Sunday, 4 September 2011

Not All That Glitters...

We're off again!  Jump into the saddle, and we'll gallop off around Germany to have a look at a couple of places today, one in the west and one over in the east.  Don't forget to bring your packed lunch  ;)

Our first stop today is up in Westfalen in the north-west of Germany, very close to one of my old stomping grounds.  Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's Die Judenbuche (The Jew Beech), as well as being my first ever G-Lit classic written by a woman (insert shame face here), is a very well-known tale, thirty-odd pages of rural mystery and superstition.  Friedrich Mergel, a young man living in a small Westphalian village, does not have the best of starts in life, being the son of a rowdy alcoholic who died alone in the woods after a few too many drinks.  Therefore, when his uncle Simon decides to adopt him, his poor mother is extremely relieved, thinking that her son will finally be able to grow up to be an honest man.

However, Friedrich has bad blood in his veins, and after being cleared of any involvement in one serious crime, a second one (the murder of a Jewish moneylender) sees him fleeing the village, along with his friend - and lookalike - Johannes Niemand (Nobody).  Once the dust has settled (and the fugitives are nowhere to be found), the Jewish community of the surrounding villages ask to buy the tree under which the dead body was found.  After the wish is granted, they make it into a kind of memorial - with a prophetic Hebrew inscription carved into the tree...

It all sounds very interesting, and it is well written enough, but for me it falls between two stools in that there's too much there for a simple short story but nowhere near enough development for anything longer.  Some German novellas (like Goethe's Novelle) have this feel, and Die Judenbuche is definitely one where I found myself wanting a little more, either from the writer or the plot.  Don't get me wrong - it's well worth reading (especially when sourced for free for my Kindle!) - but as the one piece of writing preserving the writer's name for posterity, it doesn't quite measure up to expectations.  Still, that's what e-readers and copyright-free classics are for :)

Time to move on over to the eastern town of Halle, the starting point for Joseph von Eichendorff's amusing novella Die Glücksritter (The Adventurers).  We're back in the seventeenth century now, shortly after the end of the Thirty Years' War, and riding secretly on the back of a carriage with our stowaway hero, Klarinett.  When discovered by the coachman, he jumps off and (after stealing some cake and wine...) is pursued by a band of indignant men until he is cornered.  Luckily for him, a bear of a man appears in the street and gets rid of the whole group with a few swings of his sizable fists.  This man is the student Suppius, and together the two unlikely characters go on to have even more unlikely adventures.

The start of the story unfolds at a dizzying pace, and despite some gaps and an extremely rushed train of events, the reader is swept along with the dynamic duo and their humorous antics.  The secretive Klarinett, with his obvious pseudonym and a hidden past, fits well with the larger-than-life (and twice as clumsy) Suppius, going off on a quest to help the student serenade (and then rescue) the woman of his dreams - whom he has only ever seen on her balcony from the street below.  After a couple of chapters, Die Glücksritter is reminiscent of a Teutonic Don Quixote - or, more cruelly, a Germanic Asterix and Obelix ;)

Sadly, the story goes downhill from there.  Our focus is distracted in the third chapter, when the writer switches his attention to a new group of people and while he eventually ties the events together, the book never really reaches the heights promised by the beginning.  The whole story, from start to end, only takes up about thirty five to forty pages, and this is a tale which really could have gone somewhere, like the aforementioned Spanish classic, or even Dickens' The Pickwick Papers.  Instead, the few threads of the story are rattled through and tied up neatly within six chapters, almost as if this was an idea that the writer was really keen on for a few days but then rapidly lost interest in and finished just because it was there...

Unlike our first tale today though, this was not the crowning glory of Eichendorff's career.  He was more famous as a poet, but another of his prose works, Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts (From the Life of a Good-for-Nothing), is one of those works which crop up in conversation again and again (well, depending on the kind of conversation you're having anyway!).  Here's hoping that Taugenichts, which I have sitting waiting for me on my German-language bookshelf, is a longer, better version of Die Glücksritter, because I felt that this was an opportunity missed.

The moral of today's post then is that while there are a lot of great stories out there, sometimes (even in 19th-century German literature) they just don't work out for you.  Still, if you don't try, then you'll never know...