Tag Archives: GLM

‘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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Bits & Pieces (Dec 2016)

Well first I would like to wish a Happy New Year to everyone! I hope that everyone is looking forward to some fun reading in 2017. I don’t feel like writing a retrospective of the books I read in 2016 but I thought that I would have a bit of a roundup of those I read in December. Since finishing German Literature Month (GLM) in November I haven’t posted too often but I have been reading, honest.

My Big Reading Task of 2016 was Anthony Powell’s twelve volume Dance to the Music of Time which I sort of ‘fell into’ really at the last minute as I read along with a GoodReads group; even when I started I wasn’t too sure if I’d stay to the end as I had intended in being free of any ‘Big Read Challenges’ for the year but I was soon hooked. I didn’t blog too much on the series as I found it a bit awkward to write Powell_Dance-04posts for separate books in the series where a knowledge of the characters’ antics in the previous volumes was really necessary. Each review would only have been of interest, I felt, to someone who was reading the same volumes at the same time as me. So, at one volume a month I got to the last volume, Hearing Secret Harmonies, in December; I was a little wary of this volume as I’d read quite a few negative comments on it but I found it to be one of my favourites of the series. It jumped forward to the early 1970s and almost brought events up to date as it was written in 1975. One of the joys of reading ‘Dance’ was that there were a whole host of characters, some of which appeared throughout the series, whilst others appeared and faded away. In later volumes we had X Trapnel who was based on the novelist Julian MacLaren-Ross and in this last volume we get the Manson-like hippy leader, Scorpio Murtlock, and the bizarre scenario of Widmerpool trying to join and take over the cult. It did seem a bit of an odd direction to take but I felt that Powell handled it brilliantly. I would encourage anyone who hasn’t read ‘Dance’ to consider reading it, although it’s twelve volumes it’s not as daunting as that sounds and each volume was a breeze to read.

After my reading for GLM I felt like reading something a bit ‘lighter’ and turned to an old favourite author of mine from the late ’80s, Martin Millar. He had a new book out called Kink Me Honey and where his previous book called The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies which was set in Ancient millar_kink-me-honey_amazonGreece hadn’t really appealed to me that much, this one did. Most of Millar’s books that I’d read had an urban setting and usually revolved around some kind of subculture, such as punks, travellers, etc. Kink Me Honey centres around an S&M club in London and whilst it is funny it is pretty raunchy as well. The book contains what are supposed to be posts and comments to the club’s website and through these we get a lot of subplots and diversions from the main plot; initially I thought that this part of the novel was a bit of a gimmick but I soon realised that Millar was using it to good effect by enabling him to poke fun at the way our online lives play out. Part of the humour is in the way that the cast of characters act just as they would in any other organisation or club and so there are feuds, bitching, funding problems, organisational problems, character clashes etc. Even though I finished it a month ago I still hope to write a longer review on it so I’ll not comment any further for now.

Theodor Storm is an author I only discovered from being a part of GLM and I had hoped to read another volume of his short stories/novellas for this year’s GLM but I ran out of time. Paul the Puppeteer and other Short Fiction consists of the three novellas all translated by Denis Jackson: The Village on the Moor, Paul the storm_paul-puppeteer-fcx-700pxPuppeteer and Renate. The title story is the best of the three as it is more immediate than the others; the main story is told to the narrator by the elderly Paul Paulsen and is basically a love story, even though it’s not really apparent until late on in the story. Paul is destined to become a master craftsman but he is fascinated with the puppetry of a travelling puppeteer and his daughter, Lisei. The puppeteers have to move on and Paul loses contact with them only to be reacquainted with them when he is older at a time when the elderly puppeteer has been falsely imprisoned for theft. The puppeteers are hounded by the authorities as if they’re vagrants and their form of entertainment is now falling out of fashion. It’s a sad, beautiful and uplifting story told in Storm’s unsentimental way. Renate takes place in the early eighteenth century and centres around the love of a Lutheran pastor for a girl who is subsequently accused of being a witch. As is usual with Storm the story is revealed from several incomplete sources. I feel that this one would benefit from another read.

I felt that overall my reading went quite well in 2016. Along with Powell’s ‘Dance’ I tackled Orlando Figes’s book on the Russian revolution, A People’s Tragedy. My GoodReads summary of the year (which can be viewed here if you’re interested in the details) shows that I read 45 books or 14,949 pages, which is paltry compared to some people but I’m quite happy with it. If I worried about such things I may mention that the Powell books only counted as four, rather than twelve, as I read them in the omnibus editions.

And so on to 2017! I have few plans for this year other than to read as many books as I can that I already own as the number of physical books that I now own is starting to be unmanageable. I’m not going to try to quantify what I intend to get through as I will undoubtedly be diverted from this task throughout the year but I shall chip away at the pile. Here is a photo of what I have to get through…and there are quite a few on my kindle as well…

Physical TBR pile as of January 2017

Physical TBR pile as of January 2017

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‘The Invisible Collection’ by Stefan Zweig

german-literature-month-viI am having trouble getting started with my reading for GLM VI, what with prior reading commitments, work and general weariness/laziness. But in order to get things going I thought I’d re-read a story by Stefan Zweig that I read earlier in the year and one which I enjoyed thoroughly. It was one of my favourites in the Pushkin Press collection, Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig. It was originally published in 1925 as Die unsichtbare Sammlung. Please be warned though that this review contains spoilers. I also reviewed another short story from the collection called Mendel the Bibliophile.

The main story involves an antique dealer who tells the narrator the troubles he’s been having recently—the story was written in 1925 and is presumably during the period of hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic. He mentions that in order to stimulate trade he’d fallen back on lists of old customers. He was just returning from one such customer, an octogenarian, whom his firm hadn’t heard Zweig-Collected-Storiesfrom since the outbreak of World War One even though he had been a regular customer for the previous fifty years or so. The antique dealer reckoned that it would be worth paying the gentleman a visit as either the old man or his heirs may be willing to sell some of his pieces. He discovers that the old man is still alive and as he has few visitors he is happy to talk to the antique dealer. Upon meeting the old man the dealer realises that he is now blind, which slightly unnerves him. The old man is not stupid and realises that the dealer is there to try to drum up business from his old customers but they nonetheless get on well together and the old man looks forward to showing the dealer his collection and talking to someone who knows the subject. But just when the old man calls for the key to his collection of artworks and engravings his wife attempts to put him off until after lunch when his daughter, Annemarie, can be present. The old man accepts grudgingly.

When the dealer has finished his lunch at the hotel he is visited by the daughter, Annemarie. She is flustered and explains that her father’s collection is not complete anymore as several items have been sold due to hard times. She tells the dealer how they attempted to get by without touching the collection but in the end they had to, without, of course, her father knowing. Every day he would ‘look’ through his collection not realising that most of it had been sold and replaced with cheap reprints. The daughter pleads with the dealer to play along and not to enlighten the old man.

“Maybe we have done him an injustice, but we couldn’t help it. One must live, and human lives, the lives of four orphaned children as well as my sister, are surely worth more than sheets of printed paper. To this day, what we did hasn’t taken any of his pleasure from him; he is happy to be able to leaf through his portfolios for three hours every afternoon, talking to every print as if it were a human being. And today…today would perhaps be the happiest day of his life; he’s been waiting years for a chance to show a connoisseur his darlings. Please…I beg and pray you, please don’t destroy his happiness!”

So of course the dealer agrees to keep the secret and returns with her to her parents’ apartment. The old man begins to lovingly show his Dürer prints and Rembrandt sketches to the dealer, gazing at them and touching them, caressing them as he describes them in detail and how he acquired them, not realising that they were cheap copies. Although at first disconcerted, the dealer begins to play his part of the enthusiastic art lover and exclaim when each piece was presented.

And so that headlong, eloquent recital of his triumphs went on for another good two hours. I can’t say how eerie it was to join him in looking at a hundred, maybe two hundred blank sheets of paper of poor reproductions, but in the memory of this man, who was tragically unaware of their absence, the prints were so incredibly real that he could describe and praise every one of them unerringly, in precise detail, just as he remembered the order of them: the invisible collection that in reality must now be dispersed to all four corners of the earth was still genuinely present to the blind man, so touchingly deceived, and his passion for what he saw was so overwhelming that even I almost began to believe it.

The old man is so pleased with showing his treasures to someone who knows their true worth that he doesn’t want it to end. Reluctantly he accepts that the dealer must leave to catch his train. The women look towards the dealer with gratitude that he has made the old man happy with his complicity. The dealer feels a little ashamed that he was being thanked when his original intentions had been to try to obtain a few good items to sell.

And I felt—I can’t put it any other way—I felt a sense of reverence, although I was still ashamed of myself, without really knowing why.

This is a beautifully simple story. I’m sure that most of us have been praised for something that has turned out well but where our original intentions weren’t so benevolent. Zweig’s clear, simple style is a joy to read; it reminds me of writers like Chekhov but also of Ingmar Bergman’s style of telling a story, at least his earlier works anyway, where there is no clutter, no side stories or tricks, just keep the story simple and keep to the point. Everyone should try Stefan Zweig at some point—I’m glad I have.

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‘Aquis Submersus’ by Theodor Storm

GLM-V 2015Aquis Submersus is a novella that is included in the New York Review of Books collection called The Rider on the White Horse translated by James Wright. I’m a new convert to Theodor Storm’s work and although this collection is all that I’ve read so far I will certainly be reading some of the other collections that have been translated by Denis Jackson and published by Angel Books. It’s probably fair to say that I generally prefer short stories and novellas to long novels. I find that a short story stands more chance of reaching perfection than a novel does and Aquis Submersus is such a story, so close to perfection.

The story was written in 1875/6 and begins with a contemporary narrator recalling his childhood friend, the pastor’s son, together with descriptions of the surrounding countryside. On the very first page of the story we get this description:

Here the honeybees and white-gray bumblebees hummed over the fragrant blossoms of heather, and the beautiful gold-green beetles ran among the plants; here in the sweet clouds of the erica and the resinous bushes hovered butterflies that could be found nowhere else on this earth.

But it’s not nature that particularly piques the narrator’s interest, instead it is a picture of a dead five year old boy holding a water lily that hangs inside the church. Next to this there is a portrait of the boy’s father, a severe looking pastor. The Storm_Rider-on-White-Horse-fc-magXC-700pxpicture of the boy is dated 1666 and all that is known is that the boy drowned in a pond on the premises of the church. The narrator notices that the letters C.P.A.S. appear at the bottom of the painting. The pastor explains that ‘A.S.’ must stand for ‘Aquis Submersus’ or ‘drowned’ but is unsure what ‘C.P.’ stands for. After a while the narrator suggests ‘Culpa Patris’ or ‘Because of the father’s guilt’. The pastor dismisses this suggestion vehemently. Years later, whilst looking for a room to rent, the narrator notices a portrait of a man holding a dead boy with a water lily in his hand. When he asks the landlord about the painting it is revealed that there are some old papers including two notebooks. The narrator is intrigued and these notebooks contain the story of Johannes, a painter, that begins in 1661.

Johannes is studying to be a painter and since the death of his father has been lucky enough to have Herr Gerhardus, an old aristocratic friend of his father, as a patron. Life with Gerhardus had been idyllic, he had often spent days playing with Gerhardus’s beautiful daughter Katherina and chatting with the friendly caretaker Dietrich. However Johannes is disliked by Katherina’s brother Wulf and it is apparent that a local young aristocrat, Kurt von der Rusch, has eyes for Katherina. When Johannes leaves for Amsterdam to continue his studies Katherina comes out to see him on his way and to give him a gift.

But on his return five years later the situation has changed. Gerhardus has recently died and now his son, Wulf, is the new master. Kurt has a vicious streak and is pursuing Katherina’s hand in marriage. The atmosphere is now one of violence and oppression. Katherina is happy to have Johannes present as a kindred spirit. They get to spend some time together when Johannes is asked to paint Katherina’s portrait and Johannes soon agrees to help deliver messages between Katherina and her aunt in order to escape from Kurt and Wulf. Johannes returns late one evening with a reply from Katherina’s aunt. It is too late to enter the estate so he goes to an inn only to find that Wulf and Kurt are there. Wulf guesses that Johannes is carrying messages for Katherina, tussles with him and then sets his dogs on him. Johannes manages to escape and finds himself up a tree outside Katherina’s window. She lets him in and they spend the night together. With their love for one another now certain they plan to elope the following day, but when Katherina doesn’t appear Johannes confronts Wulf and asks for her hand in marriage. Wulf shoots Johannes but does not kill him. After recuperating Johannes escapes to Amsterdam and has a relapse. He is unable to contact Katherina and no-one has seen her since that day. The first notebook ends.

There is much symbolism and foreshadowing in the first notebook. When, as children, Katherina wants to show Johannes some birds that have nested in the hollow of a tree, she is shocked to find an owl standing guard over the opening waiting for the birds to exit. She cries ‘the goblin!’ and urges Johannes to shoot the owl, which he does. Later on Katherina would shout ‘the goblin!’ whenever Kurt would appear and they would both run away. Wulf later became a more sinister manifestation of the goblin, preventing Katherina from escaping. After Johannes had escaped to Amsterdam following the shooting he still had hopes of returning to Katherina; but he was unaware of those intent on thwarting his ambitions:

…and soon I could see the day of my journey to Katherina moving happily toward me, nearer and nearer and nearer—totally unaware of the evil obstacles that I would have to struggle against, before I came to the end.
    But a man’s eyes cannot see the darkness that lies right in front of him.

When Johannes is looking at the older portraits in Gerhardus’s home and he comes across a painting of a woman displaying Wulf’s harshness it is revealed that she cursed her own daughter for not marrying the man she wished her to. The daughter was found the following day drowned in the pond.

I will reveal the ending in what follows so if you wish to remain ignorant of the ending it may be best to stop reading any further.

The second notebook resumes the story five years later in 1666. Johannes is living with his brother and he has a steady income from his painting. One day he receives a commission to paint a portrait of a pastor; it’s not well paid but he’s between jobs and he decides to use it as an excuse to spend some time in the country. When he arrives he sees the pastor leading ‘a ‘beautiful, pale little boy of four’ by the hand. The boy is often present when the pastor sits for the painting and Johannes is surprised to discover that the boy is also called Johannes. He only catches brief glimpses of the boy’s mother. Later at home it dawns on him:

The eyes! The eyes of that beautiful, pale little boy! They were her eyes! What had I been thinking of? But then, if it were she, if I had already seen her again—I shuddered at my thoughts

Whilst the others are away in town he manages to talk to the boy’s mother, who is indeed Katherina. She reveals that the boy is Johannes’ son and that the pastor had been kind enough to take her as his wife despite her being a ‘fallen woman’. When the pastor and the sexton return Johannes leaves Katherina to speak to them, but they are interrupted by a cry—little Johannes has drowned in the pond.

The ending of the story is very powerful and controlled. The pastor discovers the truth about Johannes and Katherina and he orders Johannes to paint a portrait of the dead child. Left alone, for the first time, with his son, Johannes holds him. Johannes explains that C.P.A.S. stands for ‘Drowned in the flood of his father’s guilt’.

I felt it necessary to include much of the plot details in this post because the basic plot could so easily point towards a melodrama. Indeed, I could imagine other nineteenth-century authors really going to town with such a story and creating some hideously mawkish story. But it’s Storm’s incredibly controlled, but poetic, style that really brings the story alive. The story is told in a clear, realistic way. For example, the scene where Johannes and Katherina spend the night together following Johannes’ escape from Wulf’s dogs is so naturally depicted that it’s entirely believable. Due to Johannes’ lowly status, their intended marriage will never be accepted by others and so they plan their escape the following day; Johannes asks:

“Should I leave you now, Katherina?” I said at last. But the young arms raised me up to her mouth without a word, and I did not leave.

That Johannes somehow feels guilty over the death of his son may be, to some extent, understandable but would we agree with his judgement? I’m still unsure why he feels guilty over his son’s death unless it was just a brief, but overwhelming, feeling as he came to the end of his painting. Or is it that he feels guilty of his son’s existence and therefore his death? Is this what is meant by this quote?:

We had created the life that came to this death;

Is it guilt over creating a life that had to die young?

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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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‘Hotel Savoy’ by Joseph Roth

GLM-V 2015I started to read Joseph Roth’s Hotel Savoy for the 1924 Club but ran out of time to post a review. The book really appealed to me as it was set in a hotel and there’s an endless parade of quirky, sometimes grotesque, characters, and yet I found that I didn’t really enjoy it; it seemed a bit of a trivial book. And then I looked at it the other day, which is only a week or so after I had finished it, started reading it again and enjoyed it the second time through. I think the main problem was that I was rushing through it and as it’s a book with a fast-paced narrative most of it just wasn’t sinking in. Note to self: to enjoy reading I have to take it slow.

Published in 1924 it’s an early work by Roth. The main character is Gabriel Dan, a soldier returning home from a Russian concentration camp after World War I. He’s ended up at the Hotel Savoy in an unnamed Roth - Hotel Savoy fccity in Eastern Europe (Wikipedia states that it’s Łódź, Poland), his ultimate aims are unclear but he’s currently just looking forward to some running water, a clean bed and soap.

I am thankful once again to strip off an old life, as I so often have during these years. I look back upon a soldier, a murderer, a man almost murdered, a man resurrected, a prisoner, a wanderer.

He has one of the cheap rooms on the sixth floor. The hotel is quite luxurious but the occupants of the hotel are a mix of the wealthy and the poor – Gabriel mixes mostly with the poor. There is a strike going on at one of the factories and there is talk of revolution in the air, especially with the influx of soldiers returning from Russia. Gabriel is scarred by his experiences of the war and finds it difficult to reconnect with humanity.

I am alone. My heart beats only for myself. The strikers mean nothing to me. I have nothing in common with the mob, nor with individuals. I am a cold person. In the war I did not feel I was part of my company. We all lay in the same mud and waited for the same death. But I could think only about my own life and death. I would step over corpses and it oftened saddened me that I could feel no pain.

Gabriel quickly settles into the rhythm of the hotel even if he constantly feels like he should be moving on. We’re introduced to a whole load of characters in the first half of the book, there’s the girl, Stasia, in the room above who paces about during the night, there’s Gabriel’s rich uncle Phöbus who’s reluctant to part with any money, there’s Phöbus’s son Alexander who is attracted to Stasia, as is Gabriel. There is also Santschin, an elderly clown, whose act involves a donkey, Hirsch Fisch who dreams of winning lottery numbers and sells them to customers, and there’s Ignatz the elderly lift-boy who always seems to be watching what people are getting up to. There are rumours about the Greek owner, Kaleguropulos, turning up for an inspection though no-one ever actually sees him and there are rumours that a child of the town, Bloomfield – a millionaire who now lives in the U.S., will be visiting soon. And there are many more characters that we get to know via short pencil-sketches of their more entertaining traits.

Gabriel can’t decide whether to stay on at the hotel or to leave. He sometimes dreams of a life with Stasia, but at other times he just wants to move on. When Alexander offers to pay a significant amount for Gabriel’s room he at first accepts and then changes his mind. In Part Two an old war buddy, Zwonimir, turns up and stays with Gabriel. Zwonimir is a revolutionary, he’s a lot more talkative than Gabriel and believes that the future is with America. The novel becomes a bit more focused with the arrival of Zwonimir as he gets to know all the inhabitants of the hotel and when he’s bored with that he finds some work for himself and Gabriel. Gabriel sums up Zwonimir thus:

    He is a healthy person. I envy him. In our part of the world, in the Leopoldstadt, there were no such healthy fellows. He enjoys the vulgar things of life. He has no respect for women. He knows no books, reads no newspaper. He does not know what goes on in the world. But he is my loyal friend. He shares his money with me and would share his life with me.
    And I would do as much for him.

So, with Zwonimir things pick up. Bloomfield arrives and both Zwonimir and Gabriel ingratiate themselves into his life for a while.

It’s certainly strange that I didn’t like this book on my first read as it’s just the type of book that I find entertaining. The book is quite bleak, in a way, but has plenty of humour, loads of weirdly interesting characters and a climactic ending. If I wanted to be critical then I would say that the narrative style clips along a little too quickly and the book may have been better if Roth had expanded certain bits and slowed down. But it is what it is, and in the end I thoroughly enjoyed it. I may read it again in another week’s time.

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Filed under Fiction, Roth, Joseph