Picture this: you are open-handed, palms facing upwards. Sitting on one hand is Franz Kafka, curled in a self-loathing ball. On the other is the Marquis de Sade. He probably has his bum out, so best not look too closely. You glance at one, then the other. Then you mash your hands together and squash these two tiny literary legends into one gruesome form. Ah, look! It’s Prince Sternenhoch! And he’s hideous!
Described as a ‘grotesque Romanetto,’ with a non-grotesque Romanetto being a novella-length work wherein supernatural happenings occur but are explained scientifically in a sort of epilogue, The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch was originally published in Czech posthumously in 1928. In a parallel to Kafka, Ladislav Klíma destroyed many of his manuscripts and died of tuberculosis. He also spent the last few years of his life shining shoes out of his hotel room and subsisting on a diet of mice and rats, which is certainly a fitting lifestyle for the owner of the mind which was capable of vomiting out such a work as this. Attached to the end of Sternenhoch is an autobiography of Klíma, written four years before his death, which in itself makes for fascinating, perhaps even integral, reading. I might even argue that it should have been placed at the beginning of the book in order to gently persuade readers to give it a glance before opening the first page of Sternenhoch. For clarity, I’m the idiot extraordinaire who bowled through the book chronologically instead of seeking out the autobiography first, so I’m speaking from experience.
I imagine you’re furious at me for wasting your time with a paragraph on dreaded context. There is a good reason for my diversion, being that The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch is vaguely, perhaps even unintentionally, autobiographical. Sternenhoch’s grandiose delusions of selfhood, which conclude in a ‘divine encounter’ horrifyingly abject in its reality, seem almost logical when it’s revealed that it came from a man who described his coming of age thus:
“Endless walks deep in forests, searching for nymphs and hallucinatory chateaux, rolling around naked on the moss and in the snow, and terrible battles with God, Who had decided to live the life of a conscious man.” (Page 178)
Whether the figure of God is represented as Klíma himself, who was preoccupied with the notion of man as the creator of his own divinity, or whether God was a separate figure, is open to interpretation. Helpfully, both possibilities are applicable to the text. Sternenhoch’s eponymous sufferings are linked by the Prince himself to his wife, Helga, who gleefully haunts his every moment, but his deluded notions of self-importance are clear from the outset.
Our main characters, while tortured in their own ways, are indisputably terrible people. One is a toothless marital rapist, and the other is an infanticide inclined towards a bit of bestiality. Sternenhoch encounters Helga at a party, and while he insists that he is not attracted to her she sexually arouses him, so he does as all respectable men do and pops round to barter for her with her father. Seemingly glad to be rid of her, the old man accepts, and the esteemed Prince takes his prize home. Following the wedding night, which makes for understandably uncomfortable reading, Helga’s demeanour changes from a wide-eyed mute to what Sternenhoch calls “the Daemoness,” marking the beginning of the Prince’s descent into total lunacy. The narration, presented in the form of sporadic journal entries, is inconsistent, even incomprehensible. Despite Sternenhoch’s repeated declarations of wellness and lucidity, this work contains the ravings of a man entirely detached from the world around him. He rarely encounters larger society, and when he does the second hand embarrassment at his behaviour is nauseating. He drinks, he rails, he stinks, he’s incontinent, and yet he maintains his inexplicable delusions of grandeur. There were moments where I wasn’t certain whether he was a Prince at all, or if his palaces were just like Klíma’s chateaux – imaginary.
This work made me squeamish. It is grimy, Gothic, and utterly illogical. Carleton Bulkin writes in his translation notes that he did his best to retain Klíma’s unconventional grammatical method, or lack of method, and I am grateful to him for doing so. Sternenhoch’s instability is excellently demonstrated in his inability to hold one topic for longer than a couple of sentences, his consistent pauses in the middle of utterance. It’s graphorrhea before we even knew graphorrhea existed, and its retention is critical to our understanding of Sternenhoch’s madness.
Any Cop?: Ladislav Klíma either had an incredible aptitude for self reflection, or was so deeply invested in his own illusion of ‘Deoessence’ that he did not see his own reflection staring at him from within Sternenhoch’s portrait.