Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Rider on the Storm

After a month spent metaphorically galloping all over Victorian England, you would think that it was time to relax, fill the bathtub with Radox and hot water, slip into some comfortable jim-jams and read something light and fluffy.  Well, no.  Instead, it's back into the saddle (once we've got the little matter of the English Channel out of the way), across France and on into the German-speaking lands of Central Europe - and we'll be heading back a few hundred years in time too.  Off we go, and don't forget to bring your phrase book...

Today, we're off to the North Sea, where the small groups of coastal dwellers live in awe and fear of the watery deeps which occasionally try to reclaim their land.  This is the setting for one of the most famous works in German literature, Theodor Storm's acclaimed novella Der Schimmelreiter.  Translated into English as The Rider on the White Horse (which simply does not have the same ring to it...), this hundred-page story is a tense, taut Teutonic tale with a slight supernatural slant.  Based on a true story Storm read in a newspaper (which is included in the appendix of my version), the novella takes the central premise of the ghostly rider and fills in the back story of its origins.

Hauke Haien is a young man fascinated by the dykes which surround, and protect, his hometown.  He educates himself in mathematics and, through his own studies and a fortuitous marriage, he achieves his aim of becoming the Deichgraf, the overseer of all the town's works on the dykes.  Once established in his role, he decides to pursue his dream of building a new, improved style of dyke to reclaim more land from the sea, and it appears as though his dream will become reality.  However, not everything is perfect in Hauke's cold, bleak homeland.  His cool nature and perfectionism have made him enemies amongst the local farmers; his only child appears to be developing very slowly; and there is also the matter of his new white horse (der Schimmel) - which appeared at the same time an old horse skeleton disappeared...

I don't think I'm giving too much away by saying that you shouldn't expect much of a happy ending here.  Unlike English Victorian authors, their German contemporaries felt themselves under no pressure to marry off the hero happily at the end of the third volume (they also felt no obligation to even let them get that far, the novella seemingly being the work of choice at the time).  Like Hardy and Eliot, Storm paints such a detailed picture of his setting that you can see the sea rolling towards the dykes and breaking on the hard walls, the long, narrow and treacherous path rising between the town and the sea, the distant isolated islands poking out from amongst the waves.  Unlike the pastoral depictions of the aforementioned English writers, the images we perceive are dark, cold and - I'll say it again - bleak.

Another similarity to some of the V-Lit I've read recently is the structure of the book.  Storm takes us from the year of publication, 1888, to the 1830s, then to the 1820s and finally to the early eighteenth-century, via a series of the ever-popular frame narratives.  Firstly, the narrator recalls a story a visitor told his grandmother when he was a child fifty years ago.  Then we enter the visitor's story and end up in an old inn (after this visitor has had a rather unpleasant encounter).  Finally, the visitor is entertained by an old man at the inn with the story which makes up the bulk of the novella.

This Russian-doll approach is similar to the ones employed by the Brontës in both The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and, especially, Wuthering Heights, and the setting of the main part of the tale in the distant past also allows Storm to introduce supernatural elements which would perhaps be less tolerated in a contemporary setting.  While Der Schimmelreiter never descends into a true ghost story, the hints of other-wordly elements at play help to prepare us for the dark ending, a finale which, while not unexpected, is still powerful and gripping.

If there is anything I would criticise about Der Schimmelreiter, it is probably the characterisation.  While, as mentioned, certain elements remind the reader of Eliot and Hardy, the protagonists here are certainly never as three dimensional as their characters.  Hauke Haien receives most of what attention to personality there is, but many of the other characters are merely types, rather than individuals.  This is a slight quibble though, and, of course, this is probably due to the brevity of the book.  If Storm had spread his story out over five hundred pages, then the characterisation would no doubt have been deeper - and probably at the expense of the tension.

And that is the abiding memory the reader takes away from Der Schimmelreiter - the sense of foreboding pervading the story, leading up to the gripping, inevitable end amidst the stormy northern night.  The final few pages, filled with thundering hoofs and lashing rain, are as tense as anything you're likely to read...  There is definitely no happily ever after in Storm's work, but the reader certainly won't be sorry they decided to make the long journey to the German coast.