Lives transformed: Keyserling and Tyler

June reading, part one. Two short novels about people whose lives are transformed through encounters with people who cause them to reassess the way they’ve been drifting complacently through life until then.

Eduard von Keyserling, Waves Translated from the German by Gary Miller (Dedalus European Classics, 2019. 19111

I came across the fiction of Eduard von Keyserling a few years ago when I followed the excellent translation by Tony Malone at Tony’s Reading List of an earlier work of Keyserling’s, Schwüle Tage or Sultry Days. Tony recommended Waves as a good place to continue exploring the work of this author. He was born in 1855 (he died in 1918) in a German-speaking duchy in present-day Latvia (a region then part of the Russian empire)

In the introduction to the book Miller makes the point that Keyserling forms a link between nineteenth century realism and twentieth century modernism in literature; his work is sometimes described as ‘literary impressionism’. Keyserling was a rather odd-looking, sickly aristocrat…whose books are largely about German aristocracy before the First World War; although limited in scope his depiction of these social elites [was] not uncritical.

(Adapted from Jonathan’s Intermittencies of the Mind blog 2019)

The intimate tranquillity of an aristocratic family’s holiday by the Baltic Sea is broken by the arrival of a controversial couple. Beautiful Doralice has left her stuffy, elderly husband, Count Köhne-Jasky; he was bending her into the shape he expected a dutiful, compliant countess to be, and this was stifling her. So she’s eloped with the bohemian artist who’d been (rather foolishly) commissioned by the count to paint his wife’s portrait. Shades of My Last Duchess.

Her impact on the extended family of Generalin von Palikow is seismic. There’s her two grown-up daughters: one has a philandering military husband and two impressionable teenage children; the other is joined by her (also military) fiancé – he too has a wandering eye. They all fall under the spell of Doralice, in various ways. Keyserling dramatizes the shockwaves she causes in their lives and relationships so that the fissures and faults in the aristocratic society of the time – this is set just before WWI – with subtlety and psychological insight. It’s notable that both military men will almost certainly be swallowed up in the horrors of the war that they don’t realise is about the break out and finish the job of destroying their crumbling aristocratic lives for ever.

The character of Doralice evolves from that of trophy wife (and second wife) into that of a proto-feminist. She comes to realise that her free-thinking new partner, the artist, instead of encouraging her to rejoice in her newly liberated self, is moulding her into his perception of a wife, just as her ex-husband tried to do. Frying pan to fire, perhaps.

The disabled neighbouring holidaymaker, Knospelius, is a witty, perceptive chorus to these goings-on. He sees more clearly than the participants in this drama what dangerous games they’re playing. He’s obviously an avatar of Keyserling himself – a sad, lonely figure, excluded from the main dance.

Thanks to Tony for the excellent recommendation.

Anne Tyler, Redhead by the Side of the Road, (Chatto and Windus, London, 2020)

I think this is the first novel by American author AT that I’ve read. I liked the film of her earlier novel, The Accidental Tourist. The central character there, as in Redhead, has a quirkly, whimsical air, darkened by melancholy and pain.

It’s opening is typical of the lucid, fluent style of the novel, and the engaging, button-holing narrative voice:

You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer. He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone.

He’s a reclusive, obsessively tidy man; it’s no surprise that he makes a living as a fixer of people’s computer/IT problems – he calls himself the Tech Hermit. His buttoned-up character is evident in both his rigid housekeeping routines and his relationships – to the detriment of his love life. He always finds fault with the women he’s with; it’s as if he can’t reboot them when he sees them as having gone wrong, so he moves on.

His present girlfriend, Cass, lives in her own apartment. Micah likes his own space. His tranquillity is shattered when a young man shows up at his door and says he’s the son of one of his ex-girlfriends and needs a place to stay. This leads to a reunion with the boy’s mother. Revelations about how and why Micah broke up with her cause him to take stock of himself.

Like the aristocratic families holidaying by the Baltic, he comes to question what he really values and wants in life.

This novel is less substantial than Waves, which is really about a decaying way of life for a whole social class in central Europe at the time it’s set. This one is more a portrait of a single man and his propensity for emotional evasion. I suppose he also represents, in a less complex way than Keyserling’s characters, the ways modern society has atomised, and people have tended to become less adept at what is required to maintain emotionally healthy relationships. Maybe a less profound or amibitious novel than Keyserling’s, but both are well worth reading.

Oh, and that enigmatic title? Micah’s unwavering routine involves going for a run every morning. Because he doesn’t wear glasses or lenses when he runs, he doesn’t see too well, and regularly mistakes a fire hydrant near his home for the roadside redhead. Another of his misperceptions about women.

Recent reading: Mann, Bulgakov, etc.

It’s been a busy month. Two trips to London to visit friends (went to see My Fair Lady at the ENO – terrific) and in Worthing (saw Gershwin’s Crazy For You at the Chichester Festival theatre -also good). I’ve also had a big work project with an improbably close deadline. So this will be a very quick round-up of recent reading.

Alison Moore, The Lighthouse Salt Publishing, 2012. I’d expected a novel about lighthouses, but this isn’t that novel. The timid protagonist does stay in a German pension called Hellhaus, which apparently translates as lighthouse, and his most treasured possession is a silver perfume holder in the shape of one – but that’s it. Otherwise it’s a slightly strange story about loveless marriages, disappointments of other kinds, all told in a flat, affectless style. I wasn’t overwhelmed, but it was ok.

T Mann Felix Krull coverThomas Mann, Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. PMC 1973; first published in German in 1954. Translated by Denver Lindley. I’d expected a novel called ‘Confessions’ to show some contrition, but there’s not much of that here. It’s more of a boastful fictional autobiography of Felix’s life to the age of about 21. He’s a bit of a male Becky Sharp: lives on his wit and good looks. It’s an enjoyable romp involving swapping identities, travels to Paris and Lisbon, and some passionate affairs that Casanova would have approved of. There were digressions and purple patches that slowed things down too much, but it was all good fun. I was inspired to read this late Mann by Colm Toibin’s The Magician. I thought I’d posted about that, but just checked: I haven’t, so must do so.

Bulgakov Dr's Notebook coverMikhail Bulgakov, A Young Doctor’s Notebook Alma Classics, 2012. First published 1925-26. Translated from the Russian by Hugh Aplin. Another from the set I bought recently from Alma to support, in some very small way, the current terrible struggle of Ukraine (Bulgakov was born in Kiev in 1891). It’s a short collection of short stories about the clearly autobiographical doctor’s experiences, straight out of medical school at the tender age of 24, in his first job in a small hospital in a remote peasant village in Russia. A common theme is his encountering difficult cases that he’s never dealt with before except in the university teaching room. A young girl’s leg is badly mangled in an agricultural accident, and he has to perform his first amputation; a pregnant woman needs a tricky procedure to save her unborn child, and so on. Each time he’s racked with doubts about his ability to succeed without damaging or even killing his patient. He even rushes out on a pretext to quickly consult his medical books before starting his procedures with patients. He doesn’t always get it right, either. Peasant ignorance is also highlighted, not very sympathetically – but the doctor can be forgiven for finding their apparent stupidity vexing. The final tale is a gripping, scary account of another doctor’s morphine addiction – a problem Bulgakov  also struggled with. It’s all a bit like a grim Dr Finlay’s Casebook without the cloying charm. This collection enabled me to spend a long train journey entertainingly.

Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019. I stupidly forgot to note the translator’s name, having left the book behind for one of my London friends to read. I’d read positive reviews of this Man Booker International prize winner, but it left me more perplexed than satisfied. It’s an engaging enough story about an eccentric woman in her sixties, living in a secluded forest in Poland near the Czech border, who’s grieving for her lost ‘girls’ – her two dogs, and who becomes involved in the mystery about a series of murders of hunters in the forest. I found the long sections where she muses on astrology, one of her other obsessions (apart from animals), tedious, and never really got into her mind. Some of her philosophical asides are more interesting, but for me the whole thing was just too implausible. Maybe I shouldn’t have read most of this one on another long train journey.

Larkin Jill coverPhilip Larkin, Jill Faber, 1975, first published 1946. Larkin wrote this when he was just 21. I chose it from my friend’s shelves, having finished the books I’d taken to London and Worthing with me (see above), because we’d been to Chichester Cathedral (before the theatre) and seen the Arundel tombs that inspired Larkin’s famous, lovely poem. It’s a painful read. Another timid protagonist, John Kemp, lacking in self-esteem; this one goes up to Oxford in 1940. He’s from a humble working-class (or lower middle-class) background in industrial Lancashire. He finds he has to share rooms with a drunken, oafish cad from a minor public school who patronises and uses him disgracefully (John even lets him copy his essays to pass off as his own, and lends him money he can ill afford to lose, for of course the swine will never pay him back), but the poor lad is too lacking in confidence and experience to stand up for himself; he even admires and tries to emulate this brat. The Jill of the title is an imaginary version of his sister who he invents as a desperate way of ingratiating himself with the boorish roommate. It doesn’t go to plan. It’s a brilliant, salutary antidote to the languid, rose-tinted nostalgia in other Oxford novels like Brideshead.

 

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.

 

Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries. Post 2

Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries. Translated from the German by Damion Searls. NYRB paperbacks, 2 vols., 2018. First published in German in 4 vols, 1970-83

Post 2

The section dated Nov. 22, 1967 begins as so many do: news stories, partly modified, according to the translator (see his essay where he discusses this; link at the end of yesterday’s post) from the Times – events in Vietnam, draft-dodging in Oklahoma, hippies ‘provoking the Establishment’ east of Denver and a drug-fuelled infanticide.

Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries. Box setMost of the rest of this seven-page entry deals with the protagonist Gesine Cresspahl’s unconventional relationship with a fellow Mecklenburger called Erichson, but dubbed ‘D.E.’ by Gesine’s ten-year-old daughter, Marie. Gesine had met him before they both escaped to the West, in his case in 1953; he found her after she’d been in Manhattan for eleven months (1961-2). He’s a professor of physics and chemistry, and an adviser to the Defense Department on matters of secretive ‘Distant Early Warning’ radar technology (but maybe some of these systems ‘might be designed for other than defensive purposes’, Gesine suspects; it’s still the Cold War).

He’s a sophisticated and worldly man of nearly forty, a brilliant linguist as well as scientist. Formerly a ladies’ man, he’s now desperate to marry Gesine – or at least to live with her if she won’t commit to matrimony. It’s a narrative strand in this meandering, fragmented collage of a novel that embodies a central theme: parents and children. Anniversaries is, in some respects, about daughters’ quests for fathers; Marie, Gesine’s precocious, Americanised daughter, never knew hers, while Gesine lost hers too soon.

Uwe Johnson, AnniversariesWe see in this section how D.E., this possible surrogate father for Marie, whisked them away on exciting trips to Europe, often as surprises. He’s well off, drives a Bentley and spoils them with treats and expensive meals in smart restaurants. Marie likes and admires him, and he clearly likes her, and this causes Gesine difficulty; she’s as keen as he is not to become too committed. It’s one of the most interesting aspects of the novel, this on-off relationship. You have to wait for almost the last page to find out how it works out.

We’re given, as is unfortunately a fairly regular problem with Anniversaries, far more detailed information in this section than anyone could need, in this case about a small Irish town they visit, its topography, history, etc.

Seamless switch to Richmond, and Gesine hesitates as she goes to write out a telegram form, observed by D.E. in ‘a careless, pensive attitude’:

And yet he’ll conceal that he’s troubled. In such moments, he sees in me not the person he wants to live with but someone at risk of going insane. And wants to live with me anyway.

That first-person voice of Gesine’s often morphs into the third person, or even ‘we’; at times it’s difficult to tell whose voice we’re getting, and I found this confusing and rather annoying at times.

She goes on to reflect that the two of them are living together, just in different places, ‘an arrangement where his need for perfect solutions overrides my mistrust of settled finality: what was planned as loose has become fixed.’

Her narrative then drifts off into a speculative fantasy of what could or would happen if he she submitted to his ardour; a long list of modal verbs shows her unease with the matrimonial ménage he craves. Why is she so reluctant to commit to this man who in many ways would enable her to give her daughter the kind of life she longs to provide?

Maybe because her doubts arising justifiably from the gap between where she stands morally and politically and his apparent amorality (that dubious ‘defense’ work; some of his political views).

She muses less critically on his equitable, ‘consistent’ temper. He’s not ostentatious about his wealth, and never presumes to be anything more than a guest when he visits Gesine and Marie in their Riverside Drive apartment:

He’s not jealous: it’s only what goes on in my thoughts that he wants to be the only one, or at least the first, to know. There are many things he is the only one to know. What else does he want? Can’t he rest on the laurels of his famous affairs, and conveniently acquire a family that already has a child, one who already understands him too? He says: No. Am I supposed to do at my leisure, financed by him, what he can’t do: live for one person alone? He would say: If it were up to me.

In this day’s entry her misgivings are perhaps further explained when Gesine describes how he’s erased his past (whereas hers is always present – hence those long accounts to Marie):

He’s converted his memory into knowledge. His life with other people in Mecklenburg, only fourteen years ago after all, has been tucked away as though into an archive, where he continues the biographies of people and cities down to the present, or else closes the file in case of death. Yes, everything’s still there, and he can call it up at will, only it’s not alive. He no longer lives with it.

Maybe this is why Marie gets on with ‘this elegant gentleman’ so well: they’ve both become American, while Gesine clings to her European past. So although he doesn’t pry or make demands on her, she feels hemmed in, even though she acknowledges his relaxed approach to courtship:

If I ended up in a cage with him, at least it would be a cage made to my measure and furnished according to my requirements…The only thing is, why does he need someone in his life? Marie could do it. She could stand to live with him in one apartment, in one house.

That ‘cage’ metaphor is oddly similar to one used by Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth: Lily Bart also fumes about the ‘great gilded cage’ women in New York society are caught in, waiting for a wealthy husband to maintain them in the luxury they’ve become used to but fear they are in danger of losing if they stay single. Gesine’s plight isn’t very different from Lily’s, as she sees it.

This narrative section about Gesine’s struggle to deal with how to resolve this situation with D.E. ends enigmatically:

That I believe. The other thing I don’t believe.

What does she mean? Presumably ‘that’ is Marie’s being able – even happy – to live with him as a family. ‘The other thing’?: her own capacity to accede to his desire to live with her.

The entry ends with another fragment of random reportage.

 

 

 

 

Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries

Uwe Johnson (1934-84), Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl. NYRB, 2018. Translated from the German by Damion Searls. First published in German in 4 vols, 1970-83

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Antoni Gaudí took over work on the Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona in 1883; when he died in 1926 it was far from finished – and won’t be for another decade. There were times when I was working through this enormous novel, Anniversaries – almost 1700 pages in a handsome two-volume box set from NYRB – that it felt a bit like that seemingly never-ending project. My mixed reactions to the novel were similar to my response to Gaudí’s architectural masterpiece when I first saw it: a weird blend of ugly, bizarre and glorious. Anniversaries is equally radical, experimental and innovative: a polyphonic work of astonishing ambition and beauty, but also of a not entirely harmonious blend of features, at times a bit of a mess (like life?).

It has two main narrative strands (and hundreds of minor ones): foremost is the story of Gesine Cresspahl and her ten-year-old daughter Marie and their life after six years in New York City, told in daily entries, one per day, from Aug. 21, 1967 to Aug. 20, 1968. They’re not diary entries: more like scrambled, collated fragments of texts, conversations, thoughts and urban encounters with random people.Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries. Box set

Interspersed in this fragmentary narrative is a second: that of Gesine’s father, Heinrich, his courtship of and marriage to her mother, followed by the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the early 1930s, and the second world war and its immediate aftermath.

Gesine was born in 1933, the year that Hitler became Chancellor. This strand of the novel relates, again in highly fragmentary form, the destructive impact of this terrible era in history on her family, friends and fellow inhabitants of the small fictional town of Jerichow, Mecklenburg, near the Baltic coast in northern Germany (not the real town of that name in Saxony-Anhalt). When the war ended, the town was occupied briefly by the British, and then by the Red Army. The punitive, doctrinaire Soviet regime was as brutal as that of the Nazis, with executions, persecution (and suicides to avoid it) and social divisions rife.

Meanwhile the strand set in New York in the sixties involves the effects of the huge social upheavals in America and beyond at that period. Social divisions are the main feature here, too. African Americans are discriminated against by white citizens, with Jews not far behind. It’s simplistic to see this as history repeating itself, but the parallels between Europe in the thirties and the USA in the sixties are striking.

This was also the time of the Vietnam War, assassinations (Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy) and a rising counter-culture. In Europe there were signs of the political change that culminated in the évènements in France and the Prague Spring.

All of this is mediated through the endless conversations in which Marie elicits the story of her mother’s past: how Heinrich worked as a carpenter in Richmond, Surrey, then returned to Jerichow with his homesick wife for the birth of their daughter. Marie has adapted more successfully than her mother to their new culture: her English is better, more idiomatic and American-accented; she’s forgetting her German. She knows the Manhattan subway system ‘by heart’, and loves riding it. She also delights in her regular Saturday outings on the Staten Island Ferry with her mother.

Gesine, for her part, has an uneasy relationship with America and its culture: she’s more comfortable with the guy who runs the cafeteria in the building where she works (in a bank, with a creepy boss) than with her colleagues. Visits to friends often end in social disaster or increased isolation.

Gesine’s slowly-accreting, tangled historical account covers events in her family’s life before, during and after WWII. Even more gradually revealed is the story of Marie’s father; Gesine is very reluctant to give too much detail about him, and the full picture is never entirely clear in focus, and its unfolding only ends in the very final pages of this huge novel. This is a key feature of the novel: it withholds or occludes as much as it reveals.

Uwe Johnson, AnniversariesOften the narrative is taken up with scraps of unidentified voices in dialogue with others, sometimes in italics, and it can be confusing to try to figure out whose they are. At p. 1343 Gesine’s voice sort of explains:

I hear voices…don’t know when it started. I assume in my thirty-second year but I don’t remember a particular reason it would have started. I don’t want to. But it takes me back (sometimes almost completely) into past situations and I talk to the people from back then as I did back then. It takes place in my head without my directing it. Dead people, too, talk to me as if they’re in the present…in these imagined conversations… I hear myself speaking not only from the subjectively real (past) position but also from the position of a thirty-five-year-old subject today.[First ellipsis in the text; others mine]

Many of these voices, she goes on, are from before she was born, yet she hears them as clearly as the others; it’s a ‘special ability’ of hers, and she can respond to them in her mind, too, as she can with Marie’s unspoken thoughts. Even with strangers ‘the unsaid becomes perceptible, I mean what the other person doesn’t say or just thinks’. This second, ‘imagined strand’ of discourse sometimes displaces what’s “really” taking place, without quite paralysing it. Like a novelist’s mind, in fact.

Another main narrative component is the stories printed in the New York Times each day, and given in often exhaustive detail – after a while I tended to skip these interruptions to focus on the characters I was more interested in. Gesine is an avid reader of this paper. This aspect of the novel is magnified enormously compared with, say, Döblin’s Alexanderplatz or Dos Passos’ USA, both of which also incorporate such mini-narratives in their collage approach. OK, so they add context and often ironic commentary on American life seen through Gesine’s sceptical, seen-it-all European eyes, but I didn’t need several hundred of these long, repetitive texts.

Gesine had fled the communist regime of the GDR, but has an ambivalent view of the divisive politics and culture of her adopted country. She deplores the casual racism and isolationism she perceives there, and how her daughter is adopting some of these views (there’s a fraught relationship, for example, between Marie and one of her black classmates; with their German Jewish neighbours they’re a little more at ease – within limitations). She also collaborates with a friend back in divided Germany to assist dissidents or the persecuted in escaping from the communist East, while disapproving of Marie’s adherence to the prevailing anti-communist feeling in an America still engaged in the Cold War.

I also found myself skimming many of the sections in vol. 2 which dealt with the Soviet occupation of Jerichow. We’re given interminable accounts of seemingly every child in Gesine’s school and their attitude to the oppressive new order. This too I found (like the newspaper stories) tediously repetitive – an admission I’m not proud of, given the serious subject matter. But I think a novel shouldn’t bore me, and at times this one did.

These tedious sections are worth toiling through, however: the novel as a whole offers a fascinating insight into the collision of a damaged European sensibility with a decadent, stimulating American world. The parts that deal with the rise of Nazism and then communism are a refreshing change from other literary accounts that tend to be located in the big cities. Johnson explores in minute detail the lives of ordinary rural people who take pride in their provincial lives, and are suspicious of people from the regional capital; Berlin is another world.

I must praise the translation by Damion Searls. It’s a monumental effort, to render such an enormous novel into highly readable, idiomatic and fluent English. His task is made extra difficult by the obsession of Johnson with linguistic matters. Mecklenburgers often speak in Plattdeutsch, which is conveyed with a sort of eye-dialect technique that works pretty well. Main characters are sensitive to the nuances of their mother tongue and its difference from the “standard” forms, or the American English they are required to master. This aspect of the novel is an important and illuminating feature, given its preoccupation with social and cultural divisions. Language is explored as a means of connection and separation; a medium for social coherence, and for establishing identity as social outsiders.

Anniversaries has such a vast panorama, social, political and historical, and a massive cast of characters, most with lengthy and meticulously detailed back stories, it’s difficult to discuss it meaningfully here in brief. Instead I’ll focus on just one entry, for the date I started drafting this post: November 22 (1967, in Gesine’s world). That’s for tomorrow.

For useful insight into the translation (and Searls’ take on the novel) I’d recommend three essays by him in The Paris Review; link HERE to the third part, which has links to the first two.

Also check out the “readalong” hosted by Trevor at his Mookse and Gripes site (he calls the novel ‘a masterpiece in world literature’; I’m slightly less enthusiastic); readers are commenting on weekly entries in Anniversaries on the corresponding dates in 2019-20 (I’ve submitted a few myself).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pale rider: Theodor Storm, The Dykemaster

Theodor Storm, The Dykemaster (first published in German as Der Schimmelreiter – The Rider on the White Horse (or ‘the Grey’) in 1888 in a literary journal. It was the last of his sequence of fifty novellas. Translated by Denis Jackson. Angel Books, London1996

Theodor Storm (1817-88) was born in Husum on the flat, windswept N. Frisian coast in western Schleswig – now part of Germany, but formerly a Danish duchy. Like the Netherlands, it’s land constantly threatened with flooding by the ‘wild North Sea’. Life for the farming communities there in the 19C was ‘an eternal struggle against its terrifying and destructive power’ (Translator’s Preface). That struggle is conveyed with starkly animistic imagery; at one point the stormy sea is described as

the line of foaming surf clawing its way further and further up the side of the dyke

Theodor Storm, Dykemaster coverIt’s a dark, supernatural tale of the rise of ambitious, vengeful Hauke Haien to Deichgraf or Dykemaster of the polder regions, responsible for the maintenance of the sea defences that protected the precarious, meagre fenland crops and pastures behind them. It’s a coastline where it’s not unusual for bloated corpses to be washed ashore after a storm.

A young man with vision, he sets about the construction of a revolutionary new kind of dyke – a scheme so innovative that it provokes the animosity of his narrow-minded, ignorant community – in which he’d never been popular.

His humble origins as the son of a poor smallholder are constantly held against him. But even as a child he’d seen that the traditional, ancient system of building and maintaining the dykes was inadequate: ‘The dykes must be changed!’ he’d cried when still a child.

The story is told in a complicated double-frame narrative, setting the events in a distant past to add to its sense of elemental potency that transcends its provincial setting. A traveller on a stormy night has a terrifying encounter on a dyke with a spectral rider on the eponymous ‘lean grey’: as this figure passes by –

a pair of burning eyes looked at me from a pallid face.

He’s told its story (its climax set appropriately at Hallowe’en) by the superstitious old men, principally an old schoolmaster, at the inn he shelters in. So far, all very MR James. But Storm’s tale is told with far more grit and passion. It reeks of the saltmarshes and wind-whipped North Sea, and contains savage images. Like the cat that’s brutally killed by Hauke in a rage (and whose pelt is later revealed as the covering for a footstool!), or the fierce legends of the region, principally the belief that for a newly built dyke to be strong and efficacious it’s necessary to throw into its foundations a living creature: “a child’s best of all; but when there’s none, a dog will do!” the dyke-builders callously claim.

Offshore is a system of mudflat-islands known as ‘hallig’, one of which, previously used for grazing sheep, but lately inundated by the relentless tides, is described with typically salty grimness:

So it came about that the hallig’s only visitors were gulls and other birds that fly along the shore, including occasional osprey; and from the dyke on moonlit evenings only thick or thin blankets of fog could be seen drifting over it. A few bleached bones of drowned sheep and the skeleton of a horse – no one quite understood how that came to be there – were also claimed to be recognisable when the moon shone on the hallig from the east.

That skeleton horse is to play a part in the terrifying ghost story that follows. Even more so is the story of the ‘satanic’ white horse of the title. Hauke at one point of extremity makes a terrible prayer that may or may not bring about the baneful dénouement.

As the Afterword by David A. Jackson points out, Storm’s is a fictional world ‘governed by transience, renunciation and death.’ It makes MR James seem like Enid Blyton.

I was alerted to this strange, haunting novella by a fellow blogger – I’m afraid I can’t remember who. I subsequently came across a terrific sequence of posts about this and other Storm novellas at Tom’s blog, Wuthering Expectations, which I’d commend to you.

There’s also a fascinating and highly informative Theodor Storm website, with photos, maps and other background materials that help bring the location to life.

Update a few hours after publishing this post: thanks to Tom at W. Expectations for his comment, identifying Lizzy Siddal and her blog. Here’s the link to her collection of posts on  T. Storm, including one with the translator, Denis Jackson, and stories of her own trips to Hulsum and N. Frisia.