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BARON BAGGE by Alexander Lernet-Holenia
Translated by Richard and Clara Winston
Though at first it seems a fairly conventional story of wartime folly and ill-fated romance, Baron Bagge proves to be something far darker as the layers of reality are stripped away to reveal something more akin to M Night Shyamalan (back when we thought he was cool) than something by Remarque or Mailer.
Bagge is a young aristocratic soldier in the Austrian cavalry during World War I. As his unit approaches the frontline, they come to a bridge across which, they suspect, lie the enemy. Crossing means almost certain death, but Bagge’s commanding officer orders them to proceed. They storm the bridge. The Russians appear, guns blazing. When the dust settles, Bagge is amazed to find himself not only unscathed, but being cheered on by nearby villagers. Welcomed like a hero, he finds the woman to whom he was promised as a child and young love blossoms.
The picaresque tone jars with the brutality that came before; the sweetness of their affair chaffing against the grotesque scenes of decomposing bodies. Something is amiss. There are flashbacks and timeslips. Bagge wakes in hospital. Lernet-Holenia, a protégé of Rilke, has played a cruel trick. But it is one with unbearable moral weight.
Baron Bagge by Alexander Lernet-Holenia (Tr. Richard and Clara Winston)
New Directions, 2022 (First published 1955)