kind of reader, and don’t often return to disliked authors (because there are so many others to discover), but earlier this year my German Book Group decided to read the NYRB Classics selection, and Hofmannsthal got his second chance.

Well, what a difference three years makes. Perhaps it was the different selection of stories, perhaps a different translation. Might even have been post-pandemic changes in me. I do seem to be more open towards weirdness in fiction these days (to which my ongoing dalliance with E T A Hoffmann attests.) The surrealism of the past 2.5 years has obviously left its trace.

This NYRB anthology contains 14 pieces – short stories or prose poetry – written between 1892 and 1924. They are not presented chronologically, but according to the notions of drama and pacing of Joel Rothenberg, the translator and editor. Most useful was the year noted at the end of each story, which allowed me to place each one into the context of Hofmannthal’s life, something that interested me having read Walter Kappacher’s Palace of Flies in which Hofmannsthal at 50 struggles with writer’s block, a condition reflected in The Lord Chandos Letter (1902). This is the letter purportedly written by Lord Chandos to Francis Bacon apologising for abandoning literary activity because he cannot find the word to express his ideas. I can’t even begin to measure the irony of a story that so eloquently expresses the inadequacy of words. However, it is interesting to note that following publication of The Lord Chandos Letter Hofmannsthal ceased writing poetry (at the age of 27).

I wanted to acquaint myself with the younger Hofmannsthal and this selection contains many early pieces including two written when he was only 18. These demonstrate the mastery described by Zweig: an eye for detail, precision of thought, the conjuring of a specific atmosphere. Read the short prose poem (<200 words) The Rose and the Desk as a taster. How wry was your smile at the end?

The second piece (and my standout favourite in this volume) is the story entitled Tale of The 672nd Night. Don’t ask me why 672. I might understand some day. What totally bowls me over is Hofmannsthal’s tight control of structure and mirroring. Written in two sections, this is the story of a wealthy orphan, a 25 year old merchant’s son, who even in the first sentence of the story is weary of human society and social life. While he lives a solitary life with his four servants, he is not unappreciative of beauty: his own, that of movement and the exaltation of stillness – dancing and death … the colours of flowers and leaves, the colours of wild animals and the faces of people and a multitude of other things. Yet the thought of death never left him for long … But he was without illness, so this was not a dreadful thought.

Well, it is by the end of the tale or Märchen (fairy tale) to give it its specific label according to the German. Not of the Disney ilk either – this is a Märchen of the dark kind with lots of foreshadowing in the first section. The four servants are key because they are the catalyst to the merchant’s son walking to his doom in the ever increasing eeriness of the second section. Which begins with a letter accusing the manservant of a heinous crime and the merchant’s son, in a valiant display of loyalty, heading out to defend his servant’s honour. How quickly things can turn, particularly in a world in which malevolence needs no logical reason to exert its destructive pull …

I was surprised by this world in which the veil between the real world and … something other simply dissolves. With no fanfare or warning. It happens again in Cavalry Story, written in 1898 when the author was 24. And once more it heralds death. Why was such a young man preoccupied with this? It was par for the course if you were a member of the Young Vienna (Jung-Wien) literary circle; its buzz words, or as Hofmannsthal called them in 1893 the distinguishing words of the age, decadence, synesthesia, dilettantism, neurotics, symbolism, Renaissance, Impressionism, fin de siècle, modern age, death and life. (cf Vienna 1900 and The Heroes of Modernism p 321).

There’s plenty of that in this selection of short stories, which I now know are best read in peace and quiet to digest their richness and nuance. I assume there’s more on my shelves in the works of Peter Altenberg, Felix Salten and my beloved Arthur Schnitzler whose company Hugo von Hofmannsthal, together with Siegmund Freud, kept at the Café Griensteidl. With a number of G-lit reading projects already on the go, I really don’t need to start one centred around Jung-Wien, but will I? Probably.