I read my first stories by Theodor Storm at the end of last year and thoroughly enjoyed them but since I’d read them I noticed that many of the shorter stories had all blurred together in my mind and I couldn’t distinguish one from another. So, finding myself inbetween books and not in the mood to decide what to read next I decided to revisit a couple of them. I read In Saint Jürgen, quickly followed by Immensee and even though I’ve only just read them they are already starting to blur together again in my memory. Both stories are quite similar, they begin with frame stories and involve wistfully looking back over past unrequited loves. The basic plots are quite unremarkable; take for example In Saint Jürgen, where Hansen, the ex-nanny of the narrator who is currently in a home for the aged, reveals how she came to work for the narrator’s parents. This had followed her father’s bankruptcy and her prospective husband, Harre, leaving town and not returning, despite his promise to do so. Later on we hear Harre’s version of what happened and….well, I won’t spoil it for you. I can imagine other nineteenth century authors turning this into either some grand melodramatic Romantic extravaganza or else making a mawkish mess of the whole thing; but Storm tries, and succeeds, to imbue the story with real, believable characters told in a poetically realistic manner.
Storm uses images of the natural world throughout the story, but the comings and goings of birds, particularly swallows, are used to signify the time of year and the passing of time. The first paragraph is worth quoting in full:
It is only a simple little town, my native place. It lies in a treeless plain near the sea, and its houses are old and dark. Nevertheless, I have always considered it an agreeable spot; and two birds that are sacred to men seem to share this opinion. These are storks, and they hover continually in the high summer air over the town, their nests down below on the roofs. They are sure to bring the swallows with them, when the earliest breezes blow out of the south in April, and one neighbor tells another that they have come back. So it is at this very moment. In the garden under my window the first violets are out, and on the opposite side, on the board fence, the swallow already sits and twitters that old song of hers: “When I went away, when I went away…” and the longer she sings, the more deeply I remember someone who has been dead for a long time, someone whom I can thank for many good hours when I was young.
This opening paragraph beautifully echoes with the last paragraph where the swallows are singing: “When I came again, when I came again, my home was bare.”
Immensee begins with an old man returning home from a walk, ready to relax in his chair:
As he sat there the air steadily darkened, and soon a ray of moonlight streamed through the windows and touched the pictures on the wall. The old man’s eyes helplessly followed the course of this luminous thread as it slowly spun past him and moved on still further.
Then it touched a small, simple, and black-framed picture. The old man whispered: “Elizabeth!” And as he spoke that name, the time changed: he was young again.
And so the memories start flooding back; he remembers when they were both children and they were inseparable, Reinhard, being older, would tell stories to Elizabeth and later on he would write poems for her. When Reinhard is older he has to go off to another school and the couple have to make do with meeting up during the holidays and sending letters to each other. But in his absence Elizabeth begins to gain the attention of Erich, a childhood friend of both, who has recently inherited the estate called ‘Immensee’. Erich appears a little boorish to Reinhard, but what with his long absences and the fact that Elizabeth’s mother considers Erich ‘such a nice, sensible young man’ events proceed without him and Elizabeth and Erich marry. They meet again but it is often awkward and painful for them. One day, whilst out walking together, he picks a flower and explains that he has a similar one, that she gave him years before, pressed in a book of poems:
Then she looked down at the flower which he held. The two of them stood there for a long moment. When she looked up again, she saw him weeping.
“Elizabeth,” he said, “behind those blue mountains we were young. What happened to us?”
They spoke no more. Side by side, silent, they walked back down to the lake. The air had grown sultry. Clouds were darkening in the west.
The weather matches their mood and later they meet only to say goodbye – they’ll never meet again. The narrative returns to Reinhard as an old man; he shakes himself out of his revery and returns to the present.
For some readers this will all be a bit too sentimental, but for me Storm handles it perfectly. As with his other stories, he doesn’t overdo things, he doesn’t turn the story into sentimental drivel and doesn’t dwell on the emotions; instead he describes them clearly and beautifully and then moves on. I really must read some other stories by Storm but at the moment I’m quite happy re-reading those in this collection as they stand up well to repeated readings.