I’m continuing my run of shorter works today with a book which not only fits into Novellas in November, but also works for German Lit Month (I love it when I can hit two events with one book!!) This is another book which only arrived recently; I somehow stumbled across it (I think on Twitter) and it had several things going for it. The book is “Baron Bagge” by Alexander Lernet-Holenia; the author’s appeared on the Ramblings before when I covered his “I Was Jack Mortimer“, which I did enjoy. However, “Baron Bagge” had much to immediately commend itself: it comes with an introduction by Patti Smith, and also letters between the author and Stefan Zweig! Needless to say, as soon as I found out about the book, I ordered a copy from Blackwells pronto!!

Lernet-Holenia was, as I said in my review of “Jack Mortimer…”, “Viennese, fighting for Austria-Hungary in the First World War, and going on to become a protegé of the poet Rilke. He was quite a prolific author, taking in novels, poetry and plays (writing one of the latter with Stefan Zweig)…” “BB…” was first published in 1955, and the lovely Penguin Classics edition here was translated into English by Richard and Clara Winston. Set during the First World War, the book follows the story of the titular Baron, a Cavalry Officer fighting in the Carpathian Mountains. Nerves are frayed, his commanding office is on a short fuse and behaving erratically, and Bagge has his doubts when the man in charge orders his forces to ride into battle with Russian artillery. However, as the cavalry charge over a bridge, it appears that they have swept to victory, with the Russians completely routed and Bagge’s comrades unscathed. But as they pass on through the suddenly calm land, it becomes clear that all cannot be as it seems…

Forgive me — I’m growing forgetful. That’s what happens to us when we grow old; we become forgetful and confuse everything, times and women. Luckily, by the time old age overtakes us, we no longer have wives; otherwise, they would be angry with us all the time. For truth to tell, we are no longer sure who is still alive and who is already dead; we’re no longer even sure about ourselves.

For a start, Bagge’s comrades in arms are behaving uncharacteristically; there is no sign of opposing troops anywhere; and when the group arrive at the small town of Nagy Mihaly they are astonished to find it packed with merrymakers, all acting as if there is no conflict. Sentries are set up, but see no hostile forces; and then Bagge discovers that old family friends are still living nearby, including the daughter of the house, Charlotte, a young woman to whom Bagge’s mother had often wished he would get married. The attraction between the pair is instant, and it’s clear that they are completely in love. However, the course of true love never did run smooth, and the cryptic remarks of his fellow officers combined with the lack of any enemy troops creates tensions and confusion – how will the lovers fare in such an uncertain world?

Perhaps I would even have conceived of you in dreams if you had never been. Isn’t it said that we always dream only of beings who do not exist? So I might have been disappointed when I saw you at last. But true feeling cannot be disappointed by anything, for it is self-engendered and has little to do with the object. You have simply become for me the person of whom I dreamed. You have become that by chance, if there is such a thing as chance.

I have to say that I found “Baron Bagge” to be a dream of a novella in more ways than one! For a start it really is beautifully written; having fought in the First World War himself, it’s to be imagined that Lernet-Holenia knew what he was talking about when it came to the action and military aspects of the story. However, the nature of the story he was telling required more than accuracy, and it’s the wonderful capturing of atmosphere and conjuring of setting which really stood out for me here. As the Baron and his troops stumble through the misty mountainous landscape, the narrative becomes remarkably unsettling, and the haunting dreamlike quality of the prose has the reader wondering with the Baron whether they are still in the real world or some strange other realm between worlds. The end can perhaps be guessed by the astute reader, but it’s no less heartbreaking for that; and despite the final conclusion, there is definitely the sense that love conquers all and will endure.

As I mentioned, appended to the novella is a letter from Stefan Zweig to Lernet-Holenia, and two from the latter back to Zweig. It’s clear that Zweig thought very highly of “Baron Bagge”, and I can see why. It’s a hypnotic tale of a strange and impossible love, one that’s impossible for different reasons to the last novella I read; yet despite that, those loves seem stronger than the things which defeat them. It’s a beautiful and unforgettable story, the landscapes of which are quite haunting; and this is another novella which is going to stay with me.

Again, “Baron Bagge” could easily be read in one sitting, and I pretty much did that with it, only pausing for a while because I wanted what I’d read to sink in a bit. And while I was reading it, I had a real panic because I thought I’d donated “Jack Mortimer…” during a recent purge… Well, I had put it in a box to go, but fortunately it hadn’t gone yet, so the book is rescued. “Baron Bagge” is a brilliant and memorable novella, and I may have to go off and explore more Lertnet-Holenia… 😉🙄