Study Guide

Richard Beer-Hofmann

Richard Beer-Hofmann Essay - Critical Essays

Beer-Hofmann, Richard

Introduction

Richard Beer-Hofmann 1866-1945

Austrian playwright, novelist, short story writer, and poet.

An influential member of a group of writers known as "Young Vienna," Beer-Hofmann produced a small body of works that are characterized by keen psychological insight as well as a preoccupation with art, love, and death—themes that were often explored by Young Vienna writers. One of Beer-Hofmann's most important contributions to Austrian literature was his early experimentation with stream-of-consciousness narrative technique in his novel Der Tod Georgs (The Death of George) and other works. In his later years Beer-Hofmann worked on a cycle of biblical dramas, most prominently Jaákobs Traum (Jacob's Dream), that combined his growing awareness of his Jewish heritage with his sense of artistic calling.

Biographical Information

Beer-Hofmann was born in Vienna to Hermann and Rose Beer. A few days after his birth his mother died, and he was subsequently placed in the care of his aunt and uncle, Berta and Alois Hofmann, who later adopted him and whose surname was added to his own. Beer-Hofmann was raised in upper middle-class Jewish milieus in Brünn and Vienna. He later attended the University of Vienna, where he received a doctorate in jurisprudence in 1890. Rather than practicing law, however, he overcame the resistance of his family and embarked upon a career as a writer. In the 1890s Beer-Hofmann became acquainted with a number of Austrian artists and writers who collectively became known as Young Vienna and whose most famous members included Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Beer-Hofmann's first published work, the short story collection Novellen, and his subsequent novel, The Death of George, demonstrated that he was a writer of acute psychological insight. In 1895 Beer-Hofmann married Paula Lissy, and their loving marriage was the subject of his last major work, a book of reminiscences entitled Paula, ein Fragment. From the early 1900s until his death Beer-Hofmann worked on writing biblical dramas, the most famous of which is Jacob's Dream. He also received critical acclaim for adapting and directing plays for the Burgtheater in Vienna. In 1938, after the Nazis assumed power in Germany, Beer-Hofmann went into hiding with Paula, and in 1939 the couple fled to the United States. En route to New York, Paula suffered a fatal heart attack; after his wife's death, Beer-Hofmann lived in Manhattan, eventually becoming an American citizen. He died in 1945.

Major Works

Critics have noted that the hallmarks of Beer-Hofmann's most mature work—his inventive literary techniques, beautiful imagery, and psychological astuteness—are all evident in his first published book, Novellen. In his novel The Death of George Beer-Hofmann polished the stream-of-consciousness technique that he had begun to experiment with in Novellen. The Death of George is considered a representative example of Austrian fin-de-siècle literature for its rich imagery and symbolism, its aesthete hero, and its exploration of youth, beauty, and death. However, in a marked departure from other works chronicling late nineteenth-century decadence, Beer-Hofmann's hero ultimately chooses to become more deeply engaged with life, rather than remaining detached from it. During his life-time Beer-Hofmann grew more aware of his Jewish identity, and his interest in Judaism is reflected in Jacob's Dream and the unfinished David cycle, which consists of Der junge David (Young David) and fragments and out-lines published as Das Vorspiel aufdem Theater zu "König David." In Jacob's Dream Beer-Hofmann depicted his hero as suffering from profound doubt—Jacob rails against having been chosen as God's elect—before ultimately deciding to enter into a covenant with God. Commentators observe that Jacob's Dream functions on many levels at once: it is the retelling of a well-known Bible story, a chronicle of Israel and the fate of the Jewish people, and a parable about the writer's artistic calling. After the Nazis came to power, Beer-Hofmann fled Vienna and took up residence in New York; there, he wrote Paula, ein Fragment, a memoir about his marriage and his recently deceased wife. In this reminiscence he explores the dominant themes of his life and work in his characteristic stream-of-consciousness style.

Critical Reception

Beer-Hofmann is recognized as a literary innovator for having used experimental techniques like stream of consciousness and the interior monologue long before they were in vogue. Several critics have remarked that Beer-Hofmann's stylistic experimentation prefigures the work of better-known writers, including Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. Although Beer-Hofmann's work is generally overlooked today, his lullaby for his daughter, "Schlaflied für Mirjam" ("Lullaby for Miriam"), has endured and is widely anthologized.

Principal Works

Novellen (short stories) 1893

Der Tod Georgs [The Death of George] (novel) 1900

Gedenkrede auf Wolfgang Amadé Mozart [Memorial Oration on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart] (essay) 1906

Der Graf von Charolais (drama) [first publication] 1906

*Jaákobs Traum [Jacob's Dream] (drama) 1919

Schlaflied für Mirjam [Lullaby for Miriam] (poetry) 1919

*Der junge David [Young David] (drama) [first publication] 1933

*Vorspiel auf dem Theater zu "König David" (drama) [first publication] 1936

Verse (poetry) 1941

Paula, ein Fragment (reminiscences) 1949

Gesammelte Werke (novel, short stories, dramas, poetry, and nofiction) 1963

*These works are collectively referred to as Die Historie von "König David."

Criticism

Solomon Liptzin (essay date 1936)

SOURCE: "The Viennese Aesthete," in Richard Beer-Hofmann, Bloch Publishing, 1936, pp. 1-21.

[In the following excerpt, Liptzin discusses the psychological insight that characterizes Beer-Hofmann's work, particularly his first published volume, Novellen.]

German literature at the close of the nineteenth century seemed to center in the three metropolises: Berlin, Munich, and Vienna. Each of these cities had a physiognomy of its own which found expression in its literary life. The Prussian capital, that had been most violently affected by the triumph of science and industrialism, reacted by taking over in its literary products the technique of science and the subject-matter of industrialism. It sought to substitute keen observation for native inspiration, to speak of heredity and environment instead of God and fate, to vie with sociology in the interpretation of social phenomena and with psychology in the exact description and careful analysis of instincts and reflexes. Thus was born the militant naturalism of Holz and Schlaf and Young Hauptmann. The Bavarian capital, though acceding to Berlin political supremacy in the new empire, sought to retain for itself the literary ascendancy that Wagner and Geibel and Heyse had for a generation bestowed upon it. The attack upon the older Munich school, especially upon Heyse, in the columns of Michael Georg Conrad's organ Die Gesellschaft, was at the same time the rallying cry for a new literary group with Munich as its center. Yet, though perhaps more vociferous in its negative creed and though perhaps more amenable to French than to Slavic or Scandinavian influences, this group did not in its essential accomplishments differ from its Berlin allies.

Far from the din and turmoil of the struggle between German mid-Victorianism and German modernism, Viennese men-of-letters continued to write their tired and melancholy poems, tales, and dramas, even as their unwieldy empire continued to drag out a slow and unheroic existence waiting for its inevitable end and dissolution. Though statesmen, lured by a false sense of security, might fail to discern this end, poets sensed it and the typical Viennese writer at the turn of the century was without faith in the future of his country. He neither accepted nor did he violently oppose the unsavory political and social regime, but with a gentle, critical smile he turned from it to a dream-world which he called the pure world of art as distinct from the impure world of every-day life. Since Vienna was the capital of a vast empire to which wealth flowed from every province, its typical writers were members of well-to-do patrician families who were spared the bitter struggle for bread. They had the leisure and the means to travel and to assimilate influences from the leading European literary centers. They felt themselves drawn especially to Baudelaire and Verlaine, Maeterlinck and Jens Peter Jacobsen, Oscar Wilde and d'Annunzio, Symbolists and Decadents, but nevertheless they avoided associating their poetic efforts too closely with those of any school. They did not shout, as did the Munich and Berlin writers, that they were revolutionizing either the technique or the subject-matter of literature, nor did they feel the need of setting up elaborate theories to justify weak results. They had no organ about which to group themselves as had the Munich circle in Die Gesellschaft or the Berlin circle in Die Freie Bühne, later renamed Neue Rundschau. We can speak of them as a unit only because, born in the same metropolis of the same social class within a few years of each other and facing in their youth and manhood similar problems, similar stimuli, and similar frustrations, they gave expression in their literary products to parallel themes, like characters, closely allied philosophies, and all this in analogous language.

At times Vienna cafés were common meeting grounds for discussions of art, atheism, and politics. Café Grienstadl was especially famed as the literary café and there in the nineties one could encounter Hermann Bahr, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Peter Altenberg, Felix Salten, Richard Beer-Hofmann, Karl Kraus, Felix Dörmann, and many lesser lights. Hermann Bahr writes in his diary on January 1, 1921: "It is now thirty years since I came to Vienna after straggling through Berlin, Paris, Madrid, Tangier, again Paris, again Berlin, and finally St. Petersburg. I was at that time invited by a young man of Briinn, E. M. Kafka, the editor of Moderne Dichtung, to found the group Young Vienna. The available material consisted of a young physician, Dr. Arthur Schnitzler; a person famed about town because of the splendor of his neckties, Dr. Richard Beer-Hofmann; and a high school youth who wrote under the name Loris, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. I looked them over and took the risk of founding the school."

Of the three young writers who were soon known in the nineties as the Viennese aesthetes, two have become internationally famous: Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal. The third is not too well known even in his own country and almost unknown abroad. Yet he alone outgrew his early beginnings and though he wrote but very little, that little is unique and will undoubtedly take its place among the permanent treasures of German literature.

The world of these aesthetes was in the main the world of pleasures that palled, of comedies that ended tragically, of dreams superimposed on reality, that burst at the slightest pin-prick of fate. Death had but to knock at the gate of the villa inhabited by Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Claudio, the hero of Der Tor und der Tod, and this aesthete immediately realized that his existence had been that of a fool. Old age had but to approach Schnitzler's dandy Anatol and his ironic smile became bitter, and as Julian Fichtner or Marquis von Sala or Casanova, he had difficulty in masking his utter loneliness and misery. Beer-Hofmann's characters, though allied to those of Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal, nevertheless manage as a result of an inner catastrophe to recover their balance and to stride forth into a new life filled with a more substantial meaning.

It was in 1893 at the age of twenty-seven that the young lawyer Richard Beer-Hofmann first attracted public notice with a slender volume entitled Novellen. This volume consisted of two short tales: "Das Kind" and "Camelias." Michael Georg Conrad, who as editor of Die Gesellschaft for a time occupied a dominant position in the field of criticism, immediately hailed Beer-Hofmann as a master of fine psychological portraiture, as an original artist who had struck out on a new path, and congratulated German literature upon the rise of another poetic star. Although the Viennese writer in later decades withdrew this volume from publication and spoke of it merely as a youthful product little worthy of note, nevertheless a careful analysis of its contents reveals in embryonic form many of the themes and problems with which Beer-Hofmann wrestled in his later and maturer works.

There is, on the one hand, the stressing of man's insignificance in the universal order and, on the other hand, the assertion of the guilt of the creator towards even the most insignificant of his created objects. Then there are questions raised as to the necessity of pain in this world, the responsibility of the individual towards fate, the relations of parents to children and of children to parents—questions that reappear in manifold variations throughout the poet's creative career.

These early tales betray the influence of Maupassant in subject-matter and of Flaubert in style. "Camelias," the shorter and less significant of the two stories, was written in December 1891. Its central figure is a Viennese dandy, the handsome Freddy. What strikes one as most peculiar about this beau is that, unlike the dandies of Schnitzler and of Hofmannsthal, he is not a frivolous philanderer. Though this well-to-do bachelor of thirty-eight has nothing of the puritan or ascetic about him, he nevertheless does not roam from object to object in the realm of irresponsible amours. On the contrary, Beer-Hofmann confers upon this earliest and most ridiculous of his characters, as well as upon the latter's hired mistress, the same sense of responsibility and the same tender conscience which he is afterwards to bestow upon his later more serious heroes and heroines. Freddy has had an affair with Franzi. For thirteen years he has been faithful to her and she to him, although their illicit relationship has been the result not of ecstatic intoxication but rather of a convenient arrangement measured in terms of dollars and cents.

One Saturday night in early spring, as Freddy returns home from a ball, he recalls the beautiful girl he has danced with throughout the evening, a girl he has known since her third year and whom he now suddenly discovers to have grown up. The flattering thought that the seventeen year old Thea found him still attractive, even though he was more than twenty years her senior, leads him to contemplate the possibility of marrying her and of putting an end to his unworthy affair with Franzi. He determines to break immediately his long habit of sending a bouquet of camellias to Franzi every Sunday. He will instead order large Parma-violets to be delivered to Thea's address.

This decision is hardly reached when doubts begin to assail Freddy. What a complete transformation in his accustomed manner of living this step would involve! What havoc it would wreak with his well regulated habits, with his present daily routine! Thea was young. Theatres, balls, concerts, marriage, love were new experiences to her. She would surely want to enjoy them to their fullest extent at a time when he was already tiring of these experiences.

Yet, assuming that he, the man of thirty-eight, were willing and able to devote himself entirely to satisfying the extravagant demands of a girl of seventeen who was first entering upon life, could he possibly look forward with equanimity to later years when, for example, he would be an aging individual of fifty-one, fond of restful quiet, and she a woman of thirty, a woman in her most dangerous period, full of intense craving for the joy of life? With his knowledge of women, he was sure that he could never trust his wife. Even if she remained true to him, the thought would constantly torture him that she was merely more skillful than others of her sex in betraying her old husband...

(The entire section is 4326 words.)

Solomon Liptzin (essay date 1944)

SOURCE: "Richard Beer-Hoffman," in Germany's Stepchildren, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1944, pp. 239-54.

[In the following excerpt, Liptzin discusses how Beer-Hofmann's Jewish heritage influenced his religious dramas.]

When Theodor Herzl, at the close of the last century, proposed his radical solution of the duality in which Jews of the Diaspora found themselves, assimilationists and Jewish Aryans mocked at his visions. The non-German Jews, who flocked to his banner, were primarily interested in the political consequences of his thought, the homeward march of a long exiled people. The Viennese aesthetes and epicureans, who were his early associates,...

(The entire section is 4916 words.)

Erich Kahler (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: "Richard Beer-Hofmann," in Commentary, Vol. 1, No. 6, April, 1946, pp. 45-50.

[In the following excerpt, Kahler discusses the religious themes in Beer-Hofmann's work.]

Beer-Hofmann's first great book, Der Tod Georgs (The Death of George), published in 1900, has for its theme the chain of reflections that a friend's death gives rise to in a young man; death reveals to him the nature of life, of his own life and human life in general. "George was dead to him. Yet all searching into George's possible fate had only been an anxious questioning of his own.…Much of his own anguish and confusion had been tranquillized by verbalization; so that he had...

(The entire section is 3016 words.)

Stephen Spender (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "A Heroic Dramna," in Commentary, Vol. 5, No. 1, January, 1948, pp. 87-8.

[In the following essay, Spender discusses the revival of interest in poetic dramas and favorably reviews Jacob's Dream.]

Recent years have seen a revival of interest in the poetic drama. Although it cannot be said that the poetic form has achieved significant victories in the theater, it may be claimed that the modern poet can only express certain ideas in dramatic form and that some of the most important poetry written in this century has, in fact, been dramatic. That important poems should be written which depend for their realization on a theater which cannot interpret them...

(The entire section is 981 words.)

Esther Elstun (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Richard Beer-Hofmann: The Poet as exculpator dei," in ProtestFormTradition, The University of Alabama Press, 1979, pp. 123-31.

[In the following essay, Elstun discusses the effects of exile on Beer-Hofmann's later work, particularly Paula, ein Fragment.]

The external facts of Richard Beer-Hofmann's exile can be recounted in a few brief sentences. On the evening of August 19, 1939, after a year of hiding, he and his wife Paula left Vienna for the last time, en route to the United States via Switzerland. Beer-Hofmann was seventy-three years old; his wife, sixty. She was still convalescing from the near-fatal heart attack she had had...

(The entire section is 3447 words.)