Baron Bagge

Last year New Directions reissued Alexander Lernt-Holenia’s novel Count Luna, originally published in 1955 and translated into English a year later. That 1956 publication also included the earlier novella Baron Bagge (1936), translated by Richard and Clara Wilson, with the subheading ‘Two Tales of the Real and the Unreal’. Both were reprinted in the Eridanos Library edition of 1988. The novella begins with the Baron being challenged to a duel, a challenge resulting from a rumour that two women have killed themselves after falling in love with him. The story which follows is his explanation of why he cannot marry – because, though no-one has seen his wife, “I am already married.”

It begins in the midst of the First World War when the Baron is a Lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian army. His commanding officer, Semler, is “a temperamental, unpredictable character”, and when the squadron are sent on a reconnaissance mission, his recklessness sees them riding on in the dark, and planning an attack on a bridge even though they should not be engaging with the enemy unless absolutely necessary. All Bagge and his fellow officers can do is ask Semler for his orders given that “the likelihood is that within half an hour you will be lying on the ground, and probably not you alone but most of us.” The attack takes place and Bagge is surprised to find that, not only has he survived, but the enemy is routed:

“Suddenly I found myself stopping in the middle of the village and was conscious of a tremendous astonishment at still being alive. A cavalry attack against infantry is normally doomed to fail. But this one had succeeded.”

Shortly after they advance to Nagy Mihaly, as their orders instruct them, a town where Bagge’s mother has friends:

“…she had remarked there was a girl I might well marry one of these days; she was already a pretty young thing and would come into no mean fortune.”

When they arrive at Nagy Mihaly, Bagge is surprised by the sheer number of people – “every single family was extraordinarily large” – but decides that “all of them had thronged into the town because of the presence of the Russians.” Bagge meets the young lady mentioned by his mother, Charlotte, and is surprised to find her already in love with him:

“You have simply become for me the person of whom I have dreamed.”

Soon, however, Semler decides that they must move on in search of Russians (“Semler seems to think he can’t live without the damned enemy”) and so Bagge and Charlotte are hastily married, Charlotte telling him:

“If you go… you will not come back.”

If the story sounds a rather ordinary one of love and war, that is because it centres on a twist which you may or may not see coming (and if you do not want to know, read no further, though the introduction to the Eridanos edition reveals it), which is that, although Bagge is still alive, Semler and his comrades died in the attack, and he has somehow crossed over with them into the land of death. Lernet-Holenia does, of course, provide numerous clues before this is revealed, from the moment after the attack when Bagge notices Semler is ‘transformed’ – “quite unlike himself in manner, completely calm and composed.” When, shortly after, Bagge comments to his fellow officers how lucky they were in the battle “the two of them suddenly averred in an impatient, rather sullen manner that it had not been so extraordinary at all; they at any rate had guessed long ago that it would turn out as it had.” Our attention also is drawn to the possibility that the town is inhabited by ghosts ironically when Bagge comments on the ‘excessive’ population of Nagy Mihaly: “It was as if nobody died here.” Of course, the opposite is true, as the landscape around the town suggests:

“The plain lay before us utterly lifeless, and the bank of clouds that veiled the sky was unusually low-lying, gloomy and oppressive… The rest of the population had completely vanished… Even the stables appeared to be empty.”

Charlotte, too, is dead, and when Bagge leaves and returns to the land of the living, crossing a bridge “covered with sheets of metal that gleamed like gold”, he will never see her again. Despite this, he still regards himself as married, hence the disappointed lovers. Baron Bagge is a wonderful example of a novella: a story which would feel diluted by greater length, but rather thrown away if it were any shorter. It utilises many of the skills Lernet-Holenia demonstrates in his novels – the atmosphere of war, the constant tension, and the sympathetic narrator – and manages its twist expertly with neither too many nor too few hints stitched into the narrative. Now difficult to find, it would make an excellent beginning to a collection of his shorter fiction.

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7 Responses to “Baron Bagge”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Perhaps something Pushkin Press could pick up???

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  4. JacquiWine Says:

    Love the sound of this! In fact, you had me at the mention of the Baron being challenged to a duel as it’s just the kind of opening that would capture my imagination! I too would love to see a Pushkin reissue of this, maybe together with Count Luna if they make a suitable pairing?

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