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.