Prince Sternenhoch is an important man. He is worth five hundred million marks, and has the ear of powerful men. Unmarried, he is nonetheless a dashing fellow. He writes, ‘I am a beau, in spite of certain faults, for example, that I am only 150 centimeters tall and weigh 45 kilograms, that I am almost toothless, hairless, and whiskerless, also a little squint-eyed and hobble markedly; but even the sun has spots.’ He falls – not in love, exactly, and not even in lust, really, but more he becomes bewitched – by an ugly, stupid, dull woman named Helga, whom he promptly marries even though her father warns him against the match. Helga treats him with contempt and goes in search of a suitor who matches her taste for absolute submission and a willingness to ‘become God’. Sternenhoch discovers the betrayal and sends his wife into his palace dungeon where, we presume, she dies. Or does she?
Fifty or so pages into Vadislav Klima’s short novella, The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch, Sternenhoch’s wife is presumably dead, and the work becomes very strange. Sternenhoch grows increasingly insane as the days continue, his diary entries slipping into and out of dreams, hallucinations and nightmares with wanton abandonment. He engages in bizarre acts of perversion, becoming willing to resort to any method, drink any potion, participate in any ritual, to cleanse himself of his demonic wife’s horrid memory. At one stage, he writes, ‘Hell is a work of God, it is a House, a Divine Cathedral, kapeesh? If the Lord God could see it now -. You adulterous bitch – you grew proud in your conceit when you were promoted to the rank of devil…But I’ll give you what for!’ He is obsessed, concerned wholly with Helga, whom it seems has cast a spell on him that extends beyond her death and into the furthest, deepest reaches of his mind. Sternenhoch’s antics are by turns depraved and dark, and hugely comical. At one point he pays a ‘black priestess’ to cast prophecies and create magic tokens for him; another time he believes he finds Helga again in the form of a sheep, and copulates enthusiastically with it – as is a husband’s due.
Klima’s vast talent is more than capable of handling the task of chronicling Sternenhoch’s descent into madness. Himself something of a wild figure, the novella includes a short autobiography where Klima declares that, ‘My whole life has been such a consistent divergence from all that’s human’. Later he considers ‘the greatest compliment I have ever received’ to be his friend Böhler calling him a ‘mental petrifact’. Klima, like Sternenhoch, believed strongly in the philosophical and even necessary exploration of evil, darkness, madness, suffering. The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch is a grotesque novella, but it is also vastly entertaining and, at times, Sternenhoch offers a serious examination of the philosophy of suffering and madness. The Twisted Spoon Press edition of Klima’s novel is itself quite elegant, and for the non-Czech reader there is a handy essay on Klima by Josef Zumr, as well as the aforementioned autobiography.