Jakob Wassermann, Caspar Hauser

Jakob Wassermann, Caspar Hauser. Penguin Twentieth-century Classics, 1992. Paperback, 382 pp. Translated from the German by Michael Hulse. First published with the subtitle ‘Die Trägheit des Herzens’ (Inertia of the Heart), 1908

I remember feeling disturbed and puzzled by Werner Herzog’s 1974 film ‘The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser’ when it was released in England. It told the strange story of the ‘wolf boy’ or feral youth who wandered into the city of Nuremberg in 1828 bearing a letter requesting he be taken to the home of a local cavalry officer. He could speak just a little broken German, and seemed barely able to walk. With typical weirdness, Herzog cast an unknown street musician in his forties to play the teenage lead.

J Wassermann Caspar Hauser cover

The cover shows ‘Sleeping Schoolboy’ by Jean Baptiste Greuze

This novel by Jakob Wassermann includes most of the information known about Caspar Hauser’s life. When he was taken in and taught to read and write by a local schoolteacher, he was able to articulate his story. He claimed to have been incarcerated in a tiny cell for as long as he could remember. He was brought bread and water by a mysterious man who never revealed his face. He never saw the outside world, and had only a toy horse as company.

He became a minor celebrity. Rumours arose that he was a descendant of the dukes of Baden, and that he’d been imprisoned for reasons that gave rise to all kinds of speculation. Wassermann also shows that Caspar was suspected of being a fraud, and had made up this bizarre story – though it’s not clear why he would have done that.

Wassermann is less interested in providing a clear account of Caspar’s origins, or of the veracity of his story, than he is in the portrayal of a pure spirit, untainted by contact with corrupt humanity. In this account he’s a natural, an innocent, of the kind that intrigued the Romantic poets. He could also be seen as a sort of counterpart to the Frankenstein creature, but one created by Nature, not science.

For much of my teaching career I taught linguistics as well as literature. There’s a range of fascinating theories about child language acquisition. One of the most widely propounded (but not universally accepted) is Lenneberg’s theory (1967) of the ‘critical period’. This is the view that children are able to assimilate the language and behaviour they witness as they grow up, but this capacity diminishes once they pass a certain age, usually held to be around puberty. If deprived of such interaction, their cognitive ability doesn’t develop. This seems to be Caspar’s condition.

The sad case of the American girl known as Genie is often cited in this connection. At the age of thirteen she came to the attention of the welfare system of California. It emerged that she had been kept strapped for much of her life into a chair by her deranged father, who never spoke to her or allowed her to interact with others. When the authorities took over her upbringing, she acquired some basic social skills, but never became a fluent first language speaker – hence her importance for those who favour the critical period theory: she’d passed the age when language acquisition comes naturally.

I’ve seen two of my grandsons, now aged five and seven, become fluent in English, their father’s language, and Spanish, their mother’s. They attend a school just outside Barcelona where the teaching medium is Catalan; they’re now fluent speakers of that language, too. Yet adults usually struggle to become even partially proficient when learning a second language.

Caspar was 17 when he started to be socialised and taught language skills, so unless the critical period age limit is stretched implausibly, his case doesn’t really fit with the theory. On the contrary, his rapid acquisition of fluency in speaking and literacy would appear to support the views of the local sceptics who thought he was putting on an act.

Wassermann raises some of these issues, but ultimately prefers to focus on the young man’s astonishing sensitivity to stimuli, seemingly unfeigned intense emotional reactions to social and other situations, and apparent longing to find his mother. An English earl turns up and takes an unusual interest in him, and encourages Caspar to believe he will adopt him, take him back to England, and introduce him to his longed-for mother. Other events intervene, and dark forces exert strange influences on him – or is he a liar?

Quite a lot happens in Wassermann’s account of Caspar’s short life after his enigmatic appearance. Unfortunately, these dramatic incidents are widely spaced, with a great deal of rather ponderous intervening commentary and reflection on Caspar’s nature. The German author manages to render a fascinating story a bit stilted and wordy: I found the long narrative dragged, and had to skip sections.

This isn’t the fault of the translation by Michael Hulse. Wassermann writes in the mannered, verbose style of the previous century.

 

Recent events – and a grumpy gull

We’ve just said goodbye to our two English grandchildren, who came for their first visit in over a year. We hadn’t seen them since last August, so it was lovely to be together again. Lockdown restrictions eased recently, meaning we could start meeting other people indoors again. The weather was finally summery, and we were able to go to the beach. Mrs TD and the kids’ mum, who came for the final two days, went for a swim, joined by the 12-year-old granddaughter, but the water was a bit too cold for me.

Last week we paid our first social visit since before Christmas. Our friends who live nearby, the owners of those fine cats Iggy and Phoebe (they’ve featured a few times in the blog), invited us for coffee and cake. It was such a relief to mix with other people indoors, relax and enjoy stimulating conversation.

We admired their artworks, in particular a strange, vividly coloured crucifixion scene. They told us the artist was a Scot, Craigie Aitchison (1926-2009). They explained that the little dog looking up at the Christ figure, who returned its gaze, was the artist’s much loved Bedlington terrier. He features in many of his works, they told us.

Craigie Aitchison mural treeWe took the grandchildren to Truro cathedral during the week to seek out the four Aitchison murals our friends told us were to be seen there. The style is very distinctive, with vibrant bands of colour and stark, strangely mystical images of the crucifixion scene.

This first one appears to be a tree, perhaps the one that provided the timber for the cross on which the crucifixion took place.

To its left is the first of the scenes depicting Christ on the cross. The same vivid bands of colour form the basis of the image. At the foot of Craigie Aitchison mural cross and dogthe cross, instead of the usual human figures (mourners, soldiers), the little dog walks up to it, perky ears raised. The Christ figure appears to hang from one limp arm on the crossbeam, head bowed.

Next to this is the first image of the Christ figure looking straight out at the viewer. The dog now looks lovingly up at him. A star shines brightly in the sky above, and streaks of light or energy emanate from the figure on the cross. A blue bird – presumably symbolising the holy spirit, perches companionably next to the figure’s left hand.

Craigie Aitchison mural crucifixion

The mural on the far left of the four panels is a sort of mirror image of the first. This time the Christ figure’s right arm hangs over the crossbeam. The dog is no longer present.

Craigie Aitchison mural far leftI’m not sure how to read all the imagery, but each picture glows with a quiet energy. Despite the painful iconography, the simplicity and…I don’t know…charm of the scenes leaves me with a sense of happiness and hope. I’m not a Christian, but I can respond to the serenity of these images.

Grumpy gull FalmouthAfter our trip to the beach, we took the children to Falmouth docks, where we hoped to see the Estonian cruise ship that’s to be the floating hotel for some of the hundreds of extra police officers being brought in to police the area for the G7 conference. This takes place next week in Carbis Bay, near St Ives. The ship wasn’t there, but I liked the grumpy expression of this seagull perched on the railings above the docks.

Buttercup fieldWhen the children had left for home with our daughter yesterday we went for one of our local walks. Here to end this post is a view of the horses’ field that’s featured in previous posts, now a mass of shimmering yellow buttercups, with pink clover among them. A circling buzzard overhead isn’t discernible in my picture, but it’s good to know it was there, keeping an eye on things below. Despite the rather hazy focus, I hope it’s still possible to see the beauty of nature.

Back to books next time (probably).