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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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‘Alien Hearts’ by Guy de Maupassant

NYRB_Maupassant_Alien-HeartsAlien Hearts was first published in 1890 as Notre Coeur and was Maupassant’s last novel. A more straightforward translation of the title would be Our Heart which the translator, Richard Howard, acknowledges in the preface but he mentions that Maupassant had intended to write a companion to Notre Coeur called Alien Souls which he didn’t finish. I normally don’t like it when translators or publishers decide to change the title of a translated book but in this case I prefer the new title and I think that it’s more suitable as well – in short, it’s a better title.

Although I’ve read quite a few short stories by Maupassant this is the first novel that I’ve read by him. Maupassant gets down to business straight away as the first sentence describes the situation:

A day came when Massival – the musician, the famous composer of Rebecca, the man who for at least fifteen years had been called “our distinguished young maestro” – asked his friend André Mariolle, “Why the devil haven’t I ever seen you at Michèle de Burne’s? If you ask me, she’s one of the most…interesting women in Paris. In today’s Paris, at any rate.”

Mariolle is thirty-seven, unmarried, rich and a dilettante. Madame de Burne is a pretty, young widow who established her salon following the death of her tyrannical husband. She is also a tease and a flirt and many of the visitors fall in love with her. One evening Mariolle is talked into going to de Burne’s salon and is immediately attracted to her. His friends warn him that he will fall in love with her just like everyone else.

And what of de Burne? She is certain that Mariolle has fallen for her, she knows the signs, and is just waiting for Mariolle to act:

Yet her heart did not thirst for emotions like the hearts of sentimental women; she was not searching for a man’s unique love nor for the gratification of a passion. All she required was the admiration of every man she met, acknowledgment of capitulation, the homage of universal tenderness.

She does not love but enjoys being beloved. Certain of Mariolle’s love, she is surprised when she gets a letter from him saying that he’s leaving because of her. Well, de Burne uses this to invite him to see her so they can talk through the problem – and Mariolle is hooked.

I’m not a big fan of nineteenth century novels about lovers, their traumas, infatuations and jealousies etc. And it was this subject matter that bored me a little when I was reading Proust last year. So I was a bit wary of this novel as I progressed as it was following a well-worn path of nineteenth century literature; so Mariolle falls completely for de Burne and thinks of her all the time, they arrange to meet clandestinely and eventually Mariolle sets up a love nest where they can meet in private. Rather than viewing events solely from Mariolle’s perspective Maupassant gives us glimpses into de Burne’s mind, which is generally more interesting than Mariolle. Whereas Mariolle takes on the role of the typical Romantic suffering intensely for his beloved, de Burne is icy cool. The novel, as well as Mariolle’s character, comes alive when their relationship begins to falter, partly because both characters start to analyse their own thoughts and feelings as well as the other’s. De Burne arrives later and later to their trysts and Mariolle realises that things are cooling off between them, which causes more suffering. Mariolle realises that they are completely different types:

What struck him most about Madame de Burne’s letters was the complete absence of sensibility. This woman thought, she never felt.

But Mariolle feels. Is it possible for two people who experience love in different ways to carry on loving each other? In their discussions Mariolle accuses de Burne of not loving him because all the passion of the relationship comes from him:

   Realizing how far apart they were, Mariolle murmured, “What a strange way to think about love – and to talk about it! For you I’m just someone you like to have, more often than not, in the chair beside you. But for me you fill the world. There’s no one else in it, I know no one else, I feel no one else is there, and you are all I want.”
   She had a kind smile for him as she replied, “I know, I can tell, I understand what you’re saying. I’m happy to hear what you’re saying, and what I say in return is this: Keep on loving me as much as you can, if you can, for that’s my greatest happiness; but don’t force me to perform a farce which would be painful for me and unworthy of both of us. For some time now, I’ve sensed this crisis was coming; it’s painful for me because I’m so deeply attached to you, but I can’t transform my nature and make it like yours. Take me as I am.”

Up to this point I believed that de Burne was just toying with Mariolle and she would be quite content to let him go when she was bored of him, but now the dynamic has shifted, at least a little bit, and the novel takes a drastic turn as well…but I won’t reveal any more of the plot.

This ended up being an excellent read but it wasn’t plain sailing; I started off by liking it, then I almost felt like throwing it down out of boredom, only to be captivated with the ending, which is a bit ambiguous and throws up many questions. I wonder if Alien Souls was intended to answer some of those questions?

This was cross-posted on the Marvellous Maupassant blog.

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‘Season of Migration to the North’ by Tayeb Salih

Salih_Seasons-fcX-700pxSeason of Migration to the North was first published in Arabic in 1966 by the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih. This NYRB edition was published in 2009 although the English translation by Denys Johnson-Davies was first published in 1969. It is a short novel at only 140 pages but it is a compelling story. It begins with the young narrator telling us of his return to Sudan after years spent studying in London. He has missed the village in which he grew up and he notices a man he doesn’t recognise. He is informed that this is Mustafa Sa’eed who has lived in the village for five years. Not much is known about Sa’eed even though he married Hosna Bint Mahmoud, the daughter of a local man, and he is involved in local activities.

The narrator eventually gets to talk with Sa’eed but he still doesn’t find out much about him. One time to the narrator’s astonishment, at at a drinking party a drunken Sa’eed starts to quote some First World War poetry in perfect English. On the following day Sa’eed tries to deny that it happened but after a few days he expresses a wish to speak to the narrator. He then tells his story to the narrator, starting with his childhood, growing up without a father, attending some of the first schools in Sudan. He felt as if he was an odd child:

Yet I had felt from childhood that I—that I was different—I mean that I was not like other children of my age: I wasn’t affected by anything, I didn’t cry when hit, wasn’t glad if the teacher praised me in class, didn’t suffer from the things the rest did. I was like something rounded, made of rubber: you throw it in the water and it doesn’t get wet, you throw it on the ground and it bounces back.

Sa’eed ended up going to school in Cairo and then university in Oxford. Whilst in England he became involved with several girls, most of whom subsequently committed suicide, but it was the elusive Jean Morris whom he began to obsess over, follow and eventually be convicted of killing.

After these tantalising glimpses into Sa’eed’s life the narrative returns to the present, the Nile has flooded, and Sa’eed has gone missing. It is presumed that he drowned in the flood, but his body is not recovered and it is soon revealed that a few days before his disappearance he had written a will stating that the narrator should be the guardian of his children. The rest of the story consists of the narrator’s involvement with Sa’eed’s wife, Hosna, and his children; this is interspersed with flashbacks to Sa’eed’s story of what actually happened in London with Jean. Both stories have climactic endings but there are some humorous episodes as well, for instance there is a brilliant section where the narrator drops in on his beloved grandfather and his guests who are in the middle of telling each other dirty stories, reminiscing and ribbing each other. Wad Rayyes is an ageing womaniser and Bint Majzoub is a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking woman of seventy who has been married eight times (Wad Basheer was her favourite husband though):

“In any event,” said Wad Rayyes, “as we stand today, I’m the most energetic one of you. And I’ll swear that when I’m between a woman’s thighs I’m more energetic than even this grandson of yours.”

“You’re a great one for talking,” said Bint Majzoub. “You doubtless run after women because what you’ve got to offer is no bigger than a finger-joint.”

“If only you’d married me, Bint Majzoub,” said Wad Rayyes, “you’d have found something like a British cannon.”

“The cannon were silenced when Wad Basheer died,” said Bint Majzoub. “Wad Rayyes, you’re a man who talks rubbish. Your whole brain’s in the head of your penis and the head of your penis is as small as your brain.”

Salih_Wedding-of-Zein_GRUp until about a month ago I hadn’t heard of Tayeb Salih but now that I have I hope to read some more books by him. He wasn’t a prolific writer but there are a couple more that are available in English. Next up will be The Wedding of Zein, which is also published by NYRB and, if I can hunt down a copy, I will also read Bandarshah.

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