Tag Archives: GLM X

‘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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