Tag Archives: Denis Jackson

‘Grieshuus’ by Theodor Storm (GLM X)

Image from publisher’s website

Grieshuus: The Chronicle of a Family was originally published in 1884 as Zur Chronik von Grieshuus. This translation, by Denis Jackson, who sadly died earlier this year, was published by Angel Classics in 2017. The events in Storm’s novella take place in a northen Schleswig town and covers four generations of an aristocratic Junker family, roughly covering the period of the mid-seventeenth century to the early eighteenth century.

The novella begins with the narrator recalling an incident in his youth when he went out walking on the heathland and discovered a few remains and foundation stones of what he was convinced was once Grieshuus manor; after discovering a book abou the manor the narrator had tried to find out more about the manor and its inhabitants. The first book mainly concerns the twin sons of the current Junker, Hinrich and Detlev. Although quite similar when young they grow up to be quite different; Detlev is studious, whereas Hinrich prefers the outdoor life. Although they get along together quite well, the narrative in this first book ends with a violent quarrel between the two. Generally quick to temper, Hinrich’s passion soon cools, and he is then ashamed of his actions. One time, Hinrich hits a boy on the head with his heavy stick in front of a girl, Bärbe, and later on he beats his dog to death because it refuses to join in on a wolf hunt. He admits this beating to Bärbe, who is now a young woman, and vows never to do such a thing again. Of course, Hinrich and Bärbe have fallen in love, which others have noticed, including Hinrich’s father, who disapproves of the match as Bärbe is a commoner. Both Hinrich’s father and Bärbe’s father die and their funerals are held on the same day; Hinrich asks the pastor to wed himself to Bärbe at the end of her father’s funeral. But a will has been written and Grieshuus has been left to Hinrich’s brother, Detlev, who has married a more suitable woman.

I shall reveal some of the plot in the next paragraph so you may wish to skip it if you don’t want to know what happens.

Although Hinrich is happy to have married Bärbe, he resents the fact that his brother has inherited what he believes is rightfully his, as he is the older of the two. Animosity grows between the two brothers and when Detlev sends a letter to the pregnant Bärbe insinuating that their marriage is invalid, in shock she goes into a premature labour and soon dies after giving birth to a daughter. In a rage he confronts his brother and kills him. Not only has he committed murder but he has broken his solemn pledge to Bärbe not to be violent again. And so, like Cain, Hinrich disappears to wander the earth, as far as anyone knows. Book Two begins a generation later; there are more foreign troops occupying the land, a Swedish colonel, who is besotted with Henriette, marries her. Henriette is Hinrich’s daughter and within a year Rolf, Hinrich’s grandson is born. With Hinrich still absent the family move into Grieshuus.

The rest of the book is an account written by Rolf’s tutor, Caspar Bokenfield. In many ways Grieshuus is a typically nineteenth century work, concerned with families, inheritance and forbidden love affairs, but with Storm it seems much different than an English novel of the period. This is partly because it is written as a novella rather than a novel; it proceeds at a pace, but does not seem rushed; with Storm the reader needs to pay attention to every word and to slow down their reading. The double funeral scene where Hinrich marries Bärbe is wonderful, but packed with events. In under two pages we learn of the deaths of the fathers of the couple, that Hinrich’s father has left a will and of the marriage of the couple. Blink, and you might miss something important.

And when the final Lord’s Prayer had also been said, he took the deceased’s daughter in his arms in front of everyone and held her firmly until he saw the pastor striding down the path on the way to his house. ‘Come!’ he said softly to the lovely girl, such that he was overheard only by an old woman next to him who looked up at him in puzzlement. And as though each knew the other’s thoughts and were both of the same mind, they followed the pastor hand in hand to his house. ‘Would you kindly marry us, Herr Pastor,’ said the Junker, ‘so that this girl may find a home in my heart.’
    And the old priest laid his trembling hands upon their heads.

In the perceptive introduction David Artiss highlights the amount of symbolism that exists throughout the book, most of which I wouldn’t normally notice. Wolves are a constant threat to humans throughout the novella with the heathland virtually off limits because it is so dangerous. Dogs are also mentioned often. Artiss notes that Hinrich’s own character is more wild, more wolf-like at the beginning but by the end he has tamed his own nature to be more dog-like, more domesticated. But still, it is not enough to save Grieshuus from decay.

Grieshuus was the second book that I read as part of ‘German Literature Month 10’.

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‘The Dykemaster’ by Theodor Storm

GLM-V 2015The Dykemaster was originally published in Germany in 1888 as Der Schimmelreiter. It is also known in English as The Rider on the White Horse. The Dykemaster is novella length story that begins almost like a ghost story and where the main story appears as a story-within-a-story-within-a-story. The original narrator tries to recall a story that he read as a child fifty years previously which appeared in a magazine. The magazine narrator recounts travelling along a North Friesian dyke during a storm.

…I now saw nothing but the yellow-grey waves beating continuously against the dyke as though bellowing with rage, from time to time spraying dirty spume over my horse and me, and further out, a bleak half-light in which it was impossible to tell earth from sky, for even the half-moon, now at its height, was more often hidden behind swirling dark clouds.

Storm_Dykemaster-fc-mag-XC-700pxHe believes he sees a rider on a grey horse go past him and later he thinks he sees him in the distance. When he arrives at an inn he encounters some men having a meeting, it turns out they are members of the dyke committee. When he mentions the ‘man on the grey’ the others become interested and soon the schoolmaster is telling the story of Hauke Haien beginning with his childhood as the son of a farmer. Hauke shows an early interest in the local dykes and mathematics and prefers being alone to the company of other children. One day Hauke, in a furious rage, strangles an old woman’s cat and this event leads to Hauke leaving his father’s house to take up work, as a farmhand, with the dykemaster, Tede Volkerts. There is also the attraction of the dykemaster’s daughter, the eighteen year-old Elke Volkerts. Hauke works hard and helps out with the dykemaster’s accounts but he makes an enemy of the head farmhand, Ole Peters.

Hauke learns the dykemaster’s job quickly and is soon doing most of it himself. After a few years both his father, and then Elke’s father both die, and when it is revealed by Elke that Hauke and Elke are betrothed to one another it is agreed that Hauke will become the new dykemaster. The story starts to become more interesting from this point as we follow Hauke as he tackles his new job, as he ponders over making changes to the dyke and has to challenge the resistance of the populace. He has an idea to create a dam that will divert the watercourse so that with a new dyke built more land will be reclaimed. He then begins to work on diagrams and calculations as well as the funding requirements for the whole project before presenting his ideas to the authorities. Elke, as daughter of the previous dykemaster, is fully aware of what lies ahead.

    “Have you really the stomach for it, Hauke?” his wife asked him.
    “I have, Elke!” he responded quickly.
    “Don’t be hasty, Hauke; it will be perilous work; and nearly everyone will be against you – no one will ever thank you for your worry and trouble!”
    He nodded: “I know!” he said.
    “And if it were to go wrong?” she asked again. “Ever since I was a child I have heard that the watercourse cannot be blocked, and for that reason should never be touched.”
    “That was a lazy man’s excuse!” said Hauke; “why shouldn’t it be possible to block the watercourse?”

Elke’s concerns are valid but Hauke is determined to go through with his plans. Hauke also buys a half-starved grey horse which he nurses back to health and which he uses to ride along the dyke. Work on the new dyke begins and we begin to see Hauke in a slightly different light, he becomes even more isolated and hard as he faces opposition from others. This is in comparison with his homelife where we learn about the couple’s hopes of having a child. There are some tender moments, particularly between Hauke and his daughter, epecially when he takes her out with him along the new dyke. Hauke is an extremely rational man which makes him conspicuous; not only can he see the advantage of the new dyke but he realises that his daughter is backward before others do, and he dismisses stories of ghosts, demons and mermaids. Even his religious beliefs appear paganistic, almost atheistic, to others. However when, on All Saints’ Eve in October, a storm is brewing the new dyke is going to face the ultimate test.

This is a very powerful story which builds to a climactic ending. I thought it was a little dull at first but it picks up once Hauke begins to work for the dykemaster. Storm’s style is very realistic or naturalistic but he does intersperse the narrative with poetic flourishes, especially at the beginning and end of the story. Personally, I feel that the story would have been better without the frame stories as they just distract us from the main story and don’t really add anything to it.

The edition that I read was published in 1996 by Angel Classics and was translated by Denis Jackson. It contains loads of notes (too many really), an afterwood and a couple of maps of the area from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which it was believed that Storm used when writing his story. The main story was based on a story called ‘The Ghostly Rider’ that Storm read as a child and it is this story that is presumably alluded to in the original frame story. The story also appears in the New York Review of Books (NYRB) edition called The Rider on the White Horse and Selected Stories and Angel Classics have other collections of stories by Storm and translated by Jackson so there’s no shortage of material available for the interested reader.

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