My German Literature Month this year hasn’t gone well so far. I have been able to read just one book till now. Today, I thought I will try to do something about it. I thought I will read one of my old favourites and hope that it will bring back my reading mojo. So, I read ‘Immensee’ by Theodor Storm.
‘Immensee’ is around forty pages long. So, it is closer to a long short story or a short novella. The story starts with an old man getting back from a long walk to the place that he is staying. He goes into his room, sits on a chair and rests. After a brief while he looks at an old picture of a beautiful woman and says ‘Elisabeth’. His mind goes back to his younger days. The story then takes us back to the past when the old man was a boy of ten called Reinhard and his best friend and sweetheart was a girl called Elisabeth who is five. They are always together, he tells stories to her, they play at the forest near their homes, they go on picnics together with other children and pick strawberries. Unfortunately, the time comes when the boy has to go to a bigger town to study. He promises the girl that he will write to her regularly and will come back soon. The boy writes down all the stories that he used to tell the girl – her favourite ones – and keeps sending them to her. He also keeps a notebook in which he writes poems about the girl, about all the experiences they have gone through. Both of them are very much in love, though they don’t articulate that explicitly. But as in all the best love stories, things don’t go according to plan. The physical distance creates a barrier between a boy and the girl and they try bridging it every time they meet, but it becomes harder and harder. What happens to Reinhard and Elisabeth? Does the story have a happy ending? I can go on and tell you what happens next, but I think you should read the story to find out. After all, it is only forty pages long 🙂
I first read ‘Immensee’ three years back and loved it at that time. So, I was a bit worried when I read it again, because I was afraid of what will happen if my re-reading experience was not as good as the original one. Well, I needn’t have worried. The book was beautiful during my re-read too. It was beautiful in a different way though. I noticed things that I didn’t notice the first time – for example a gypsy singer who comes at the beginning of the story makes an appearance in the end, singing her favourite song which intensifies the poignant mood of the story. I also loved Theodor Storm’s beautiful descriptions of nature – the trees and the forest and the bees and the larks and the linnet and the canary and the river and the early morning and the mist and the dew and the first rays of the morning sun – it was vintage Storm. The story was worth reading for this beautiful evocation of nature alone. Nature was there even in the title – a footnote said that ‘Immensee’ stood for ‘Lake of the Bees’ (though some readers have a problem with this translation). Theodor Storm’s prose also gives an atmospheric, melancholic feel to the story, which makes one’s heart ache. Not the heartbreaking kind, but the mild, melancholic ache, which refuses to go away.
I also spotted a reference to India in the story, which made me smile. It went like this :
Elisabeth : Are there no lions either?
Reinhard : Lions? Are there lions? In India, yes. The heathen priests harness them to their carriages, and drive about the desert with them. When I’m big, I mean to go out there myself. It is thousands of times more beautiful in that country than it is here at home; there’s no winter at all there.
One part of that dialogue is totally true. There is no winter in India. One of my college professors used to joke that there were only three seasons in India : hot, hotter and hottest!
There were many songs and poems scattered throughout the book like pearls. They were all beautiful. My favourites were the song which the gypsy girl sings in a tavern during Christmas Eve (it ends with ‘I must die alone’) and the poem which Reinhard and Elisabeth read towards the end of the story, ‘By my mother’s hard decree’. I think the poems and the songs must be more beautiful in the original German.
I also loved the fact that many of the important things in the story are implied but not explicitly stated. It doesn’t mean that they are ambiguous and left to the reader’s interpretation – they are clear enough but implied. Theodor Storm does that masterfully. In the last scene a new character makes an appearance in one sentence and we can’t help asking ourselves what that meant – is there a twist in the story here? Who is this Bridget? Is there something here that Storm implies? Isn’t this a straightforward story but one in which a lot of stuff happens in the gap between the last and the last-but-one chapters? I would love to hear your thoughts on it, if you have read the story
I will leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.
Elisabeth : And who, pray, made all these pretty songs?.
Eric : Oh, you can tell that by listening to the rubbishy things – tailors’ apprentices and barbers and suchlike merry folk.
Reinhard : They are not made; they grow, they drop from the clouds, they float over the land like gossamer, hither and thither, and are sung in a thousand places at the same time. We discover in these songs our very inmost activities and sufferings : it is as if we all had helped to write them.
I am glad I re-read ‘Immensee’. I fell in love with it all over again, with the beautiful Elisabeth and the wonderful Reinhard and the kind Eric and the beautiful landscape that Theodor Storm creates. I think I will be reading it again. Maybe after a few years.
Have you read ‘Immensee’? What do you think about it?