‘Cavalry Story’ by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, translated by Joel Rotenberg

To describe this tale as a day-in-the-life of Anton Lerch, a sergeant in a European cavalry unit in 1848 makes it sound like a prosaic, slice-of-life historical fiction in which we’ll happily come away with a little bit of knowledge about how to sit a saddle, polish a cuirsass, or post a picket. But although the story has a certain mundane drudgery pulsing in back of things, it’s much more a dream of living. Our man Anton is full of wanting, but not of ideas about wanting—and his world moves in a series of terrible images that are like nonverbal riddles, but that are also never less than real—despite the way they come in and go out like the weather.

Maybe that’s the best way to talk about this story: after all, weather is pretty surreal, in the original sense of that word as an almost unbearable, heightened reality. If I could erase all your memory and understanding of what the sky does in a given day, then sit you by a window before dawn, you’d be shivering with fear by noon. That’s what this story is like: the world as if we’d never encountered it, told in a road-not-taken-on-the-way-to-Kafka style.

A long while back, a returning traveller brought me a postcard with Hugo von Hofmannsthal on the front, looking from his desk toward the camera, a line of his (still in German) printed below. The gist of that line—as best as my poor German can make out—is that there are some words that hit like hammers, but there are other words, and those words we swallow like fish, and those fish swim on without our realizing. Even if I learn someday that that’s way, way off, I’ve been living with that idea of Hofmannsthal so long I know I’ll never shake it.

‘Cavalry Story’ is made out of both kinds of words.

Written in 1898. Included in The Lord Chandos Letter and other writings, NYRB Classics, 2005