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An Episode in the Life of Marshal de Bassompierre

Ijoma Mangold On:

An Episode in the Life of Marshal de Bassompierre by Hugo von Hofmannsthal

You have to read this Hofmannsthal story – a story which draws on a story from Goethe’s Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten (‘Conversations of German Émigrés’) which in turn draws on the memoirs of Marshal Bassompierre – you have to read it to remind yourself that there is another way of orchestrating short stories, very different from what we’re used to today. The difference is like that between a rococo boudoir and an Ikea bedroom. It isn’t necessary to tell you which holds the greater seductive promise. Hofmannsthal’s story would be condemned by today’s literary critics as perfumed, overladen with symbols, precious, idealised and kitschy – because we believe that truth has to be unadorned, pared-down, concise, laconic and minimalist. There can, though, be something rather pitiful about this kind of truth. How different the tale Hofmannsthal tells around 1900 of Marshal Bassompierre’s encounter with a beautiful young grocer woman and the night of love that ensues! It is a cold winter’s night and in Paris the plague is raging, but in the procuress’s room another log is put in the grate and the fire flares up, casting a shadow of the united lovers on the wall. The sensual merges with the extrasensory, atmosphere with symbol. When the marshal returns to the apartment to meet his mistress again, he finds only the straw fires which are burnt to smoke out the plague bacteria. Out of ancien régime libertinage Hofmannsthal makes a fin de siècle scene of death transfigured.