28 Mar 2009

The Death of Maltravers

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The Austrian writer Alexander Maria Norbert Lernet-Holenia, 1897-1976, served as an officer in both World Wars

I think possibly the most comical death scene in all literature may be found in Lernet-Holenia’s The Resurrection of Maltravers, 1936:

Count Georg Maltravers, a ne’er-do-well representative of an Ur-Adel family “descended from no lesser a being than Merwech, the son of an ocean demon, who had overpowered the Queen of the Franks as she bathed in the sea,” takes refuge with his estranged brother upon release from prison after serving a twenty-two month sentence for cheating at cards.

Shunned by his family as the result of his disgrace (and because of his manifest contempt for his brother’s bourgeois wife), Maltravers disconsolately roams the countryside desultorily bird shooting. He is finally injured in a shooting accident, and collapses from loss of blood having been injured in the hand by a burst barrel.

A peasant lifted him up, placed him on his wagon, and took him home, like the peasant in the tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake.

Maltravers soon came to, and his wound was tended by a physician. But, weakened by the loss of blood, the count stayed in bed for two days. The fever that had set in went down soon. Alexander Maltravers visited him daily. But on the third day, when Georg Maltravers wanted to get up, he could not quite resolve to do so. Instead, he remained lying, as he did on the fourth day; and on the fifth day his fever returned, although the wound was healing quickly.

The physician had told him to get up, but he stayed in bed, lying on his back with his eyes shut, eating cinchona; and if the windows were open during the afternoon, he would listen to the slightest swishing of the fountain, which sounded as if someone were weeping in the garden. He felt very tired. He was visited not only by Alexander Maltravers, but also by the latter’s two daughters, the old maids, and they interfered with his listening to the fountain. Toward the end of the month, his fever went up, his ribs hurt, he was given injections twice, and one day, Cecile Maltravers appeared at his bed.

Since his indifference to his surroundings had kept increasing without his realizing it, it took him several minutes to fully grasp that “Mistress Meyer” was here. But then he instantly told himself that if she had come, he must be very ill. For otherwise, he assumed, she would not have come.

He sat up from his reclining position, refused to listen to her apparently sympathetic words, and vehemently commanded that his brother should come. Alexander Maltravers entered the room, and Georg Maltravers, suddenly almost shouting, demanded to know what was wrong with him.

Nothing, nothing, said Alexander Maltravers, he iust running a slight temperature. But Georg Maltravers yelled that it was not true, he was very ill, but they were keeping the truth from him, and they were doing nothing, so that he would die and they would be rid of him. The doctor was to come immediately!

However, the doctor also simply calmed him down, gave him another injection, and said it was nothing serious, so that Georg Maltravers demanded that they summon another physician immediately from Bratislava. But after the second physician arrived and examined him, he too merely said reassuring and evasive things, whereupon Maltravers told himself that he was doomed.

All night long, he wrestled with his fear of death. The wound in his hand had cleared up; that could not be the cause of his malady. He must have developed pneumonia from lying in bed for such a long time, or else it was old age, or just simply death coming, death!

He did not recall that he had ever feared death, but now that he was about to die, his fear was immeasurable. This fear, which he had always scorned and which had never dared to approach him, was now getting back at him. If it had been unable to keep his life easy and risk-free, it now at least made his death hard. He suffered the complete collapse of a hero—however dubious and disreputable, but still a hero. Had he not been so courageous earlier, he could not have been so cowardly now that his nerves were failing him. For it is the scope of one’s courage that is important, and not the courage per se. However, at the crucial moment, the only truly decisive one, he was abandoned by everything: boldness, refinement, self-confidence, even self-esteem. All that remained was panic at the thought of death. He wracked his brain, trying to come up with ways of fleeing death. Suddenly, he reached a decision asked for pen and paper, and wrote a confused letter to the Duke de Joyeuse in Hirschberg. He asked the duke to come to him, to apply the miraculous treatment of the royal house of France—and heal him by laying on his hands.

The duke came immediately, but explained that the only person who could cure him by laying on his hands
was not he but the king himself, and only when he was “in a state of grace,” that is, right after the coronation and he could only treat scrofula, the king’s evil, from which Maltravers was certainly not suffering. Besides he went on, no king of France had been crowned for a long time now, and the pretender did not possess any supernatural faculties worth mentioning, so that the whole thing was simply out of the question. Maltravers could thank the Republic and the Bonapartes for that. However, if Maltravers wished, then he, Joyeuse, would remain and pray for the future salvation of Maltravers’s soul. For like all truly religious people, he set no store, or not very much, by mere miracles.

Maltravers was desperate, but after lying motionless for almost fifteen minutes without answering, he sat up and scrawled a telegram to Monsieur de la Baume, a Hospitaller who lived in Prague. He asked him to come immediately.

The full name of this Knight of Malta was: Anne de la Baume le Boutillier d’Outremer. He had been christened Anne, albeit a female name, for reasons of tradition. The family had been given the epithet Le Boutillier d’Outremer during the crusades; it meant: “bottler from overseas,” for certain members of this family had been granted the right to hang a canteen of water or wine from the saddle of the Grand Master of the Templars before they rode into the desert.

Le Boutillier arrived and entered the dying man’s room he found not only Georg and Alexander Maltravers, Cecile, and the daughters, but also the Duke de Joyeuse together with his three natural sons: Grand Bastard de Joyeuse, Count Eudes de Dampiere and the Vidame Ghislain de Montresor, as well Montresor’s wife, Blanche, a tall, wonderful woman with dark blonde hair and bluish eyebrows. The priest also present. It was a stately assembly, which had decided, at the duke’s behest, to accompany Georg Maltravers’s death with prayers. Not even Cecile Maltravers dared to stay away, although she did not believe in God.

“La Baume,” the duke cried to the Hospitaller, “what do you say to this?”

“Your Royal Highness,” replied La Baume, “I don’t even know what’s wrong!”

“Come here,” ordered Georg Maltravers. “Come here immediately, Anna!” (He used the German form of the name.) And when the Hospitaller reached the bed, Maltravers told him to lay his hands on him and expel the illness.

“My goodness,” La Baume exclaimed, “I didn’t even know you were ill! What’s the problem? And what should I lay on? My hands? Why?”

“The duke,” Maltravers moaned, “did not want to.”

“No,” cried Joyeuse, “heaven forfend! Ne plaise a Dieul

“Perhaps he could not,” murmured Maltravers. “But you,” he said, staring at La Baume, “you can do it.”


“Yes, you, Anna!”

“Please do not call me Anna,” said the Hospitaller, “otherwise I won’t lay anything on you! My name is Anne! And why do you want something laid on you?”

“You people were always Knights of Malta,” Maltravers moaned, “and before that you were Templars. The Templars had secrets; you know their secrets. You people can heal the sick. Lay your hands on me!”

“The Templars,” said Joyeuse, “were heretics and sodomites. If they liked a nanny-goat, they would send her roses, and their donkeys had diamond bracelets. Those were their only secrets, and that was why good King Philip disbanded their order and had their Grand Master, Monsieur de Molay, burned at the stake. Isn’t that so?” he asked the priest, while Le Boutillier made a face, glancing bitterly at the duke.

However, the priest, who had long forgotten who the Templars were, merely said unctuously: Whoever is destined to die must simply submit to God’s will, and Maltravers should content himself with the consolations of the holy faith.

But Maltravers cursed and shouted that these consolations were no consolation if he could not go on living. Ever since the days of Fénélon, he cried, religion had been a matter of the mind and morality, but not a practical issue. He did not wish to die, and they would therefore have to resort to magic again, for he was convinced, he said, that his life was not over, his mind was teeming with plans, it was merely his wretched treatment at the hands of his family that was putting him into the grave, they simply wanted to get rid of him, but it would not work, the Hospitaller should lay his hands on him immediately. And the count’s eyes darted from one person to another, imploring help, until they finally rested on Mme. de Montresor, as if it were impossible to die in the presence of such great beauty. It occurred to him that the French royal family imagined that it descended from Troy, from Anchises and Aphrodite. Perhaps Mme. de Montresor was a reincarnation of the goddess and was delighting in his mortality. . . .

“Listen,” Boutillier said at last, “just what is it you want me to do? Lay my hands on you? Are you serious?
You really think it will help?

“Of course!” Maltravers begged. “Do it! For the love of God, Le Boutillier!”

Le Boutillier reflected for several moments, then agreed to do it. He asked the others to step outside. “He’s crazy,” he whispered to them, “but if he’s really dying, why not do him the favor?”

Joyeuse felt one shouldn’t fool around with such matters even in a case of death; the Templars had been utterly dubious sorts, as one could tell by, say, La Baume’s first name. But then Joyeuse finally left the room with the others.

When the Hospitaller was alone with the patient, he sat down on the edge of his bed, and Maltravers grabbed Le Boutillier’s hands, laying them on his own forehead and eyes. At that instant, Le Boutillier realized that Maltravers was dying. His reclining body jolted, and he sat up halfway. Le Boutillier hastily withdrew his hands from the patient’s eyes, reached for a glass of port on the night table, and was about to hand it to him. But as he bent over, Maltravers sat further up, their heads collided, the port was spilled on the bed cover, Maltravers fell back and was dead.

In reality, our hero is not actually dead at all. He awakens in his coffin, dressed in his old cavalry uniform, breaks out of the family crypt, and sets off for new adventures, determined to make a major change in his mode of living.


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