This is November. And it is time for German literature month 🙂 Hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. You can find the homepage of this challenge with introductory posts, information on readalongs and giveaways, the list of participants and potential books that will be read, here.
I wrote a post on the books that I wanted to read for German Literature Month. As it always happens, after one makes plans, I changed the plan when November arrived. I had two short story collections which had German stories and I decided to read them first. One was a collection of German stories and it had creations by many of the masters there. The second one was a collection of short stories from across the world and it had a German section. I started reading the stories on Tuesday and finished the last story today.
These are the stories I read (by alphabetical order of the author’s last name).
Flagman Thiel by Gerhart Hauptmann – Flagman Thiel works in a bunk in a remote forest and his job is to open the gate and show the flag when the train passes. He has a son by his first wife whom his current wife treats badly. But Thiel likes being left alone and allowing the house to be run by his wife. How long can he ignore the unfair situation at home and bear the pressure in his heart? Unfortunately, something tragic happens and suddenly the taut string in his heart breaks and all hell breaks loose. An interesting story on what happens when a nice guy is pushed to the edge.
Gods in Exile by Heinrich Heine – It tries to picture what Greek gods who were expelled from people’s hearts and minds after the advent of Christianity might be doing today. The last scene where Zeus cries after discovering the status of his beloved temple is very poignant.
Harry’s Loves by Hermann Hesse – It describes Harry’s loves at different times in his life. I suspect that this is an excerpt, probably from Hesse’s novel ‘Steppenwolf’. I suspect that because the name ‘Steppenwolf’ appears many times in the story.
A Country Doctor by Franz Kafka – It is about a country doctor who has to go to a patient’s home urgently, but there is no coach available. Very Kafkaesque, with a lot of fantastic elements open to different kinds of interpretation, and very difficult to understand (atleast for me).
The Married Couple by Franz Kafka – Another typical Kafka story. Though I could connect with the story better. It is about how a couple who are married for many years are connected to each other in a very deep way from different perspectives.
The Naughty Saint Vitalis by Gottfried Keller – Vitalis is an unconventional monk. Every night he goes to disreputable houses, and prays for the beautiful girl who practises her profession there, for the whole night. Most of the time, the concerned girl gets frustrated by Vitalis’ strange behaviour but by morning her heart has changed and she reforms her ways and joins a convent. But then Vitalis meets a girl, whom he is not able to change despite his repeated visits. And more interestingly, Vitalis has a young admirer who lives in the neighbourhood, who wants to change him. What happens next is the rest of the story.
The Earthquake in Chile by Heinrich von Kleist – It is about two lovers whose love is not accepted by their elders and society and how an earthquake, which brings misery to everyone, brings them back together and brings happiness and joy to them. And how all this taken away again at the blink of an eye.
Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler – I didn’t know this when I read it, but I discovered that ‘Darkness at Noon’ is a novel. What I read appears to be an excerpt from the last part of the novel. It is about the execution of a prisoner in a country which is very similar to the former Soviet Union of the 1930s-40s and his thoughts on the hours preceding his execution. It was very poignant with beautiful passages. Also, isn’t that such a wonderful title – beautiful, dark, terrifying – making us want to find out what happens in the story.
Three Minute Novel by Heinrich Mann – The narrator describes his love life in a kaleidoscope of quickly transitioning images.
Death in Venice by Thomas Mann – A writer decides to get out of his comfort zone and long work days and tries to do something adventurous – that is he goes on a holiday. He goes to Venice. He notices a Polish family staying at the same hotel as him and one of his chief pleasures is to observe what they are doing everyday. He is particularly attracted to the young son and at one point falls in love with that beautiful boy. This unexpected sway of his heart makes him question his past and his life.
Disorder and Early Sorrow by Thomas Mann – Describes a party in a professor’s house and how a young girl experiences the first stirrings and pangs of love in her heart.
How Old Timofei Died Singing by Rainer Maria Rilke – Old Timofei sings in his village and is the best singer among all the neighbouring villages. In Timofei’s profession there is a tradition that all the songs that the father knows are taught to the son who will carry on the legacy. But Timofei’s son has had a quarrel with him, married a beautiful girl and left home to live in another city. Timofei is getting old and there is no one to whom he wants to pass on his songs and his legacy. Will Timofei’s son return back? Or will Timofei take away all his beautiful songs with him?
The Tale of the Hands of God by Rainer Maria Rilke – What were the Hands of God doing when man was created? This story tries to answer that.
The Sport of Destiny by Johann von Schiller – It is about a young man who becomes the prince’s favourite and how that impacts his life and career and the ups and downs he has. The story painted a picture of how capricious destiny is.
The Dead are Silent by Arthur Schnitzler – A man and married woman are having an affair. During one of their clandestine meetings, the coach they are travelling is overturned, overthrowing the man and the woman. The woman is not hurt but the man falls unconscious. What does the woman do? Does she summon help and wait for it to arrive and risk her honour? Or does she abandon the man she loves and escape? The story shows how a woman tackles this difficult and very real question. Also, isn’t that such an awesome title? One of my two most favourite titles out of the stories I read.
Immensee by Theodor Storm – An achingly beautiful and heartbreaking love story of two childhood sweethearts, one of whom ends up marrying a different person, and what happens when they meet again later in life.
The Burning of Egliswyl by Frank Wedekind – It is about a young prisoner who narrates his tale on how the burning love in his heart made him commit arson which took him to prison.
Kong at the Seaside by Arnold Zweig – Very short story about how one has to make difficult decisions when one is poor. Simple story with a powerful theme, involving a boy and a dog called Kong.
Moonbeam Alley by Stefan Zweig – It describes the adventures of a gentleman in a port city in the disreputable alleys near the harbour. It is a story about how people try to own those they love and how they inflict pain on those they are trying to own and how when they lose the person they love, they pine for what they have lost and try to get it back.
What I think
So, what do I think about these stories? Which ones are my favourites? I will try to answer the second question first.
I think the prize for my most favourite story would go to either ‘Immensee’ by Theodor Storm or ‘Darkness at Noon’ by Arthur Koestler. ‘Immensee’ is an achingly beautiful heartbreaking love story. It reminded me of Ivan Turgenev’s stories – like ‘First Love’ and ‘Spring Torrents’ – which always make me cry. ‘Immensee’ evokes beautiful images of childhood love and how it evolves across the years and takes many strange turns. Storm is a wonderful new discovery for me. His picture in Wikipedia looks forbidden, but going by his story, he seems to have had a passionate heart. I want to read more of his works. Caroline recommended his novella ‘The Rider on the White Horse’ and I want to read that next. ‘Darkness at Noon’ is a novel and what I read is an excerpt and so I don’t know whether it counts. Also Arthur Koestler seems to be Hungarian or British depending on the way we look at things, but he wrote in German during his initial days. I loved the fact that it was difficult to pigeon-hole him in one country – it just showed that nationality is not the rigid thing that it seems to be these days. So, I was not sure whether his story would count as a German story, but for practical purposes I am counting it so. Though I read only an excerpt of the last part of the book, it had some beautiful passages. Like this one :
Since the bell of silence had sunk over him, he was puzzling over certain questions to which he would have liked to find an answer before it was too late. They were rather naïve questions; they concerned the meaning of suffering, or, more exactly, the difference between suffering which made sense and senseless suffering. Obviously only such suffering made sense as was inevitable; that is, as was rooted in biological fatality. On the other hand, all suffering with a social origin was accidental, hence pointless and senseless. The sole object of revolution was the abolition of senseless suffering. But it had turned out that the removal of this second kind of suffering was only possible at the price of a temporary enormous increase in the sum total of the first. So the question now ran : Was such an operation justified? Obviously it was, if one spoke in the abstract of “mankind”; but, applied to “man” in the singular, to the cipher 2-4, the real human being of bone and flesh and blood and skin, the principle led to absurdity.
And this one :
Sometimes he would respond unexpectedly to a tune, or even the memory of a tune, or of the folded hands of the Pietà, or of certain scenes of his childhood. As if a tuning-fork had been struck, there would be answering vibrations, and once this had started a state would be produced which the mystics called “ecstasy” and saints “contemplation”; the greatest and soberest of modern psychologists had recognized this state as a fact and called it the “oceanic sense.” And, indeed, one’s personality dissolved as a grain of salt in the sea; but at the same time the infinite sea seemed to be contained in the grain of salt. The grain could no longer be localized in time and space. It was a state in which thought lost its direction and started to circle, like the compass needle at the magnetic pole; until finally it cut loose from its axis and traveled freely in space, like a bunch of light in the night; and until it seemed that all thoughts and all sensations, even pain and joy itself, were only the spectrum lines of the same ray of light, disintegrating in the prism of consciousness.
I would make these two stories my joint “most favourite”.
Which are my other favourites? I liked ‘How Old Timofei Died Singing’ by Rainer Maria Rilke, especially for its first page. My favourite passage on the first page, which I found absolutely magical, went like this :
“Where did you get the story you told me last time?” he finally asked. “Out of a book?”
“Yes,” I answered sadly, “the historians have kept it buried there, since it died; that is not so very long ago. Only a hundred years since, it lived – carelessly, for sure – on many lips. But the words that people use now, those heavy words one cannot sing, were its enemies and took from it one mouth after another, so that in the end it lived, most secluded and in poverty, on one pair of dry lips, as on a miserable widow’s portion. And there it died, leaving no heirs, and was, as I have already said, buried with all honors in a book where others of its family already lay.”
I also liked ‘Gods in Exile’ by Heinrich Heine, for showing a different perspective on what Greek gods might be doing today and ‘The Earthquake in Chile’ by Heinrich von Kleist, for its depiction on how big events which bring misery to everyone can bring happiness to a family. I liked ‘The Dead are Silent’ by Arthur Schnitzler – isn’t that such an amazing title – because it was very poignant and it asked some difficult questions on life and ‘Kong on the Seaside’ by Arnold Zweig for asking a different set of difficult questions in a few pages. ‘Moonbeam Alley’ by Stefan Zweig was wonderful because of its depiction of the cruelties in everyday life. All of these will be a close second favourite for me.
I somehow never got along with Thomas Mann. His ‘Death in Venice’ was quite difficult to read as I found it quite ponderous most of the time and I had to plod along for a long while with a lot of determination to finish the story. At around eighty-odd pages, it was the longest of all the stories I read, and it was also quite difficult to read. Interestingly for a story which I found tough to read, there were a lot of beautiful passages strewn throughout the story like beautiful pearls. Like this :
The horizon was unbroken. The sea, empty, like an enormous disk, lay stretched under the curve of the sky. But in empty inarticulate space our senses lose also the dimensions of time, and we slip into the incommensurate.
And this :
The experiences of a man who lives alone and in silence are both vaguer and more penetrating than those of people in society; his thoughts are heavier, more odd, and touched always with melancholy. Images and observations which could easily be disposed of by a glance, a smile, an exchange of opinion, will occupy him unbearably, sink deep into the silence, become full of meaning, become life, adventure, emotion. Loneliness ripens the eccentric, the daringly and estrangingly beautiful, the poetic. But loneliness also ripens the perverse, the disproportionate, the absurd, and the illicit.
The story probably caused some controversy when it was published because of its homoerotic content. When I started reading Thomas Mann’s ‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’, I started thinking ‘Oh no, not again’, because in the story of around 24 pages, nothing much had happened till around 20 pages – in some ways it was similar to ‘Death in Venice’. But then things changed in the last four pages where Mann depicted the first stirrings of love and the first pangs of love-pain in the heart of a young girl, beautifully and skillfully. Those four pages warmed my heart towards him. I don’t think I love Mann yet, but I wouldn’t mind exploring some of his shorter work.
On Kafka – I think he is not for me. I read a graphic novel version of ‘The Metamorphosis’ a few years back and I liked it. I found it dark and strange and powerful. But the two short stories I read here were too strange – especially ‘A Country Doctor’ which I couldn’t understand or interpret and it was too fantastic without any clear demarcation between the events which were happening in the story and the leading character’s imaginary fantasies. ‘The Married Couple’ was a little bit better, because it was more realistic and was a short story in the classic sense. Maybe certain kinds of Kafka stories will appeal to me, but I don’t think he will become one of my favourite writers.
I want to explore more works of Theodor Storm, Rainer Maria Rilke, Heinrich von Kleist, Stefan Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler and Arthur Koestler.
Have you read any of the above stories or books by any of the above writers? What do you think about them?
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