No Man’s Land

Baron Bagge by Alexander Lernet-Holenia, translated from German by Richard and Clara Winston. New York: New Directions. 80 pages. $14.
The cover of Baron Bagge

There must be a room, sealed against the present, before we can make any attempt to deal with the past.
— Thomas Pynchon, V.

 So many characters in twentieth-century literature are absorbed into narrative scenery or lost to the torrents of history. The uncertain ending seemed evidently suitable to novelists whose notions of fate were darkened in the years before, between, or after the World Wars. The helpless Karl Rossmann of Kafka’s unfinished Amerika, written between 1911 and 1914, apprehends the “vastness” of the Oklahoman wilderness in which, we may presume, he would have been lost (its alternative titles: The Missing Person or The Man Who Disappeared). The interbellum period saw the publication of Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, in which Dick Diver flees the Riviera (and his farcical marriage) for upstate New York to live out his days “in one town or another.” The pattern continued into the postwar era. Nabokov’s befuddled Pnin adopts a stray dog and leaves the town of Waindell without specifying his “final destination.” Yet the novel persists; the poor Russian’s own story cycles on without him!  

Alexander Jessiersky of Count Luna, published in 1955 and written by Viennese poet and novelist Alexander Lernet-Holenia, certainly belongs to this company of lost men. Living in Austria under Nazi occupation, the paranoid merchant chases a phantom through a novel of murderous blunders before absconding to Rome, where he enters the catacombs of St. Praetextatus. He is never again seen among the living.

These expulsions and disappearances work nicely as culminations of the rootlessness, impotence, and somatoparaphrenia reported by the foregoing characters, sensations that inevitably attend to a terror about providence and time that intensified throughout the twentieth century. Especially after the senseless blood rituals of the World Wars, statesmen, veterans, and civilians had come to suspect that the functions of history were discontinuous and orthogonal to human concern. The proud captains of history were realizing they were, in Lernet-Holenia’s terms, “merely the instruments of fate.”  

The idea found its most cogent expression in the postmodern novelists who came after Lernet-Holenia, especially Thomas Pynchon, who possesses a strikingly similar vision of time. Whereas the Austrian novelist banished his character into the decrepit maze of history, Pynchon allowed major characters to be swallowed whole by it. In the late-middle of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) Tyrone Slothrop unceremoniously vanishes from the wartime narrative—just gone.

Yet Lernet-Holenia observed something besides human smallness before the indifferent leviathan of history. A pupil of Rilke, admired by Borges, Lernet-Holenia has a literary reputation as a sort of continental necromancer, a conductor of the underworldly and oneiric, uprooting tangled lineages and raising the closeted skeletons of guilty nations (Jessiersky, a monarchist privately opposed to the Third Reich’s annexation of Austria, nonetheless inherits a large estate from Count Luna after he’s sent to a concentration camp). There’s nothing flatly inaccurate about this characterization, but it can mistakenly suggest that Lernet-Holenia was exclusively preoccupied with the past. History imposes a weight upon this author’s characters, no question, but it also anchors them just behind the present moment, the bleeding edge of history that is always leaving us behind.

Lernet-Holenia developed this encumbered present in an earlier novel of the First World War: Baron Bagge, first published in German in 1936 and now reissued in translation. The novella begins after the war’s end, as the titular baron explains to a querulous peer why he has refused to marry ever since he served the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a cavalry officer (as Lernet-Holenia did). Led by the “intemperate” and seemingly deranged Captain Semler, the Count Gondola Dragoons rode during a pitiless Hungarian winter, searching for Russians in wind-battered villages and lifeless vineyards along the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, whose slumbering volcanoes thrust up “out of the plain like a muted voice of the underworld.” 

Bagge’s experience of the frigid plain resembles a nightmare in which one loses and cannot regain their sight. Lernet-Holenia’s descriptions command a deathly sense of confinement; all objects in view, at hand and afar, “crowd” and “close in” upon the squadron. The consistency and logic of this imagery (impressively maintained in the translation by Richard and Clara Winston) establishes a shroud of mystification, at once literal and spiritual, that follows the Dragoons wherever they ride. Brooding daylit clouds form “dense, oppressive sheets,” “low-lying, gloomy” veils, or “blackish fog” that conspire with driving snow to “envelope,” “swath,” “hide,” and “blind.” At night, the world altogether disappears and threatens to devilishly reconfigure itself, like an opponent moving chessmen while you are away from the board. Bagge remarks, “it was possible that we would awaken in the morning to find ourselves side by side with Russians who had also camped for the night in this same vicinity.”  

At last, Bagge and his squadron encounter “swarms” of Russian infantry (in Lernet-Holenia’s imagination, people share with insects a propensity for “swarming”), assembled at the far end of a bridge over the glassy Ondava River. Semler orders a sudden advance that Bagge regards as suicidal (in the First World War, antiquated calvary were regularly mowed down by machine gunners), but the Dragoons are inexplicably victorious. Given the anticipation Lernet-Holenia builds into this encounter (if there was ever a time for an author to relate the exhilarating present!), it is strange that Bagge does not describe or even remember the perilous moment.

When the squadron travels to the nearby town of Vásárhely, Bagge sustains his eerie remove from the present. During a “masked ball” hosted by the locals, Bagge is transfixed by their outmoded costumes: 

There were comparatively few Empire [contemporary] costumes and almost no baroque ones. On the other hand, there was a swarm of old uniforms, gold-embroidered, government-official frock coats of the last century, chamberlains’ regalia, hussars’ uniforms, the befurred and bechained capes of Hungarian magnates, and, above all, the white military tunics of the old army.

His temporal confusion deepens. Bagge meets a young woman named Charlotte, a distant family friend who somehow already knows and loves him. “The shape of her head” immediately reminds Bagge of the “heads of Egyptian rulers, elongated by the double crown.” Quickly enamored of Charlotte, Bagge glimpses the “snowy enamel” of her smile, comparing it to the flawless “teeth of Greek hetaerae in excavated graves.” As these bizarre details and allusions accrue, it seems as though Bagge were walking backwards in time, blind to the present, watching as the tidy facets of history are scrambled into an unintelligible bricolage. 

While the Dragoons are stationed in town, Semler’s hunt for Russians becomes increasingly desperate. The captain sends Bagge away from Charlotte, whom he recently married, to search for the enemy. “We must run into them somewhere,” Semler yells. “Otherwise we are lost!” After Bagge returns without news, Semler orders the entire squadron to decamp and begin combing the snowy plains for the brown coats of Russian soldiers. Only a few ever return from this mission.

The squadron’s final journey turns supernatural, as the Dragoons begin crossing a glittering golden bridge surrounded by thundering waterfalls and heavenly rainbows. Unnerved, Bagge refuses to cross and suddenly awakens lying wounded on the bridge over which Semler ordered his foolhardy charge. The Dragoons, as initially expected, had been decimated. What Bagge experienced was, as Lernet-Holenia wrote in a letter, a version of the “myth of the nine-day journey toward death,” whose conclusion the baron only narrowly avoided (he was rescued by stragglers). In this light, it becomes clear that Semler—now enigmatic rather than insane—understood their predicament all along, and that his hunt for Russians was truly a frantic search for the present moment that only the living can access.

So we learn why Bagge has refused to remarry: because of his matrimony to a ghost of a woman who, it turns out, died years before he rode into the Hungarian countryside. His commitment to an immaterial past testifies to the unreality that buoys all histories, personal and collective. Lernet-Holenia saw that we were nonetheless denizens of time, compelled to secure an identity from history through selective blindness and never-ending maintenance. As the present heaps new experience for humans to incorporate into their most cherished and fragile artifact, they trail behind the moment, weighed down and back, feeling “as though their existence already belonged to the past, so strangely, so much like ghosts did they stagger through time.”

Lernet-Holenia’s ghosts are evidence of an afterlife—one that claims Jessiersky, and releases Bagge—but only the kind befitting the luckless creatures imagined by him and the novelists who shared his themes, writers whose historical nihilism was affirmed by a century of failure, degradation, bewilderment, butchery, powerlessness, and looming annihilation. It is the hereafter granted to onlookers with no sight, objects with no soul, agents with no choice, arbiters with no will, ghosts with no future. In other words, human beings without any signs of life. Don’t you get it? We’re already dead. 

Trevor Quirk is a writer living in Asheville, NC.