‘Witiko’ (Book Three) by Adalbert Stifter (GLM IX)

And so, on we go with Book Three of Stifter’s Witiko. Book Two ended with Witiko preparing, over the winter months, for the coming war in the spring. Book Three begins after the recent battle at Mt. Branis in which Prince Wratislaw’s troops have been repelled by Witiko’s forces. Over the next few days Witiko’s forces meet up with Wladislaw(W)’s forces, as well as receiving reinforcements from elsewhere. Witiko renews his oath to Wladislaw(W)’s cause.

   “Witiko,” the duke said, “give me your hand.”
   Witiko extended his hand to the duke; the latter took it and said, “As I press your hand, I am and hope to remain always your friend. Be devoted to me throughout the coming years, if I deserve it.”
   “Your Grace,” Witiko replied, “I came to you because I considered you the rightful duke; I gladly served you because you are are a good duke, and I have grown to love you because you are a just man.”

It is not long before both sides are ready to go to battle again.

Desolation, destruction, annihilation was the order of the day between two peoples who should have been living in harmony under the same ruler.

Wladislaw(W) is, once again, triumphant as the city of Znaim surrenders. They bury the dead and tend to the wounded of both sides. Wladislaw(W) tries to avoid committing any atrocities against the enemy, especially as this is a civil war and he sees both sides as his people. Within a few months all of Moravia is back under Wladislaw(W)’s control.

So, job done! Witiko returns home and visits the construction site of Heinrich’s castle (Heinrich is Witiko’s father-in-law-to-be). Witiko goes aroaming again and brings his mother and family to his home in Pric. Once he has confirmation that he has been enfeoffed with the regions promised to him he begins to construct his own castle, starting with the well. Now he is a lord and will soon own a castle he feels he can formally ask for Bertha’s hand in marriage; so off he goes to see Heinrich. This all takes quite a while, of course, as there are a lot of formal procedures to get through. Bertha, unsurprisingly, agrees to the marriage and they go off for a walk to the stone seats in the meadow where they first met.

   “Here is the spot,” Bertha said.
   “You stood here with the roses,” Witiko said.
   “And you stood over there with the sun shining on the rocks, and then you walked toward me,” Bertha said.
   “I was startled when I saw you wearing the forest roses,” Witiko said, “because in my country they are often revered.”
   “It was fate to take the roses on that day, and we must honor them,” Bertha said.
   “We must honor them,” Witiko replied, “and they will always be a symbol for me.”

But the warring is not quite over. Wladislaw(S) and his supporters make an appeal to Duke Wladislaw(W) that he, Wladislaw(S), should rightfully be the Duke of Bohemia and Moravia, thereby re-hashing the initial succession debate that was voted on and then fought over. After listening to the appeals Wladislaw(W) unsurprisingly rejects them. However, he does not punish them but allows them to retain their lands. There is peace for a while but more trouble is brewing.

Before the leaves of the birches turned yellow and the beeches’ leaves red, the building with its scaffolding rose like a tremendous four cornered tower above the forest visible from far away.

Meanwhile, Witiko’s castle is completed and his marriage to Bertha can proceed. There is a lavish celebration beginning with a ‘courting procession’. There is much feasting and many gifts are exchanged.

   After twelve days of festivities, Witiko’s friends and other guests departed with wishes for his happiness and praises of Bertha and the forest.
   When all were gone, Witiko stood with Bertha on the southern balcony pointing out the meadows and mountains he had told her of on the stones of the lonely meadow near her father’s forest home.

In the new year there is an uprising of princes in Moravia including Konrad von Znaim, Wratislaw and also Wladislaw(W)’s own brother Diepold, who had helped with Wladislaw(W)’s defence of Prague. Events begin to be a bit rushed now in Stifter’s narrative. Konrad von Znaim and Wratislaw are excommunicated, Diepold repents. Wladislaw(W) goes on a crusade (Second Crusade of 1146) but Witiko doesn’t. The narrative turns to Friedrich, Holy Roman Emperor, who is about to embark on an Italian campaign against Milan, which has revolted against his rule. In order to enlist Wladislaw(W)’s help he crowns him as King of Bohemia and Moravia. There are many that object to this but Wladislaw(W) gets his way; I guess it solves the succession problem. They go off to lay siege on Milan and eventually succeed and return triumphant.

So, after nearly 600 pages, or 300,000 words, of Stifter’s Witiko was it really worth reading? The short answer is ‘no’. Its style is so stilted and stylised that it is quite boring to read. Stifter’s other novel, Indian Summer, is similar, but there was a pay off, I felt, as in that novel the descriptions of the houses and landscape were often beautiful, the conversations about art and science were at least interesting and there were different characters, even if they were all of the same type. But in Witiko the prose is flat, almost dead, there are no discernible characters as everyone is the same and all conversations are formal and stiff. The conversation between Witiko and Bertha quote above is about as free as it gets. There are no thoughts, banter, sex, ribaldry, passion, personal opinions or humour…definitely no humour. Presumably the topic itself would be a bit of a problem for many historical novelists but most would, I believe, try to inject some humanity and passion into the narrative; Stifter tries, and succeeds, in sucking out anything of the like so that we are just left with this dried-up husk of a novel—an anti-Romantic historical novel.

I am intrigued enough, though, to wonder what Stifter’s motives were for writing this book, especially as it seems so different from his other novellas, most of which are set in contemporary Germany/Austria. Witiko was originally published as three separate books between 1865 and 1867. As the Prussian-dominated unification of Germany happened in 1871 maybe Stifter was concerned that Bohemia would be incorporated into this united Germany, even though it was still part of the Austrian Empire. Or maybe Stifter was anticipating the break-up of the Austrian Empire and the possibility of an independent state for Bohemia and Moravia—maybe he was trying to supply it with some historical gravitas: See how we ruled by ourselves in the past. My knowledge of this period is too patchy to make any further comments but it would be interesting to read more. Unfortunately I know of no biographies of Stifter available in English and although there are some critical studies of his work available in English they are all pretty expensive. One that I would like to read is Adalbert Stifter And The Idyll: A Study Of Witiko by Barbara S. Grossmann Stone and published by Peter Lang.

This was read as part of German Literature Month IX.

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‘Crowds and Power’ by Elias Canetti (GLM IX)

Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power is a book I first read many years ago and one that I had intended to re-read for quite a few years now. With my reading of Stifter’s Witiko taking place only at the weekends I thought Crowds and Power would be a great book to read during the weekday commute; it’s non-fiction, which I sometimes find easier to read on a crowded bus, and it’s split into small chapters. Given that I’d considered Crowds and Power to be a favourite of mine when I first read it, I was surprised to find I was less enamoured with it second time around. Still, its positives outweigh its negatives and I would still recommend it to anyone at all interested in the subject.

Crowds and Power was first published as Masse und Macht in 1960 and was translated into English by Carol Stewart in 1962. It was the first significant work published by Canetti since his novel Auto da Fe in 1935. Canetti settled in England in 1938 but I don’t know when he started to work on Crowds and Power. Given the period in which he was writing, with the rise of totalitarian states, we might expect Canetti to concentrate explicitly on such states but they barely get a mention. Instead Canetti takes a more literary, symbolic approach to the subject and he relies on examples from history and anthropolgy rather than more contemporary examples, presumably in order to highlight that the analysis applies to humanity in general rather than the specific cases of Nazism and Stalinism. Crowds and Power is not a textbook on crowd psychology but is more the analysis of a largely ignored topic by an intelligent man.

The book covers a lot of ground and a full review is, quite frankly, beyond my capabilities, however, I would like to give a taste of what is contained within it. Here is the first paragraph:

There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown. He wants to see what is reaching towards him, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it. Man always tends to avoid physical contact with anything strange. In the dark, the fear of an unexpected touch can mount to panic. Even clothes give insufficient security: it is easy to tear them and pierce through to the naked, smooth, defenceless flesh of the victim.

Canetti introduces us to the different types of crowds, including some that we might not have even thought of as a crowd, such as the dead. Other adjectives used to describe different types of crowds are: open, closed, stagnating, rhythmic, slow, invisible, baiting, flight, prohibition, reversal, feast. Canetti introduces the concept of a ‘crowd crystal’ which serves to precipitate crowds. He also makes use of ‘crowd symbols’ throughout the book as well as ‘national crowd symbols’. At one point Canetti declares that money is a crowd symbol and that inflation is a crowd phenomenon.

What is it that happens in an inflation? The unit of money suddenly loses its identity. The crowd it is part of starts growing and, the larger it becomes, the smaller becomes the worth of each unit. The millions one always wanted are suddenly there in one’s hand, but they are no longer millions in fact, but only in name.

It is in this section that Canetti makes one of his rare comments about Hitler and the Nazis. Canetti compares the depreciation of the German mark during the Weimar Republic with the ‘depreciation’ of the Jews under the Nazis.

The world is still horrified and shaken by the fact that the Germans could go so far; that they either participated in a crime of such magnitude, or connived at it, or ignored it. It might not have been possible to get them to do so if, a few years before, they had not been through an inflation during which the mark fell to a billionth of its former value. It was this inflation, as a crowd experience, which they shifted on to the Jews.

Canetti now shifts his attention to power, beginning with the brilliantly titled chapter, ‘The Entrails of Power’ which includes one of my favourite sections of the book, ‘On the Psychology of Eating’. Canetti draws the connection between eating and power and makes the point that the man who can eat the most is a ‘champion’ and in older socities a potential leader. Here is a great quote on eating in general; Canetti is very much thinking of meat-eaters here.

People sit together, bare their teeth and eat and, even in this critical moment, feel no desire to eat each other. They respect themselves for this, and respect their companions for an abstemiousness equal to their own.

In this section Canetti also makes this comment on laughter and power.

A human being who falls down reminds us of an animal we might have hunted and brought down ourselves. Every sudden fall which arouses laughter does so because it suggests helplessness and reminds us that the fallen can, if we want, be treated as prey. If we went further and actually ate it, we would not laugh. We laugh instead of eating it. Laughter is our physical reaction to the escape of potential food.

In the chapter, ‘The Survivor’, Canetti connects power with survival, but where the ordinary individual wishes to survive, Canetti points out that to be the lone survivor is the real goal of all leaders and the final claim to power; and to be the lone survivor one needs to kill others. He makes the following blunt statement:

It is those who devote themselves to killing who have power.

He then goes on to make the following case.

The deception is complete. It is the deception of all leaders. They pretend that they will be the first to die, but, in reality, they send their people to death, so that they themselves may stay alive longer. The trick is always the same. The leader wants to survive, for with each survival he grows stronger. If he has enemies, so much the better; he survives them. If not, he has his own people. In any event he uses both, whether successively or together. Enemies he can use openly; that is why he has enemies. His own people must be used secretly.

Canetti uses examples of tyrants and despots throughout history, some are well-known, whereas others virtually unknown. But it is unclear sometimes whether he is making the claim that all leaders, even those of democracies, suffer from the same delusions. Given the times that he had lived through maybe he was sceptical of democracies surviving. Maybe Canetti felt that this ‘natural’ grab for power would always come to the fore. His summary is certainly pessimistic as the ‘survivor’ now has access to the nuclear bomb which he can use in an instant. He may be able to survive but for how long?

Power is greater than it has ever been, but also more precarious. Today either everyone will survive or no one.

This was read as part of German Literature Month IX.

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‘Witiko’ (Book Two) by Adalbert Stifter (GLM IX)

The first book of Witiko ended with Wladislaw(W), together with Witiko, retreating to Prague after the inconclusive battle at Mt. Wysoka. Wladislaw(W) allows free passage to those that do not want to fight alongside him, but those that stay must prepare for a siege and a battle. Wladislaw(W) holds counsel with those that decide to stay. Stifter seems to enjoy writing these formal meetings where important decisions are made as several have appeared in the book so far; he loves the formal structure of them, I feel, and he portrays them being held in a controlled manner—I’m convinced they would be more raucous than he portrays. After giving a summary of his leadership and his aims for the battle, Wladislaw(W) decides to visit King Konrad in Germany to ask for assistance in the coming siege. He is reluctant to call on outside help but feels it is necessary. Witiko is to accompany him on this misssion, whilst the defence of Prague is passed to Wladislaw(W)’s brother, Diepold.

It is not long after Wladislaw(W)’s departure before the enemy troops arrive headed by Konrad von Znaim. The siege begins but Diepold organises some attacks on enemy troops beyond the city. They know the local terrain better than the enemy and in one midnight attack they hope to draw the enemy into some marshland.

After some time they found three men standing in the grass. The men were surprised and taken along as prisoners. Soon they reached some campfires and the challenge came: “Konrad!”
They charged the enemy shouting “Wladislaw!”
The guards posted there were slain as were others nearby. They advanced to some tents, slaying or dispersing all who emerged or leaped up from the ground. Screams spread through the camp. Diepold forbade his men to set anything ablaze so they wouldn’t be illuminated by the glare. The numbers fleeing increased; whenever a group resisted, many were slain, others pushed back. Diepold was always hot on their heels, slashing with his sword. No space was permitted to arise between the pursued and the pursuers. Diepold charged into the enemy’s confusion like an ocean wave raging against the sandy shore, sweeping everything before it.

Diepold and his men manage to return to the city. The enemy soon start to attack the city with catapults, burning arrows, and other flammable materials whilst Diepold attempts more nightime attacks on the enemy. Here is another quote of the fighting during a raid.

They fought man to man with their swords, even their sword grips; they thrust, stabbed, hacked, striking at limbs and bodies with axes, clubs, spears, and poles. The shadow of death descended on many eyes; its darkness overtook many who would never again see father, mother, sisters and neighbours, while others sank down in the hurly-burly with shattered limbs or other severe wounds.

Meanwhile Wladislaw(W) entreats Konrad of Germany for help. Stifter gets another chance to describe all the formal conversations that this involves, the arguments and counter-arguments, but in the end Konrad agrees to help. Diepold manages to withstand the siege and on the arrival of Wladisalw(W) and Konrad of Germany the enemy armies disperse so that no further fighting is required…for now.

Before he can return home there is a small matter of a trial for Witiko; earlier on he had let some enemy troops escape when out scouting; he is not found guilty of treason but he did transgress military law. He gets a small fine and a slap on the wrist. Witiko then returns to Plan. At home he embarks on loads of visits to all the people we met in Book One. There is also a romantic interlude where he proposes to Bertha, whom he also first met in Book One, and they kiss. But Witiko has to prove himself as a worthy man first, by fighting in the battle expected the following year. Much of the rest of Book Two is taken up with Witiko’s wanderings; he leaves Heinrich’s house, he is ambushed, he accompanies Bishop Zdik to the city of Passau, he travels down the Danube to Vienna where he meets his mother, who is a guest of the Margrave of Austria. Witiko returns to Plan and through the winter months he prepares an army in order to be ready for battle in the spring.

Stifter’s style can sometimes be maddening; we get no psychological insight to any of the characters, not even Witiko, but we also have no idea, when he goes wandering, where he is heading to, or why. Sometimes an explanation, of sorts, comes after the events. Also, the conversations are all so stilted, or if we wish to be kinder we may say they’re stylised. In the formal assemblies and counsels this may be understandable but all of the characters speak like it all of the time. What follows is an example of his prose and dialogue. Stifter certainly captures the pedantic, boring language that was, most probably, used in a medieval courtroom. Many such sections of text are contained in Witiko, so if you’re tempted to read the book it would be useful to see if you can cope with this without falling asleep. I must admit I found it quite amusing.

Gervasius rose from his seat, and the duke resumed his.
From his chair he said, “Say the words I gave you to tell Konrad, Duke of Znaim and of the Premysl Line.”
Gervasius spoke, “You said: Konrad, lay down your weapons, submit to Duke Wladislaw, son of Wladislaw, ask for pardon for your guilt and you shall continue unmolested as a legitimate branch of the sacred Premysl Line.”
“Who heard those words you have spoken?” Wladislaw asked.
“The men you gave me as an escort, Zwest, Wecel, Zdelaw, Bohuslaw, and Casta heard the words I have spoken,” Gervasius said.
“Those men should speak,” Wladislaw commanded.
“I heard his words,” Zwest attested.
“I heard his words,” Wecel added.
“I heard his words,” Zdeslaw said.
“I heard his words,” Bohuslaw spoke.
“I heard his words,” Casta spoke.
“What words did Konrad, Duke of Znaim reply?” Wladislaw asked.
“Konrad, Duke of Znaim, replied,” Gervasius said, “I have been elected as the legitimate Duke of Bohemia and Moravia by the high nobles of these lands and must carry out my office. I shan’t submit to being slain, blinded or imprisoned in some castle by Wladislaw.”
“Do the other men also attest that Konrad, Duke of Znaim, said these words?” Duke Wladislaw asked.
“He said them,” Zwest attested.
“He said them,” Wecel added.
“He said them,” Zdeslaw said.
“He said them,” Bohuslaw spoke.
“He said them,” Casta spoke.
“Chancellor Bartholomaeus, write these words on the parchment,” Wladislaw ordered.
There was silence for a while.
“Have you written these words?” Wladislaw asked
“I have written them,” Bartholomeaus replied.

So, Book Three to go. I’m expecting more fighting, more wandering, more scintillating dialogue and maybe a wedding.

This was read as part of German Literature Month IX.

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‘Witiko’ (Book One) by Adalbert Stifter (GLM IX)

Witiko was originally published in three volumes between 1865 and 1867. The three-volume edition I am reading was translated by Wendell Frye in 2006 and was published by Peter Lang. Each book is about two hundred pages long; but it’s a large format book so it’s probably more like three hundred pages of a normal-sized book. It’s so big that I decided just to read it at the weekends so I don’t have to carry it to and from work on my daily commute. I’m hoping to get all three books read during this month, which is of course, German Literature Month.

Witiko is an historical novel that takes place in 12th century Bohemia and concerns a succession struggle that took place involving Witiko of Prčice. Although Stifter studied and lived in Austria for much of his life he was born in Oberplan (now Horní Planá), Bohemia which is in present day Czech Republic but was, in Stifter’s time, part of the Austrian Empire, then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Having read several of Stifter’s books I was attracted to this massive novel but I had reservations, after all, I know next to nothing about the history of Bohemia in the middle ages. But, so far, this has not caused any major issues as the story seems pretty much self-contained. The occasional reference to an historical atlas or Wikipedia is all that is required as extra reading.

The story begins with a description of the landscape around the city of Passau and then we are introduced to a lone traveller who is making his way in this landscape. The year is 1138, Sobeslaw I is the duke of Bohemia and the traveller turns out to be Witiko.

The man was actually still a youth. He had a light mustache and beard encircling his chin, more yellow than brown. His cheeks were rosy, his eyes blue. You couldn’t tell the color of his hair since it was completely covered by a bowl shaped leather helmet made of such a firm solid material that even a rather strong sword’s blow couldn’t penetrate it. It rested on his head gathering all his hair inside; over his ears and toward the back was an extension to ward off a blow to the neck.

Stifter starts slowly; we are introduced to this young traveller who appears to others to be a knight though he says that he isn’t. He cares for his horse himself when staying at inns rather than have some stranger do so. On his travels he comes across a group of young men on horseback headed by a man dressed in scarlet. They mock and tease Witiko but eventually they talk. The ‘scarlet knight’ gives a long, confusing, account of all the past Polish and Bohemian kings and dukes and the wars they fought, leading up to the current duke Sobeslaw. The ‘scarlet knight’ reveals that he is Wladislaw, the nephew of the Duke Sobeslaw.

The story skips on a couple of years; it is now 1140 and Sobeslaw is gravely ill. Witiko, who is now employed by Sobeslaw, is summoned by him and given the task of finding out who the barons are intending to support as successor to Sobeslaw; there are two contenders, Wladislaw or Wladislaw. Yes, it gets tricky with the names here—there is Sobeslaw’s son Wladislaw, who I will write as Wladislaw(S), and Sobeslaw’s nephew, Wladislaw, the scarlet knight from earlier, who is the son of the Old Duke, called….you guessed it, Wladislaw. I will write the Old Duke as Wladislaw(D) and his son, Sobeslaw’s nephew, as Wladislaw(W). So Witiko travels to Prague and manages to sit in on the discussions in the Wysehrad over the succession of Sobeslaw. Stifter covers this in his slow, pedantic style, which could be quite dull, but I found it quite interesting to see how this early form of parliament dealt with such an important issue as the succession of a duke—how much of it is historically accurate is another question though. In the end Wladislaw(W) is elected to succeed Sobeslaw. On his deathbed Sobeslaw accepts the decision and asks his son, Wladislaw(S), to submit to Wladislaw(W) as he wishes to avoid a future civil war over the issue. However, after Sobeslaw’s death and the succession of Wladislaw(W), Wladislaw(S) flees Bohemia. Wladislaw(W) invites Wladislaw(S) to return, promising that no harm will be done to him or his family and that he will be ‘richly equipped and enfeoffed’.

After the death of Sobeslaw, Witiko returns to one of his mother’s farms in Plan. He helps out and then goes wandering about meeting local landowners.

He watched the villagers at their work and tried to get to know their ways: how they made their stores and divided them for consumption, how they bred their animals and made tools for the field, plows, harrows, rakes, shovels, as well as weapons, tubs, baskets and the like. He watched them making repairs and improving their houses with saws, hammers, and axes, or bringing wood to their homes by the easier method of using sleighs, or satisfying the other necessities of life in their few trades.

Because we never know what the characters are thinking we very often have to take everything at face value. These visits of Witiko’s are not random, they are planned; he is forming friendships and alliances that will be useful later on; he is networking. When a message arrives that Adelheid, Sobeslaw’s widow, has died we are unsure what to make of it; has she been murdered by Wladislaw(W)? Witiko attends a meeting of barons and is invited to further ones which he doesn’t attend. The barons are plotting against Wladislaw(W) and aim to support Wladislaw(S)’s claim to the throne.

It is now 1142 and war seems very likely. We are unsure who Witiko will support, probably because Witiko is also undecided. In the end he reasons thus: Wladislaw(W) was elected at the Wysehrad, Sobeslaw gave his approval of the decision and Witiko feels that the barons were opposed to Wladislaw(W) because of self-interest as Wladislaw(W) was helping protect the common folk against the oppression of the barons. Book One ends with a bloody battle in which Witiko and his men excel; but neither side wins, and so Wladislaw(W) decides to retreat to Prague to regroup and plan for an offensive.

This was read as part of German Literature Month IX.

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‘Revenge of the Lawn’ by Richard Brautigan

I have been reading Richard Brautigan’s collection of (very) short stories, Revenge of the Lawn, on my daily commute over the last few days as they’re easy to read and fun to dip into. Rather than attempt to review Brautigan’s wacky stories here are a few of my favourite quotes from the collection.

Her garbage had lied to me.

She opened her purse which was like a small autumn field and near the fallen branches of an old apple tree, she found her keys.

One day he decided that his liking for poetry could not be fully expressed in just reading poetry or listening to poets reading on phonograph records. He decided to take the plumbing out of his house and completely replace it with poetry, and so he did.

I sat down and looked the bus over to see who was there, and it took me about a minute to realize that there was something very wrong with that bus, and it took the other people about the same period to realize that there was something very wrong with the bus, and the thing that was wrong was me.

I was a child, then, though now I look like somebody else.

This might have been a funny story if it weren’t for the fact that people need a little loving and, God, sometimes it’s sad all the shit they have to go through to find some.

   ‘Satisfied?’ she said.
   She’s an Aries.
   ‘Yes,’ I said.
   I’m an Aquarius.
   We also had two pumpkins: both Scorpios.

They were healthy, normal sex fiends.

Whenever I see watercress, which isn’t very often, I think of the rich. I think they are the only people who can afford it and they use watercress in exotic recipes that they keep hidden in vaults from the poor.

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‘Waves’ by Eduard von Keyserling (GLM IX)

Waves by Eduard von Keyserling was first published as Wellen in 1911. This Dedalus Books edition was first published earlier this year and was translated from the German by Gary Miller, who also includes an informative introduction to the book. I must admit that I hadn’t heard of Keyserling until I read Tony Malone’s brilliant translation of Schwüle Tage (Sultry Days) from last year’s German Literature Month. In the introduction to the book Miller makes the point that Keyserling forms a link between nineteenth century realism and twentieth century modernism in literature; his work is sometimes described as ‘literary impressionism’. Keyserling was a rather odd-looking, sickly aristocrat from present day Latvia, whose books are largely about German aristocracy before the First World War; although limited in scope his depiction of these social elites were not uncritical.

Waves takes place in a seaside village somewhere on the Baltic Sea. We are first introduced to the elderly widow of General von Palikow, known as the Generalin, who has recently arrived at her lodgings at the Bull’s Inn. She is soon to be accompanied by a variety of family members such as her daughter Baroness von Buttlär, the Baroness’s husband and children, Lolo, Nini and Wedig. Also expected is Lolo’s fiancé, Hilmar von dem Hamm. Keyserling also intoduces us to a local privy counsellor, Knospelius, but it is the Countess Doralice’s presence in the village that arouses everyone’s interest because it is widely known that Doralice is living locally in a fisherman’s hut with an artist, Hans Grill, after running off with him, abandoning her elderly husband Count Köhne-Jasky. The thought of bumping into them is ‘very disagreeable’ to Baroness von Buttlär but the Generalin takes a more forceful attitude:

“You are the Baroness von Buttlär, are you not, and I am the widow of General von Palikow, and that means we are both fortresses, admitting no one who is not of our rank; and so we can sleep easy tonight, as if Madame Grill did not exist. We simply decree, Madame Grill does not exist.”

But this turns out not to be so easily achieved as everyone is fascinated, in one way or another with Hans and Doralice. The Baroness and Generalin initially try to keep their distance from them, but the Baroness’s children are fascinated by the couple and Lola’s fiancé, Hilmar becomes obsessed with Doralice. The Baroness remains hostile towards Doralice, seeing her as a threat to their way of life, the Generalin, however, becomes more conciliatory towards her as she realises she is not a monster.

Although we are introduced to Doralice and Hans via the gossiping of these aristocrats Keyserling soon shifts the point of view to Hans and Doralice themselves. In fact as the story progresses the aristocrat’s viewpoint fades away and we see things increasingly from Hans, Doralice and Knospelius’s viewpoint. Having run away with Hans to escape the Count’s suffocating attempts to ‘train her’ Doralice now seems to be in the process of being trapped by Hans’s plans of domestic bliss. Where the Count tried to mould Doralice into a perfect Countess, Hans now expects her to become a perfect housewife who will look after the home whilst he’s away working.

But before long the aristocrats’ paths soon cross with Doralice; Doralice helps Lolo when she swims too far out to sea. Although Frau von Buttlär is furious that Lolo has involved them with Doralice, Lolo and Nini are besotted with her and even the Generalin has a more pragmatic approach when she tells her daughter ‘She isn’t contagious — Lolo is in no immediate danger.’

When Hilmar and the Baron arrive there are more walks along the beach and more chances of meeting Doralice and Hans. Hilmar and Hans end up going on a fishing trip with the local fishermen and Knospelius hosts a party to which the aristocrats and Doralice and Hans are all invited. The party is a success. Knospelius enjoys arranging everything and commenting to the Generalin on the events as they unfold. Doralice is the queen of the ball and captivates all the men, young and old. Even the other women’s opinions of her softens.

Baron Buttlär led his wife out to dance, but only after she resisted for a moment: “But Buttlär, aren’t we the old folk?” Hilmar danced with Lolo, and Wedig, so red-faced and excited that it looked as if he were on the verge of tears, asked Doralice for a dance. Hair twirled there in the open space; red, gently trembling light penetrated through the trees and flooded over them. Behind the birches, though, something seemed to be burning, it was the sea glittering in the sunset.

In the days after the party Hans often goes to sea fishing whilst Hilmar visits Doralice to keep her company. Wedig is also found to be hanging around the Countess’s house, and Lolo too—everyone, it seems, has an interest in Doralice’s life. We sense that the novel is not going to end happily as events begin to crash in on the characters, especially Doralice. It could all become so melodramatic but Keyserling manages to steer us towards a sad, but beautiful, ending.

If you wish to read more quotes from Waves then click on the GoodReads link.

Waves was my first contribution to this year’s German Literature Month hosted by Caroline at ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ and Lizzy at ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’.

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‘Second Harvest’ (Regain) by Jean Giono (The 1930 Club)

Jean Giono is one of those authors that I heard about years ago from Henry Miller’s writings; I am only just getting round to actually reading his works. I read the short story, The Man Who Planted Trees, earlier in the year and though I liked it, many of his other books appeal to me more. Second Harvest is one of those books; it was Giono’s third novel, published in 1930 (of course) as Regain. My copy is a beautiful Harvill Press edition from 1999 which makes use of a 1939 translation by Henri Fluchère and Geoffrey Myers as well as a series of lovely woodcut images by Louis William Graux—I always love books that have illustrations; it is something that should be encouraged.

Second Harvest is one of those books where the whole story is essentially revealed in the blurb but it is enough to draw the reader in to find out how the story unfolds. The story centres around Panturle who lives in a small Provençal village, Aubignane; a village that is on the decline and near to extinction as it only has three inhabitants. We initially find out about the inhabitants of Aubignane from some members of a nearby town, one of whom used to live in Aubignane. One of its inhabitants is Panturle (Panturle was a huge man. He looked like a piece of wood walking along.) He is in his forties and, since his mother died, lives alone . He relies on hunting for his food by setting traps and snares. He often talks to himself. Gaubert (Gaubert was a little man and all moustache) is a retired cartwright who used to make the finest ploughs but now, in his eighties, he is all skin and bone. When he gets bored he strikes his anvil to relive better days.

Whenever Gaubert felt bored, he took hold of the hammer with both hands, raised it, and struck the anvil. He went on like that, for no purpose, just for the sound, to hear the sound. His life was in each of those strokes. The sound of the anvil echoed through the countryside and sometimes came upon Panturle while he was hunting.

The third inhabitant is Mamèche, ‘the Piedmontese’ (She used to sit and sing at the edge of a bank. Then her husband died. Then her child died.). Her story is, indeed, sad; her husband was a well-digger and he died when a well collapsed in on him. Her little boy died from eating hemlock. But it’s not long before Gaubert decides to leave, taking his anvil with him, to live with his son in a nearby village. Panturle and Mamèche help each other out but Mamèche begins to act strangely—he would often find her outside standing still and talking to herself. One day Mamèche offers to find Panturle a wife and bring her to him. Then one day Panturle discovers that Mamèche has left. He is now alone in the village. Has Mamèche gone to find him a wife? He does not know.

The story now switches to two other characters: Gédémus, a travelling knife-grinder, and his young wife, Arsule, whom he treats as his servant. Gédémus is not brutal, he loves Arsule, but in a limited way. Before long Gédémus and Arsule arrive at Aubignane to find it apparently abandoned. When they stop outside Panturle’s house no-one answers.

Giono’s style of writing is beguiling, with its tales of peasants and farmers. He often anthropomorphises the natural world, where trees sing, streams grumble and the sun jumps; he also compares humans to non-human entities, such as comparing Panturle to a piece of wood (see above), or when Arsule’s body is described as ‘fermenting like new wine’. The Wikipedia page on Giono describes this period of his writing as displaying a pantheistic view of nature. It is a charming way of writing but Giono does not ignore the brutal side of nature as well.

The story has reached a pivotal moment with Gédémus and Arsule outside Panturle’s house. Rather than describe much more of the plot I wish to quote rather a long piece at this point which perfectly displays Giono’s style.

Soft green grass grew in front of the house. There stood the cypress too, and, as if on purpose, it was singing with its tree-voice, its sweet-sounding voice, inviting to the ear. Then there were bees which had lived under a tile and were humming in the air. And then, like a miracle, so unexpected that it made them rub their eyes, there was a small lilac tree in full blossom.
   “Let’s rest, Arsule, let’s rest.”
   Gédémus, lying on the ground, stretched himself out like a dog. “One could almost sleep.”
   No, she would not be able to sleep with that longing within her, like water carrying everything away. Her heart was like a crumbling clod of earth. She sat in the grass, with daisies between her legs. She was only an empty bag of skin; she listened to that bitter water, like fire, singing deep down within her.
   She opened her bodice and took out her breasts. They were hard and hot and she had one in either hand…
   Just at that moment she saw a pool of blood, thick as a peony, on the white threshold of the door.

Ok, I’m not quite sure why Arsule takes her breasts out when she’s having a rest, but maybe it was a common thing then. The blood is coming from Panturle butchering a fox he had hunted earlier. If you wish to find out more then you will have to read the book. Second Harvest is the third part in a trilogy called the ‘Pan Trilogy’: the first part is Hill of Destiny (Colline) and the second part is Lovers Are Never Losers (Un de Baumugnes). My understanding is that they can be read as stand alone novels as it is the style or theme of the novels that is the connection. I am certainly looking forward to reading the others.

Second Harvest was read as part of Karen’s (Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon’s (Stuck in a Book) excellent Year Club Reads. This time it’s books that were first published in 1930.

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Filed under Fiction, Giono, Jean