On the Post-Apocalyptic Landscape of Walter Kappacher’s Palace of Flies
Michael P. Steinberg Locates Echoes and Ghosts in a Broken Austria
Echoes have unpredictable relations to time. When the sound of our own voice returns to us, we hear it as the voice of a stranger. The return of a childhood memory, on the other hand, may seem immediate, even when the passage of time is multiplied by seismic cultural shifts, the disappearance of an epoch and its way of life.
The final crash of Austria’s empire and persistent old Habsburg regime in 1918 is perhaps the strongest modern example of such a seismic disruption. The writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal remains possibly its most paradigmatic voice: its analyst as well as its symptom. As a teenager and a leading prodigy of his generation, Hofmannsthal was the archetypal spirit of the Viennese fin de siècle, a matinée idol among the literati of the imperial capital in the 1890s. Both a product and diagnostician of widespread cultural malaise, he produced apocalyptic writings that chronologically preceded the actual political apocalypse and the onset of the small Austrian “republic that no one wanted.”
Set in this postapocalyptic world, Walter Kappacher’s Palace of Flies finds Hofmannsthal returning in 1924, at age fifty, to a resort near Salzburg where he had spent summers of his youth with his parents. Here, time and otherness, intimacy and alienation echo loudly, just as they have as prime ingredients of the twentieth century literary imagination.
Six years after the end of the First World War and the empire’s collapse, the melancholy poet, playwright, and librettist cannot bring himself to write. He naps between dizzy spells and enjoys only the company of a young physician who has recently returned to Austria after a formative period in the still-new world, namely the United States.
Conversing, the writer and the doctor repeatedly invoke the former’s little remembered novella of 1907, Letters of the Man Who Returned [Briefe des Zurückgekehrten], an account (of similar length to Kappacher’s own story) of a businessman who returns to Europe following a long professional period abroad, finding himself especially alienated by Germany and consoled only by color (this itself an allusion to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s color theory, or Farbenlehre) and in particular by the strong colors of several paintings of Vincent van Gogh.
Much better known and remembered is that story’s twin: Hofmannsthal’s 1901 “Letter of Lord Chandos,” an epistolary treatise addressed to Sir Francis Bacon bemoaning a crisis of language and the resulting uselessness of the written word: a performative contradiction if there ever was one and a modernist cri de coeur in baroque costume.
Between these two mannered works came the play Elektra, after Sophocles, in which the prodigious and still precious poet was transfigured, in the poet Michael Hamburger’s phrase, into a “barbarous visionary,” exclaiming, through some of the greatest dramatic poetry in the German language, the impossibility of reconstituting political and familial order following the self-cannibalization of the old regime. Refusing to disavow the cry of Lord Chandos about the senescence of the word, Hofmannsthal offered his play to the composer Richard Strauss, with whom he would go on to collaborate on a series of operas and who undergirded Elektra’s text with music of truly terrible beauty.
Hofmannsthal’s and Strauss’s creative will, and indeed their sense of comedy and wit, did in fact survive the end of empire more than most later scholarship—and perhaps more than Walter Kappacher—allows. But they were overtaken by another project, a different plan for the rescue of German culture following what Karl Kraus famously dubbed “the last days of mankind.” This was the Salzburg Festival, the annual month-long season of opera, theater, and concerts aimed at constructing a new cultural identity for a vastly shrunken Austria. Hofmannsthal was the principal spiritual and institutional founder.
The festival was inaugurated in 1920 with Jedermann, Hofmannsthal’s creaky 1911 version of the English morality play Everyman, staged by Max Reinhardt on the steps of the Cathedral of Salzburg (with the permission of the bishop), to the lasting glory of sentimental conservatism and with the immediate and occasionally recurring antisemitic invective. (Hofmannsthal’s great-grandfather Isaak Löw Hofmann was an ennobled textile merchant whose son converted to Catholicism and married into the lower Milanese nobility; Reinhardt, né Goldmann, was the Baden-born son of a Hungarian Jewish merchant, Strauss the son of a musician and a brewer’s daughter from Munich for whom all sacred culture was uncannily irrelevant.)
Echoes often come with ghosts, and there are many throughout Palace of Flies—both Hofmannsthal’s ghosts as well as Kappacher’s. Jewish ancestry remained one of Hofmannsthal’s ghosts, alongside the full German literary tradition with the figure of Goethe at its summit. So did what he called “the Austrian ideal,” rendered in stone by the baroque architecture of Salzburg and its Italianate sensuality. According to this view, Germany, or more precisely Prussia, started World War I and its ultimate debacle; Austria and its spirit, even if decapitated from its lands, would survive and perform from the stages of Salzburg, with the city itself reconsecrated as The Great Theater of the World: Das grosse Salzburger Welttheater.
By 1927 Hofmannsthal would politicize his agenda as a program of “conservative revolution,” egged on by the post-1923 economic crisis of Germany and Austria (the cause, among more serious consequences, of the cancellation of the 1924 festival in Salzburg, as Kappacher’s story recounts), and the encouragement of figures, also mentioned in Palace of Flies, such as the literary cult figure Stefan George and the crackpot Rudolf Pannwitz. George supplied the National Socialists with much of their language, including Das neue Reich, the title of his 1928 book of poems.
Yet he disdained the movement itself as a philistine enactment of his lofty ideals, paralleling the views of two of his acolytes, the Stauffenberg brothers. George’s name survives today mostly among eye-rolling literary historians. Rudolf Pannwitz is justifiably forgotten. (I did myself find, in a Salzburg bookstore in the 1980s, an attractive in-print edition of Pannwitz’s Crisis of European Culture, which, perversely, I bought.)
Rudolf Borchardt—with whom Hofmannsthal quarreled in 1924, thereby producing a component of the melancholy of Kappacher’s protagonist—is a more serious and more abiding, if less well-known, figure. Aesthete son of a hostile Jewish father, he became an acolyte of the slightly older Hugo von Hofmannsthal and arrived for a visit in 1901, the year of Lord Chandos. He lived the post-World War I years in Tuscany, admired the fascist regime, and in 1933 presented Mussolini with his own translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, an ingratiating gesture that did not save him from deportation in 1944.
The current, modest Borchardt renaissance is eclipsed, however, by the surge of interest in Harry Graf Kessler, the publisher, diplomat, bon vivant, chronicler, and diarist par excellence of fin-de-siècle and interwar Berlin. Carl Burckhardt, scion of the patrician Basel family and a significantly more sober figure invoked often in the novella, had encountered Hofmannsthal as a young diplomat posted in Vienna after 1918. His later career proved as controversial as it was distinguished.
Serving, alternately, as High Commissioner of the Free City of Danzig in the late 1930s and then as President of the International Committee of the Red Cross during the Second World War and thereafter, he resisted any condemnation of Nazism or the Third Reich as their crimes became evident. “A diplomat and known careerist,” Samuel Moyn has recently written, “Burckhardt harbored a traditional anti-Semitism and such hatred of communism that he regarded German Nazism as a bulwark of civilization and a necessary evil.”
Walter Kappacher’s own most prominent ghost is Hofmannsthal’s most eminent analyst: the Austrian philosopher-novelist Hermann Broch. Commissioned in his American exile to write an essay on his aristocratic forebear, Broch confessed that repulsion had given way to some attraction in the way that “a lesbian liaison develops between a lady and her chambermaid.” The result is the cornerstone study Hofmannsthal und seine Zeit [ . . . and his Time], in which the writer figures as both spokesperson and symptom of his time, of the passage from late 19th-century historicism to fin-de-siècle modernism to postimperial conservatism, from the emergence of a child prodigy to the fate of “a bad poet.”
Broch reserved especially acerbic words for Hofmannsthal’s Jedermann and its annual performances in front of the cathedral (a practice that persists to the current day), describing it as a costume play not so much for the stage itself as for the audience, who collectively continue to perform their own conservative revolution by dressing for the occasion in the folkloric trachten.
In 2000, the Salzburg Festival’s maverick artistic director Gérard Mortier made the same complaint, describing the Jedermann audiences as sui generis incarnations of the Austrian political right who remythologize themselves through the ritual of their annual attendance.
Broch’s pathbreaking work proved seminal to Carl E. Schorske’s now classic Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1980), in which only the early Hofmannsthal appears, while the unfolding fate of modernism and its discontents is represented by the more intransigent Gustav Klimt, Arnold Schoenberg, and Sigmund Freud. For Schorske, the early Hofmannsthal embodies the aesthete’s retreat from a political world—and from a world of language, again à la Lord Chandos—in which communication has lost both reason and meaning.
For Schorske, the Austrian fin de siècle follows the defeat of a generation of political liberals and is marked politically by the 1897 election of the outspokenly antisemitic Karl Lueger as mayor of Vienna. On the one hand, this fin de siècle consists of the interior, private world of the symbolist poet Hofmannsthal—the teenage prodigy who wrote under the name “Loris,” and, when invited to meet the Viennese literary tastemaker Hermann Bahr, arrived for the appointment dressed in short pants and kneesocks. In a larger context, however, where the personal meets the dynastic and the political, this crisis of nonrecognition is dramatized in the so-called “recognition scene” of Elektra, when the returning Orestes and his sister, Elektra, greet each other as strangers.
Their crisis is also a crisis of the state. The two dimensions together Schorske called the crisis of the “liberal-rational” order. As for Orestes himself: short of Odysseus, he is perhaps the ur-example of The Man Who Returned. Post-return, he is menaced by flies (Jean-Paul Sartre, recall, titled his Orestes play Les mouches): perhaps a harbinger ghost of the Palace of Flies, if reduced in Kappacher’s account to the terrace of the Grand Hotel of Bad Fusch in its diminished postimperial state.
The grayly painted death wish of the recumbent Hugo von Hofmannsthal in the summer of 1924 evokes two additional echoes, one on each end of its affective thermometer. On the warm side is Eduard Mörike’s glistening 1856 story Mozart auf der Reise nach Prag [Mozart’s Journey to Prague]. On his way to the premiere of Don Giovanni in October 1787, the composer and his wife stop to rest at a noble Bohemian estate. Seated at the piano, the composer appears to experience a premonition of his own death. The prose is magical, an apt partner to the idolization of its protagonist. Such romantic writing fades after 1918, and Walter Kappacher stands soberly in that later tradition. Kappacher’s sobriety finds an echo in Hofmannsthal’s melancholy. No redemption is offered here, neither personal nor historical.
In its cool and diagnostic tone, the story absorbs the aura of another Salzburg-raised and identified writer: Thomas Bernhard, whose asceticism, most especially in his five-part memoir, forms a sustained invective (with which another Salzburger, namely Wolfgang Mozart, would have agreed) against his home city’s sustained betrayal of its alleged piety and beauty by provinciality and bigotry. Kappacher’s protagonist, distinct from the historical figure whose name he bears, recognizes that something enormous has been broken which he cannot fix.
From Palace of Flies by Walter Kappacher. Introduction © 2022 Michael P. Steinberg, courtesy New Vessel Press.