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Posts Tagged ‘German Novellas’

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 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?

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I read Patrick Süskind’s ‘Perfume’ a few years back and since then I have wanted to read more of his works. I thought I will read his novella ‘The Pigeon’ for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. I finished reading it in one breath. Here is what I think.

‘The Pigeon’ is the story of one day in the life of a fifty-something years old man, Jonathan Noel, who works as a guard in a bank. He is introverted, doesn’t like talking to people, likes being left alone, goes to work and comes back and minds his own business. When small unpredictable things happen in his life, his world turns upside down.  One day a pigeon ends up in front of his door. It gives him infinite anxiety and he packs his stuff and leaves his room. One small thing leads to another, his whole day turns topsy turvy, his peaceful, calm world becomes chaotic and his carefully laid decades-old plans come tumbling down.  Whether he is able to survive the domino effect of this small change to his day and come back to his home forms the rest of the story.

 

I loved ‘The Pigeon’. It has Süskind’s trademark beautiful sentences, his commentary on the human condition and his frighteningly realistic depiction of a character who is an outsider. If I had read this book when I was younger I don’t think I would have liked it that much. I am glad that I read it at the right time. It is a wonderful slim gem. A tiny masterpiece even. One of the reviews says this about the book – ‘Reminiscent of Kafka in its fearsome triviality and its bleak depiction of vulnerability.’ I can’t agree more.

 

Süskind has a very slim backlist. Other than ‘Perfume’ and ‘The Pigeon’ he has written just four more slim volumes. Wikipedia says that “Süskind lives reclusively in Munich, in Seeheim (Lake Starnberg) and in France (probably Paris and Montolieu). The public knows little about Süskind currently. He has withdrawn from the literary scene in Germany and never grants interviews or allows photos.”  The description looks like that of one of Süskind’s own characters.  Reclusive authors are always fascinating and it is intriguing why the best ones always end up being reclusive. However, one part of my heart feels sad that Süskind doesn’t write much anymore. I hope one of these days he gets up and starts on his new book. His readers would want to read that.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

He had once calculated that by the time of his retirement he would have spent seventy-five thousand hours standing on these three marble steps. He would then assuredly be the one person in all Paris – perhaps even in all France – who had stood the longest time in just one place. Presumably he had already achieved that, since by now he had spent fifty-five thousand hours on those marble steps.

 

That night there was a thunderstorm. It was one of those thunderstorms that do not burst suddenly with a volley of lightning bolts and thunder, but take a great deal of time and hold back their energies for a long while. For two hours it skulked about indecisively in the sky, with delicate sheet lightning, soft murmurs, shifting from neighbourhood to neighbourhood as if it didn’t know where it should gather its forces, and, expanding all the while, it grew and grew, finally covering the entire city like a thin, leaden blanket, waited again, using its irresolution to load itself with even more potent tension, and still it did not break…Nothing moved beneath the blanket. Not the slightest breeze stirred in the sultry air, not a leaf, not a particle of dust, the city lay there as if numbed, it trembled under the crippling tension, as if the city itself were the thunderstorm waiting to erupt into the sky.

 

He was just about to scream. He wanted to scream this one sentence…But in that moment of wanting to scream, he received an answer. He heard a noise. It was a knock. Very soft. And there was another knock. And a third and a fourth, from somewhere above. And then the knocking shifted into a regular, gentle drumming and the rolling of the drum grew more and more violent, and finally it was no longer drumming, but a powerful, glutted rushing around, and Jonathan recognised it as the rush of rain.

 

Have your read Süskind’s ‘The Pigeon’? What do you think about it?

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