Tag Archives: German Literature

‘The Nibelungenlied’ (GLM VIII)

With what a truly savage din did all those swords ring out as shield-braces flew from their housing with the gems dropping smashed into the blood! They fought with such ferocity that men will never fight so again.

The Nibelungenlied is an epic poem written around 1200 by an anonymous writer. This Penguin edition, translated into English prose by A.T. Hatto, was first published in 1965. It is an epic tale of murder and revenge that ends in one almighty bloodbath—which has hopefully piqued your interest—or possibly disgust. Although there is a lot of fighting at the end, the rest of the book contains similar elements to the contemporary, or near contemporary, Arthurian legends from France and England. It is not as bleak as I have made out: there is even some humour.

Written around 1200 The Nibelungenlied covers fictional events from around six or seven hundred years earlier. It begins with Kriemhild, a beautiful Burgundian maiden, sister of three warrior knights, Gunther, Gernot and Giselher. One day she dreamt she had reared a falcon which was attacked by two eagles. When her mother explains that the falcon represents her future husband Kriemhild declares that she intends never to marry. We are then introduce to Siegfried, from Xanten in the Netherlands, son of Siegmund and Sieglind, who is a handsome knight. Siegfried hears about Kriemhild’s beauty and sets off to Worms, Burgundy to take Kriemhild as his wife. Full of bravado, Siegfried threatens to take the King Gunther’s land from him: I will wrest from you by force all that you possess! Gunther and his vassals are amazed but manage to defuse the situation and Siegfried hangs around hoping to meet Kriemhild. It is revealed that in his past adventures Siegfried fought the Nibelungs and seized their vast treasure as well as a cloak of invisibility. Siegfried had also fought a dragon and bathed in its blood which made his skin so hard that no weapon could pierce it. Oh, and he’s incredibly strong as well. Gunther is a rather ineffectual king and relies on the advice of his vassal, Hagen, lord of Troneck, who is a Machiavellian character. Gunther makes use of Siegfried’s warlike nature to fight some of his wars for him. Gunther has heard of a beautiful and incredibly strong maiden queen from Iceland, called Brunhild, who will marry the man who can beat her at three physical feats of strength; those that fail are killed. Siegfried offers to help Gunther win Brunhild’s hand if Gunther agrees to Siegfried marrying Kriemhild. Gunther doesn’t have a chance on his own against the formidable Brunhild and so with Siegfried’s help, whilst wearing his cloak of invisibility, Gunther manages to win the hand of Brunhild.

Gunther arrives back at Worms with Brunhild and a lavish celebration is organised. At the dinner Brunhild is surprised to see that Siegfried, whom she believes to be Gunther’s vassal, is to marry Gunther’s sister, Kriemhild. Although Gunther tells Brunhild that Siegfried is also a king she does not believe him; this confusion over Siegfried is the cause of much of Brunhild’s actions throughout the rest of the story as well as the following amusing scene on their wedding night.

   He would have lavished caresses and endearments, had the Queen suffered him to do so, but she flew into a rage that deeply shocked him — he had hoped to meet with ‘friend’, yet what he met was ‘foe’!
   ‘Sir,’ she said, ‘you must give up the thing you have set your hopes on, for it will not come to pass. Take good note of this: I intend to stay a maiden till I have learned the truth about Siegfried.’
   Gunther grew very angry with her. He tried to win her by force, and tumbled her shift for her, at which the haughty girl reached for the girdle of stout silk cord that she wore about her waist, and subjected him to great suffering and shame: for in return for being baulked of her sleep, she bound him hand and foot, carried him to a nail, and hung him on the wall. She had put a stop to his love-making! As to him, he all but died, such strength had she exerted.

When Gunther confides these events to Siegfried, Siegfried offers to help him, with the aid of his cloak again, to overpower Brunhild in the bedroom, but Gunther insists that Siegfried musn’t make love to her first. Whether Siegfried does or not is left ambiguous but he does take Brunhild’s ring and girdle as a prize which he later presents to Kriemhild as a gift. Gunther is now happy and Siegfried returns to the Netherlands with his wife to live together.

Brunhild continues to wonder how Siegfried is allowed to marry Kriemhild. She obviously doesn’t believe that Siegfried is a true king—why she doesn’t believe this is one of the mysteries of this story—and she probably suspects that she was duped by Gunther. Brunhild wishes to see Kriemhild and thrash this out. In a brilliant chapter, with the heading How the queens railed at each other, they do exactly that: they argue and Kriemhild reveals that she has Brunhild’s ring and girdle and that they were obtained by Siegfried when he made love to her. Siegfried tries to smooth things over by denying this, but now those loyal to Brunhild feel that Siegfried should pay for boasting that he had made love to their queen. Hagen now plots to murder Siegfried. He inveigles information from Kriemhild concerning Siegfried’s ‘impenetrable skin’—it turns out that when Siegfried was bathing in the dragon’s blood a leaf got stuck on his back between the shoulder blades, leaving a vulnerable spot on his skin à la Achilles. Siegfried is murdered by Hagen whilst out on a hunt. n.b. the vulnerable spot is marked on his clothing with a cross. Kriemhild thinks at this point that Hagen is an ally and by telling him about this vulnerability of Siegfried’s, Hagen can help protect him.

Then, as Siegfried bent over the brook and drank, Hagen hurled the spear at the cross, so that the hero’s heart’s blood leapt from the wound and splashed against Hagen’s clothes. No warrior will ever do a darker deed. Leaving the spear fixed in Siegfried’s heart, he fled in wild desperation, as he had never fled before from any man.

The lady Kriemhild’s lord fell among the flowers, where you could see the blood surging from his wound. Then—and he had cause—he rebuked those who had plotted his foul murder.

Events so far only cover about half of the book. The second half is quite different to the first. Kriemhild marries King Etzel from Hungary and has a son but she is determined to get her revenge on Hagen. She entices him, along with her brothers and an accompanying army, to visit her in Hungary. The story now follows the Burgundians as they travel to Hungary and once they arrive it is not long before they are attacked by forces friendly to Kriemhild, who has been transformed into a fascinating avenging she-devil. She does not care who dies as long as Hagen is amongst the dead. At one point Kriemhild orders a hall, which is occupied by the Burgundian knights, to be guarded and set on fire. Most die, but a few, including Hagen, manage to hold out by taking desperate measures.

   ‘Alas, alas!—We had far rather be killed fighting,’ a number of them cried. ‘God have mercy on us!—We are lost! This is monstrous vengeance that the Queen is taking on us!’
   ‘It is all over with us,’ said another of those within. ‘Of what use to us is the friendly welcome we had from the King? This fierce heat has given me such a terrible thirst that I fear I shall soon expire amid all these perils.’
   ‘You worthy knights,’ cried Hagen, ‘if any of you are plagued with thirst let them drink the blood here—in such heat it will be better than wine! In present circumstances it is the best that can be done.
   One of the warriors then went over to a corpse and, removing his helmet and kneeling over a wound, began to drink the blood that oozed from it and, little used to it though he was, he thought it very good. ‘Heaven reward you, lord Hagen,’ said the weary man, ‘for having taught me such an excellent beverage! I have never had better wine poured for me. If I live for any time, I shall always have a friendly regard for you.’

I must admit I was a bit wary about reading this book at first but as I had enjoyed reading some Arthurian books a few years ago I felt I was prepared for it. Medieval literature is, of course, quite different from modern novels; we don’t really get to understand why characters do certain things and they have different morals, sensibilities and prejudices to us—but that is also what makes it interesting in my view. Hatto’s translation was very readable though some readers may find it a bit too old-fashioned. I am glad that it was translated into prose rather than verse—Hatto mentions that it would be virtually impossible to translate into verse but I have seen some editions about. This edition also contains a fifty page essay at the back of the book called An Introduction To a Second Reading together with several appendices. Have you read The Nibelungenlied?

This will probably be my final contribution to this year’s German Literature Month—but one never knows.

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‘Natura Morta’ by Josef Winkler (GLM VIII)

I was trying to avoid Austrian authors for this year’s German Literature Month but here I am with my second Austrian contribution already. Josef Winkler is an author I hadn’t heard of before but when I inadvertently came across his books, whilst trying to decide what to read this year, they piqued my interest, especially this one, Natura Morta: A Roman Novella. It was first published in German in 1998 as Natura morta: Eine römische Novelle. This translation was published in 2014 by Contra Mundum Press and was translated by Adrian West.

‘Natura Morta’ means ‘still life’ in Italian or ‘by death’ in Latin — or at least according to Google Translate — both phrases are relevant to this novella. There is little plot, instead Winkler uses a succession of images or descriptive vignettes of daily life set around a modern-day Roman market-place and Saint Peter’s Square. Winkler concentrates his highly cinematic eye on the mundane, such as advertisements or t-shirt messages, and the muckier aspects of life, such as filthy fingernails or offal discarded in the street. Instead of a plot we get recurring images and characters that help give the work some structure. The book is split into six parts with the first centering around a market-place. Winkler depicts the scenes in close-up, concentrating on specific details: we see gypsy girls selling underwear, people carrying meat in plastic shopping bags, butchers butchering sheeps’ heads, the dirty fingernails of fishmongers etc. Here are a couple of examples from the first part:

A black-veiled nun, holding plastic bags full of cucumbers, apricots, and onions in one hand and pressing two tall blonde Barbie dolls wrapped in plastic to her breast with the other, stopped before the tomato vendor, whose vegetable knife hung from a lanyard around his neck, laid the dolls on a wooden crate, and asked for a few kilos of tomatoes on the vine.

Another gypsy girl — two gold upper teeth shone in the void of her harelip — lifted her right breast slightly and placed her nipple in the mouth of her child, whose eyelids were sealed shut with pus.

One of the characters we are introduced to is Piccoletto, a sixteen-year-old son of a fig vendor, who works at the Damino fish-stand in the market-place. Whenever Piccoletto appears in the narrative it is mentioned that he has ‘long black eyelashes nearly grazing his cheeks’.

The second part takes place in Saint Peter’s Square. Piccoletto is sitting around watching the girls nearby whilst we, via the narrator, watch him closely, intimately, concentrating on the spittle on his lips as he drinks some water or on his testicles seen through the leg-hole of his shorts. There are people selling plastic Jesuses, tourists, children, policemen all passing in front of Winkler’s lens. Here’s a description of a man from this section.

A little humpbacked man with a waxen face, his cadaverous skin covered in black blotches, crossed himself and kissed the black fingertips of his emaciated hand, while a group of nodding bishops dressed in red, wiping the sweat from their chins with kerchiefs embroidered with yellow mitres, walked past him through Saint Peter’s Square. His eyelids and eyelashes were painted black with mascara, his eyes were yellowish and blood-spotted, his sparse hair was dyed black, his moustache flecked with gray. Wheezing, he pulled his mouth open and closed and grasped his throat with a hand covered in golden rings.

Although we have this onslaught of descriptive text, little plot developments do begin to occur, and they are sometimes a bit sinister. A ten-year-old girl had been ogling Piccoletto’s testicles earlier on this section and at the end we are told that he leaves the square accompanied by the girl; we have no idea who she is or whether they are related or know each other or where her parents are.

N.b. I reveal in this paragraph a significant detail of one of the characters. if you don’t wish to find out then you may wish to skip to the next paragraph.
The narrative returns to the market-place and the images of butchered meat, offal, gypsy-girls selling underwear, babies with pus-encrusted eyes, neo-Nazis, Moroccan rent boys, nuns with Barbie dolls, rotting fish. Unexpectedly Piccoletto gets hit by a fire-engine and dies, his distraught employer brings his body into the shop, whilst Winkler’s descriptions of the event is merged in with the continuing descriptions of other events; Piccoletto’s body is described in the same, meticulous, dispassionate manner as the meat that was being butchered and sold. The recurring description of Piccoletto’s eyelashes continues, only now they are those of a dead boy:

The long, damp eyelash hairs of his open left eye grazed his eyebrow, the long, blood-caked eyelash hairs of his closed right eye grazed his freckle-dotted cheek.

This short novella will not be to everyone’s taste; the squeamish may wish to avoid it, as will die-hard fans of plot-driven novels, but if you liked the quotes above and like the sound of a novella with descriptive prose and a cinematic feel then you might enjoy this book. Contra Mundum Press have also published When the Time Comes and Graveyard of Bitter Oranges, both of which sound like interesting reads.

This is my third contribution to German Literature Month VIII.

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‘Tales of Old Vienna and Other Prose’ by Adalbert Stifter (GLM VIII)

At one point I was seriously considering reading Witiko, Stifter’s six hundred page book set in medieval Bohemia, for this year’s German Literature Month but in the end I plumped for this shorter book, a collection of stories and prose which was published in 2016 by Ariadne Press in California. The contents of Tales of Old Vienna and Other Prose were translated by Alexander Stillmark who also provides an introduction. This collection contains five short stories and four short prose works including a personal account of an eclipse of the sun in 1842. The first story in the collection is The Condor (1839), Stifter’s first published story, which is quite interesting initially but one which soon becomes a pretty standard nineteenth century story of doomed love. The shortest story, at only five pages, is Confidence an entertaining tale of unwitting parricide followed by suicide. But the bulk of the book consists of the three stories: The Ancient Seal (Das alte Siegel, 1844), Tourmaline (Turmalin, 1851) and Granite (Granit, 1848). Tourmaline and Granite were also published in the Coloured Stones (Bunte Steine, 1853) two-volume collection which also includes the sublime Rock Crystal (Bergkristall, 1845). These two stories are easily on a par with Rock Crystal as they share the same calm, natural, modern tone that Stifter used in that work.

The Ancient Seal is an interesting tale in which a boy, Hugo, is raised by his father to value self-reliance and honour above everything else. At the age of twenty-one his father urges his son to leave him and make his way in the world. This is during the period when the German states were occupied by Napoleon’s forces; Hugo, under the influence of his father, is determined to join the army so that he will be prepared when Germany is ready to rid itself of its occupiers. On his father’s death Hugo inherits an ancient seal which bears the words: servandum tantummodo honos, or, maintaining only honour. One day Hugo gets a mysterious letter from someone requesting a meeting at a church the following day. He meets an old man who doesn’t explain why he’s requested the meeting but asks Hugo to meet him regularly at the same place and time—only Hugo doesn’t see the man again. Instead he becomes intrigued by a woman who visits the church at the same time as he and who, although dressed as an old woman, appears to Hugo to be much younger. Over a period of time Hugo ends up making her acquaintance; he can visit her but only at certain times of the day and he must not enquire about her life, past or present. They begin to meet more regularly and both are obviously in love with each other. And then one day Celeste, the mysterious woman, is gone. He makes enquiries with the owner of the house, returns to the church each day but as he knows nothing about her—he is even unsure if the name she gave him is her real name—he gives up hope.

Hugo thought that it simply could not be otherwise; he would surely somewhere see that beautiful, beloved face that he had daily seen for so long!
But he did not see it.
After his search had gone on for some months, after winter had already cast its snowflakes and its blanket of ice over the city, he gave up his efforts. He sat in his room and held his lovely, weary head in both his hands.

Well, does he find her again? I thought I knew how this story was going to end but I was quite mistaken as Stifter provides us with just about the most anti-Romantic ending possible as Hugo is more concerned with ‘maintaining honour’ than love. Hugo is a damn fool but I’m unclear if that is what Stifter wants us to believe.

Tourmaline is set in Vienna and begins by describing ‘a fellow who was something of an oddity’; he was about forty years old, lived in an apartment with his young attractive wife and their baby daughter and had acquired the nickname of ‘the pensioner’. The walls of the main room were covered in pictures of great men. In order to view these pictures he had had chairs fitted with castors and ladders, also on castors, to see those pictures higher up. The pensioner becomes friends with an actor called Dall who visits regularly. Dall ends up having an affair with the pensioner’s wife and when the pensioner finds out he flies into a rage and intends to confront Dall, but Dall has made himself scarce. Then one day the pensioner’s wife disappears—she just walks out and doesn’t return. Then not long after his wife’s disappearance the pensioner also disappers with his daughter leaving all of his possessions, except for a flute and money, in the flat. All sorts of stories are spread around about the fate of the family but eventually the contents of the apartment are sold at auction and the apartment is let out to a new tenant. The story continues a few years later with the narrator retelling the story of a female friend. One day this woman spots an odd couple in the street outside her house.

For as I looked down to see what sort of people were about, I caught sight of a strange couple. A man of rather advanced years, judging by his back which was turned towards me, dressed in a thin, yellow swanskin jacket, pale blue trousers, heavy shoes and a little round hat, as he walked down the street. He was leading a girl, dressed no less oddly than himself in a brown cope which was draped about her shoulders almost like a toga. But the girl had so large a head, enough to startle anyone, that it kept causing people to stare at it. Both of them went their way at a moderate pace; but both were so clumsy and awkward that it was immediately evident they were not used to Vienna and that they were incapable of behaving like other folk.

Well you can no doubt guess who these odd characters are. The narrator tries to follow them but loses them. In the rest of this wonderful story the narrator eventually meets up with this couple and gets to find out about their past though intriguingly much is left unexplained.

The events of the story Granite take place in Oberplan, Bohemia, which is Stifter’s birthplace. The story begins with a boy sitting on large stone outside his house where he can observe everything that’s going on. This stone has been there for many years and no-one can remember a time when it wasn’t there. One day a ‘man of strange appearance’ turns up wheeling a barrow with a barrel of cart-grease which he would sell to the villagers. Watching this man going about his business is fascinating for the boy.

It so happened I was barefoot, as was often the case, and had pants on which had grown too short over time. Suddenly he looked up at me from his work and said: “Would you like to have your feet greased?” I had always held the man to be a great marvel and felt honoured by his familiarity and so stretched both my feet out to him. He dipped his spoon into the bung-hole, brought it over and drew a long streak down each of my feet. The liquid spread out nicely over the skin, had an exceptionally clear, golden brown colour and wafted its pleasent resinous odour up to me. It gradually spread across and down the curves of my feet.

The boy then proceeds to walk indoors across the newly washed parlour floor much to the horror of his mother who gives him a thrashing and returns indoors to clean up the mess. The boy’s kindly grandfather then slowly and methodically cleans up the boy’s feet, gets him some clean clothes and shoes and takes him out for a walk, probably to get him away from the mother’s wrath. The rest of this calm, beautiful story consists of the boy and the grandfather taking a walk and the grandfather telling the boy a story—a story similar to Rock Crystal. The story goes back to a time when the plague was spreading throughout the country and a family tried to escape it by going higher into the mountains; the only one to survive the plague is a boy who discovers a sickly girl in the briar whom he nurses back to health. It turns out that the grandfather’s story is about the grease-seller’s ancestors and by the time he has finished his story they have returned home where all is now calm and the boy’s mother forgives her son.

This book was read as part of German Literature Month VIII.

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‘America’ by Franz Kafka (GLM VIII)

Although I would class Franz Kafka as one of my favourite authors I haven’t read anything by him for many years and I know very little about his life. The Trial was the first book that I read by Kafka which was then followed with The Castle, Amerika (I’m sure the copy I initially read retained the Germanic title though it must have been the same translation as here) and a few short stories including Metamorphosis, of course. I remember finding Amerika a bit dull in comparison to the other novels but recently I had begun to wonder what I’d make of it now—so I thought I’d read it for this year’s German Literature Month. My Penguin copy makes use of the 1938 translation by Willa and Edwin Muir together with an introduction by Edwin Muir and a short postscript by Max Brod, Kafka’s literary executor, both of which were informative. It should be noted that America was unfinished, it was abandoned by Kafka around 1914 and published posthumously in 1927.

Kafka sets the scene from the start. Here’s the first paragraph.

As Karl Rossmann, a poor boy of sixteen who had been packed off to America by his parents because a servant girl had seduced him and got herself with child by him, stood on the liner slowly entering the harbour of New York, a sudden burst of sunshine seemed to illumine the Statue of Liberty, so that he saw it in a new light, although he had sighted it long before. The arm with the sword rose up as if newly stretched aloft, and round the figure blew the free winds of heaven.

Kafka had never been to America but he read a lot of travel literature so we must assume that he knew that Liberty does not hold a sword. Anyway, the opening paragraph is certainly enticing and I was surprised, given my previous lack of enthusiasm for the book, to find it an excellent, and humorous, read. The novel follows Karl’s peregrinations through America, though he doesn’t travel far from New York. Karl is adrift, abandoned by his parents, in a strange land and has to make his own way. Similar to Kafka’s other protagonists Karl is faced with authority figures who make reasonable and unreasonable demands and whilst Karl can object to these demands and try to wriggle out of them, in the end he has to submit. The events in America are, however, presented in a much more realistic way than in The Trial or The Castle.

Even before he disembarks Karl ends up wandering about the ship and getting lost—it doesn’t bode well. He meets up with a stoker, Schubal, and helps him plead a grievance he has with his supervisor to the captain of the ship. Karl has some remarkably good luck in that his Uncle Jacob, a prosperous business man and Senator, recognises him and takes him to his luxurious house. Things are looking rosey for Karl! Uncle Jacob buys a piano for Karl and also arranges horse-riding lessons for him. Karl studies English as it is intended that Karl will work for his uncle; as his English improves he is introduced to some of his uncle’s business friends, Green and Pollunder. This is where things start to get a little, well Kafkaesque, as Karl is invited to visit Mr Pollunder, which Karl sees as a positive thing, but his uncle seems to be opposed to it but ultimately leaves it up to Karl to make the decision. Karl can’t satisfy both his uncle and Mr Pollunder. Here we have a dialogue between Karl and Pollunder on their way to Pollunder’s house.

   ‘My uncle wasn’t annoyed at my going?’
   ‘Not at all! He didn’t mean all that seriously. He has your education so much at heart.’
   ‘Did he tell you himself that he didn’t mean it seriously?’
   ‘Oh yes,’ said Mr Pollunder, drawling the words, and thus proving that he could not tell a lie.
   ‘It’s strange how unwilling he was to give me leave to visit you, although you are a friend of his.’
   Mr Pollunder too, although he did not admit it, could find no explanation for the problem, and both of them, as they drove through the warm evening in Mr Pollunder’s car, kept turning it over in their minds for a long time, although they spoke of other things.

Strange indeed. Karl doesn’t yet realise how much he has annoyed his uncle. During his short stay at Mr Pollunder’s house Karl manages to get on the wrong side of both Pollunder and his daughter Clara. In a marvellous scene Clara tries to seduce Karl and when he resists he gets wrestled to the floor by her and she threatens to box his ears. After getting lost in the huge building he eventually finds Pollunder and tells him he wishes to leave. Mr Green, who has turned up, ends up issuing Karl with a letter from his uncle stating that because Karl left him that evening to visit Mr Pollunder he wants nothing more to do with him. In one short evening Karl has managed to annoy his uncle, Clara and Pollunder and as a result he is turned out of the house with no more than his suitcase and umbrella. The letter from his uncle is priceless and as a taster here are the opening lines:

DEAR NEPHEW,
   As you will already have realized during our much too brief companionship, I am essentially a man of principle. That is unpleasant and depressing not only to those who come in contact with me, but also to myself as well. Yet it is my principles that have made me what I am, and no one can ask me to deny my fundamental self. Not even you, my dear nephew.

He ends the letter by saying that

…I have to keep telling myself again and again, Karl, that nothing good comes out of your family.

As good as this novel is so far it gets even better as Karl meets up with two disreputable characters, Delamarche and Robinson. He suspects they are out to rob him of the few possessions he owns and manages to ditch them by getting a job as a lift-boy in a hotel until, a few months later, an extremely drunk Robinson turns up and gets him the sack. There are some great scenes here; even when Karl is given the sack from the hotel he still can’t escape from the clutches of the sadistic Head Porter. When he does finally escape it is only to fall into the hands of Delamarche, who has wormed his way into the household, and affections, of a wealthy singer called Brunelda. Having virtually enslaved his old friend Robinson, Delamarche now intends to do the same with Karl.

The first seven chapters form a continuous narrative; but chapter eight, titled The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, is a bit later in the story and according to Max Brod was intended to be the concluding chapter. This chapter has Karl attending a recruitment drive by a theatre company that is almost surreal. It is such a shame that Kafka decided to abandon this novel as I’m sure it would have been a success at the time. I shall have to find out why he stopped; Brod just states that he ‘broke off his work on this novel with unexpected suddenness.’ Does anyone know why he didn’t continue with it? as it seems to be so close to completion.

My previous read was Guignol’s Band by Céline and it was intersting to note the similarity in the themes of both books: both have a young man adrift in a foreign land who is basically morally good but who falls in with disreputable, though entertaining (for us), characters. Events seem to conspire against the protagonist though things have a way of working themselves out.

I read this as a contribution to this year’s German Literature Month.

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‘Caspar Hauser: Inertia of the Heart (Part One) by Jakob Wassermann (GLM)

I first heard of Caspar Hauser from the 1974 Werner Herzog film, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, which I probably first watched in the early 1990s. I would imagine that for many of us this was our first encounter with the story. Jakob Wasserman’s novel, Caspar Hauser: Inertia of the Heart, which was first published in 1908, did a similar job as the Herzog film in popularising the story of Caspar, which is based on real events. It’s worth checking out the Wikipedia page if you are interested in discovering the historical facts of the case. I always find it difficult with fictionalised versions of real events because it’s always tempting to check the fiction against the historical events, which I have done whilst reading this novel, but with this review I will try to stick to what is solely contained within the novel. I shall also use the spelling used within the novel, i.e. ‘Caspar’ rather than the more commonly used ‘Kaspar’ but I shall avoid using the spelling of ‘Nürnberg’ for ‘Nuremberg’ that is used in the book except when I’m quoting from the book. The edition I am reading was published in 2012 by Floris Books and is a reprint of a translation by Caroline Newton from 1928.

The story begins with a description of Caspar, a seventeen year-old boy, entering Nuremberg on foot one day in May 1928; he can barely talk and barely walk and seems to be surprised even by the movement of his own body. He has with him a letter bearing the address of Cavalry Captain Wessenig. He is taken to the police office where he is unable to answer any questions but is just able to scrawl his name on a piece of paper. He refuses all food except bread and water. Although he is dressed like a peasant it is noted that he has a fine white skin and looks ‘more like a young lady of aristocratic birth than a peasant.’ A doctor examines Caspar and also notes the lack of callouses on his feet.

“One thing is evident,” his testimony concludes, “we are dealing with a person who has no conception of his fellow men, does not eat, does not drink, does not feel, does not speak like others, does not know anything of yesterday or to-morrow, does not grasp time, does not know he is alive.”

The story of the boy attracts a lot of attention from the populace who wish to see this curiosity; some believe him to be a wild man reared by wolves whilst others believe that he’s deceiving them. The unsigned letter that Caspar had on him was apparently written by his guardian who claims to have taken in him as a baby in 1815—his mother is unknown. He claims to have kept Caspar hidden away indoors so that no-one in the village knew of his existence and that he brought Caspar to Nuremberg in the night. Caspar knows neither the name of his guardian nor the name of the village whence he came. He says that ‘if you don’t want to keep him you will have to kill him and hang him up the chimney.’

The local teacher, Professor Daumer, becomes increasingly interested in Caspar and he tries to help him learn to talk. Surprisingly Caspar is quick to learn and he eventually tells Daumer what he can of his life so far.

So far as Caspar could remember he had always been in the same dark space, never anywhere else, always in the same space. Never had he seen a man, never had he heard his step, never had he heard his voice, never the song of a bird, never the cry of an animal; he had never seen the rays of the sun, nor the gleam of moonlight. He had never been aware of anything except himself, and yet he had known nothing of himself, never becoming conscious of loneliness.

In the mornings he had had fresh bread and a pitcher of water by his bed. On occasions the water tasted strange and caused him to fall asleep, when he awoke he would find his hair cut, his nails clipped and fresh straw on his bed. He had a wooden horse as his only toy. One day a man entered his room and for three days taught Caspar how to write his name. On subsequent nights the man led Caspar outside and taught him how to walk and then one night the man led him to Nuremberg and handed Caspar a note.

As the story of Caspar becomes known more widely it is not long before stories emerge of him being of noble blood, that he was kept in a dungeon to keep him out of the way so that an illegitimate heir could claim Caspar’s rightful place. Before long Caspar is moved from his cell to live with Professor Daumer but is ultimately under the protection of von Feuerbach, the president of the court of appeals. And so Caspar begins to learn about the world; the sun is especially fascinating to him, at one point he asks Daumer ‘is the sun God?’

But Daumer is in a bit of a quandary as he sees Caspar as an innocent and regrets that he has the task of exposing him to the cruel world. Daumer has to protect Caspar from the talk about his supposed noble lineage or the other claims of him being a swindler and yet at the same time he is compelled to parade him in front of his guests. During this period characteristics of Caspar’s personality emerge that will persist throughout the novel: he is fascinated with learning the identity of his mother, he is accused of lying by others, he refuses to let others read his diary. These all seem quite natural, especially as everyone seems to feel that they have a claim on him, that Caspar is there for their benefit and that he has no right to a personal life; his lying, his ‘secrecy’ just seem to me to be attempts to get away from this public life that everyone is intent on inflicting on him.

Events take a more sinister turn when one day he is attacked. In the garden one day he hears a voice from behind him say ‘Caspar, you must die’ and he is struck on the forehead with a knife. He made his way into the house and is later found in the cellar bleeding. Caspar recovers and it is during this period that an English lord first appears on the scene making enquiries about Caspar and offering a reward for anyone with information of Caspar’s attacker. Daumer, by this point, has become weary of looking after Caspar and it is agreed that he will go to live with the Beholds. Frau Behold is particularly obnoxious and domineering, Herr Behold is mostly absent. She bosses Caspar about and is only interested in him as a toy doll to parade around with at gatherings. She discourages his studies and teases him when he shows compassion towards slaughtered animals.

No, Caspar did not feel in the least at home. Frau Behold was utterly incomprehensible to him; her glance, her speech, her manner, all repelled him greatly. It cost him much thought and artifice not to show his dislike, although he was sick and miserable when he had spent only an hour in her company.

Relations deteriorate quickly between Caspar and Frau Behold. One morning he wakes to discover his caged blackbird dead on the dressing-table with its heart next to it on a plate. Caspar moves in with Herr von Tucher after Frau Behold locks Caspar out of her house.

At 467 pages this is quite a long novel, and as I have had to spend quite a while on the preliminary events I shall cover the rest of the novel in a second post.

The novel, so far, gives a pretty straightforward account of events, we could almost say that it’s Caspar’s version. But later on we get to see glimpses of others’ views and opinions.

Have you read the Wassermann novel? or seen the Herzog film?

I am reading this as part of German Literature Month VII.

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‘Demian’ by Hermann Hesse (GLM VII)

Demian was first published in 1919. My Picador edition made use of a translation from 1958 by W. J. Strachan. Demian was originally published under the pseudonym, Emil Sinclair, who is the narrator of the story. The narrator begins the story by describing ‘two worlds’, the first is the comfortable, clean, friendly world of his parents’ house and the other world is, well, basically the world outside of the first world, which is noisy, scary, violent and chaotic but also exciting, fun and lively. At the beginning of the story Emil is ten years old and he describes an event that has repercussions throughout the whole narrative. Emil gets to know an older, burly, rough boy called Franz Kromer who likes to boss and bully the younger boys. One day the boys sit around telling stories of their misdeeds in order to impress Kromer and each other. Emil can’t think of any bad things that he’s done so he makes up an incident where he stole some apples from a garden. Kromer suspects that Emil is lying but starts to blackmail him threatening to tell the owner of the apple tree if Emil doesn’t pay him two marks. Emil’s life becomes miserable as he ends up stealing small amounts from his parents in order to pay Kromer.

And then along comes a new boy, Max Demian, who saves Emil from Kromer’s bullying. How he actually gets Kromer to stop is never made explicit but Demian seems to Emil and the other boys to possess hidden powers over other people. A year or two pass and then Emil begins to encounter Demian more frequently. One time Emil sees Demian in a street crowd surrounding a dead horse and gets to observe him closely.

I saw Demian’s face and remarked that it was not a boy’s face but a man’s and then I saw, or rather became aware, that it was not really the face of a man either; it had something different about it, almost a feminine element. And for the time being his face seemed neither masculine nor childish, neither old nor young but a hundred years old, almost timeless and bearing the mark of other periods of history than our own.[…]Perhaps he was handsome, perhaps I found him attractive, perhaps he repelled me too, I could not even be sure of that. All I saw was that he was different from the rest of us, that he was like an animal, a spirit or an image. I cannot describe him except to say that he was different, unimaginably different from the rest of us.

Emil and Demian soon become close friends. Demian seems to have powers over other people, he seems to be able to bend them to his will, which impresses Emil. Demian believes that we should not just honour the ‘good’ things ascribed to God but we should also honour the ‘bad’ things ascribed to the Devil; this line of thinking is in tune with Emil’s thinking of the ‘two worlds’.

Emil ends up going to another school and is separated from Demian. At this school he ends up drinking a lot and leading a dissolute life for a while. This period comes to an end when he becomes obsessed with a woman called Beatrice. Rather than try to meet her he takes up painting in order to paint her portrait, but the portrait, Emil realises, actually resembles Demian. Emil meets Demian during this period and after a chat Demian says, enigmatically:

It is good to know that we have within us one who knows everything about us, wills everything, does everything better than we can ourselves.

The novel begins to take on a more spiritual tone at this point as Emil embarks on a spiritual journey to ‘find himself’. In his studies he comes across the god Abraxas, the god who was both God and Devil. He meets a new friend, Pistorius, an organist who also knows about Abraxas and who reminds Emil of Demian. Pistorius helps Emil to discover more about himself and his own life.

And at this point I felt the truth burning within me like a sharp flame, that there was some rôle for everybody but it was not one which he himself could choose, re-cast and regulate to his own liking. One had no right to want new gods, no right at all to want to give the world anything of that sort! There was but one duty for a grown man; it was to seek the way to himself, to become resolute within, to grope his way forward wherever that might lead him. The discovery shook me profoundly; it was the fruit of this experience.

Emil then goes to university and once again comes across Demian and also gets to meet Demian’s mother, Frau Eva, who is even more enigmatic than her son and whom Emil, of course, falls in love with. But as Emil’s spiritual journey continues the world is hurtling towards a world war.

Hesse tells a fascinating story, his style is compelling and although I cannot really identify with the spiritual, metaphysical nature of Emil’s journey it is an interesting journey to follow.

This post was my contribution to the German Literature Month challenge.

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‘A Confirmed Bachelor’ by Arthur Schnitzler

A Confirmed Bachelor is a novella included in the collection Vienna 1900: Games with Love and Death. It was originally translated by E.C. Slade in 1924 and published under the title Dr Graesler. The original German version was published in 1917 as Doktor Gräsler, Badearzt.

The story begins with the forty-eight year old Dr Graesler leaving his winter home in Lanzarote following the recent suicide of his sister. To Graesler’s annoyance the manager of the hotel suggests that Graesler should return the following year with a young wife. Graesler briefly visits his house in Berlin before continuing to a health resort elsewhere in the country where he has practised for six years. Before long Graesler attends to an elderly patient, Frau Schleheim, and is drawn into socialising with the Schleheim family. Dr Graesler is especially attracted to the daughter of the family, Sabine. Sabine is twenty-seven, quite serious and has had past experience working as a nurse in Berlin. One evening conversation turns to a local dillapidated sanotorium that is possibly up for sale. It would need renovating but the idea is put into Graesler’s head about running the sanatorium. Sabine is very enthusiastic about this project and is eager to assist Graesler in turning this into reality. She also offers to help with the adminstration of the spa, obviously looking forward to doing something useful and productive with her time. They spend hours together discussing the renovation and Graesler goes to visit the current owner who is eager to sell. After an evening with the Schleheims Graesler takes leave of Sabine:

He held Sabine’s hand a few moments, then raised it to his lips and kissed it fervently. She made no attempt to withdraw it, and when he looked up he thought her expression seemed more contented, even brighter.

Though Sabine and Graesler are both a bit awkward when it comes to matters of love both seem to be falling for each other. The following day, though, Graesler receives a letter from Sabine stating that she would like to marry Graesler if he were to offer. She admits that she doesn’t yet love him but their friendship is close to love. She reveals her past loves and discusses the future of the sanatorium in a cool manner. Graesler is a bit confused by the cool, dispassionate way that she has worked everything out, their marriage, the sanatorium, she even takes time to dissect his character; he notes to himself that she had correctly observed that he was priggish, vain, cold and irresolute. He wonders what else she may think after several years of married life. Graesler doesn’t know how to respond to this so he basically panics. He was already going to leave for Berlin in a few days time so he decides to leave earlier, i.e. straight away; he sends Sabine a letter informing her that he will return in two weeks time with an answer.

Whilst in Berlin Graesler is at a bit of a loose end and so he rummages through his dead sister’s possessions, he visits his lawyer, Böhlinger, and chats up a girl on the tram. The girl, Katharina, agrees to go to the theatre with him that evening and returns to his flat for supper. It’s not long before Katharina, who works in a glove shop, is living with him. Graesler also gets drawn in to attending a neighbour’s daughter who possibly has scarlet fever but who soon recovers. But now Graesler begins to think of Sabine and wonders if he had made a mistake.

More and more it seemed to him that Katharina’s true mission had been to lead him back to Sabine, whose love was to be for him the real meaning of his life. And the more trustingly Katharina—with no ulterior end in view—offered him the treasures of her gay, young heart, the more impatiently and hopefully his deepest yearnings went out to Sabine.

Note I will reveal the whole of the story in the rest of the post so you may wish to skip it if you don’t want to know the ending.

And so Graesler rushes back to the spa town to see Sabine and ask her forgiveness and to close the deal over the sanatorium. But the sanatorium is no longer up for sale and Sabine is no longer interested and wants nothing to do with him. Graesler now decides that Katharina is his soulmate and imagines returning to parade her in front of Sabine. So he heads back to Berlin only to find that Katharina is in bed with scarlet fever, possibly as a result of his contact with the neighbour’s girl. He stays with her until she dies and is upset by her death. After staying with Böhlinger for a few days he returns to his flat and bumps in to Frau Sommer and her child, Fanny, who had recovered from scarlet fever. Within a month Graesler has married Frau Sommer and the story ends with them visiting his hotel in Lanzarote to spend the winter.

This is an excellent story by Schnitzler, the character Dr Graesler is certainly annoying, he’s morally dubious and all the criticisms that Sabine accused him of are correct. But aren’t we all a little bit like Graesler at times? I suspect I am, and it’s not nice seeing such characteristics laid bare for all to see. It’s curious though that for Graesler everything turns out just peachy in the end.

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