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Posts Tagged ‘Theodor Storm’

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 know that the second week of German Literature Month is dedicated to German crime fiction. But I thought I will read more of one of the authors whom I discovered last week, first, before tackling some German crime fiction. I loved Theodor Storm’s ‘Immensee’ when I read it last week. So, this week I thought I will read Storm’s ‘The Rider on the White Horse’ which was recommended to me by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, who is hosting German Literature Month with Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. I got Storm’s book and read it today. I finished it sometime back. Here is what I think.

 

 

What I think

 

‘The Rider on the White Horse’ is a story set in a small North German village. It is told by a narrator, who seems to be the author, but we are not sure. The narrator says that he read this story half a century ago, in his great-grandmother’s place, in a newspaper. The story in the newspaper is told by another storyteller. This storytelling traveller is riding through a storm, despite his friend warning him to stay back in the warmth of the home, because he has some urgent business. On the way, he suddenly sees a ghostly white horse with a rider brushing past him in the opposite direction. The horse and the rider come back and pass him again. In a short while, the storyteller arrives at a village inn. He goes in and discovers that a few people – the dykemaster and a few dyke overseers – are having a conversation. He joins them. After a short while he tells them about the white horse and the strange horseman. Everyone becomes silent. When the traveller asks them about it, the dykemaster says that there is a story behind the white horse and its rider. The dykemaster asks the local village schoolmaster to tell the story. While the storm rages outside, the schoolmaster tells the story of Hauke Haien, how he was a lonely and an intelligent boy, how he got interested in mathematics, design and related topics, how he went to work at the place of the dykemaster of that time and how he fell in love with the dykemaster’s daughter Elke. The schoolmaster’s story goes on to tell the story of Hauke and Elke, how they get married and how Hauke becomes the dykemaster after many years, realizing his dream and how he planned a major project of building a new dyke, how it turned out to be a tremendous success but made a lot of people in the village suspicious of him and how a small flaw in the dyke and the violence of nature lead to disastrous consequences in the end.

 

‘The Rider on the White Horse’ evokes the haunting atmosphere of the North Frisian landscape, with its farms, dykes, storms and floods. I liked that aspect of the book very much. It also gives an interesting picture of North Frisian people and their culture. The book also contrasts reason with superstition – Hauke Haien wants to use logic while building a dyke, while the people of the village who are working with him are superstitious and suspect him. Many haunting visions appear throughout the story – the ghostly horse with its strange rider, a mermaid, strange creatures that Hauke sees near the dyke, when he is young, and which he sees again later, when he comes there as an adult with his young daughter. We are not sure whether these visions are optical illusions or whether they actually are what they seem to indicate. The reader is expected to form his / her own conclusions based on which side of the divide he / she is in. The story has a sad ending – how can it be otherwise, when it happens in the middle of a storm?

 

I liked ‘The Rider on the White Horse’ for the haunting images it evokes. I can’t wait to read more of Storm’s novellas.

 

If you would like to read ‘The Rider on the White Horse’ online, you can find it here.

 

Have you read ‘The Rider on the White Horse’? What do you think about it?

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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.

 

The Stories

 

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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