Monday, 5 March 2012

More Fun with the Two Teds

The other day, I decided to read a couple of my Hamburger Lesehefte books (cheap editions of German-language classics), and it gave me the opportunity to catch up with two writers I first discovered last year, Theodor Fontane and Theodor Storm.  I'd like to tell you that I chose the two books carefully, weighing up their complementary values, but that would be a big fat lie - I chose them because they're both written by a man called Ted.  Funnily enough though, there was actually a lot more connecting them than that...

Grete Minde is a bitter-sweet love story, about eighty-pages long, which is concerned with our titular heroine.  Poor Grete is having a tough time of things after the death of her mother as her pious sister-in-law doesn't approve of her manners or her burgeoning relationship with the neighbours' son, Valtin.  Things get worse when Grete's father dies, and after a particularly violent argument, Grete and Valtin run away together.  Years later, the young woman returns to her hometown of Tangermünder, and that's when things really hot up.

The novella is a mix of styles and influences, starting off very much like Storm's Immensee,  turning into a kind of Cinderella story, developing later into a variation of Keller's Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe before finishing off as a Stephen King novel.  That may sound a little confused (and I can assure you that I am often confused), but Grete Minde does meander around a little, not always sure what it wants to be.  By the end though, everyone gets the point...

Aquis Submersus, at sixty pages one of Storm's longer efforts, is (as Storm was wont to produce) a frame narrative, beginning in the nineteenth century, before dragging us, via a second text, back to the middle of the seventeenth century.  A young man is fascinated by a portrait of a dead child he sees in a church, and the letters C.P.A.S. (Culpa Patris Aquis Submersus) at the bottom seem to hint at a drowning caused by the father's negligence.  When our friend stumbles across some old documents however, he discovers that the story is more complex than that.

It is another tale of forbidden love, this time between an artist and the daughter of a nobleman.  Her brother forbids any thought of a marriage, but the two do manage to share some time together before being separated.  Later in life, the artist thinks back to his lost love, wondering what could have become of her - until his work takes him to an old church near his hometown...

The majority of Aquis Submersus is written in seventeenth-century German (I assume!), which takes a little getting used to.  Once you're used to the proliferation of 'h's - used to lengthen vowels - and archaic verb forms though, it's a surprisingly smooth read, and a very good one too.  Of the Storm works I've read, this one probably has most in common with Der Schimmelreiter, and the quality is up there too.  I raced through it and enjoyed it thoroughly, despite the occasional linguistic hurdle ;)

Although I chose the two stories virtually at random, there is an incredible amount linking the two stories.  Both were based on real-life events (both from the seventeenth century!), and the two stories have remarkably similar themes.  Family members get in the way of young lovers, either for reasons of religion or social status.  In both works, the role of children is a dominant one.  Both novellas also have a natural break in proceedings, with the culmination of the story coming a matter of years later.

Having said that though, I would have to add that Aquis Submersus is far better than Grete Minde, an opinion which is shared by the German literary world (always nice to know!).  This is one of Fontane's minor works, light years away from the later big-city psychological portraits of the middle classes (Effi Briest, Frau Jenny Treibel) which brought him lasting fame.  Where Aquis Submersus is poignant and touching, Grete Minde is slightly melodramatic and clichéd, and doesn't hang together as well as Storm's story.  Which is not at all surprising - the historical novella is really Storm's home turf...

Both novellas are well worth reading, but Aquis Submersus is much more typical of Storm's work than Grete Minde is of Fontane's.  However, by the time I got to the end of the two books, there was something else bothering me.  The Hamburger Lesehefte are great (cheap!) copies of German classics, but I've gone off them a little and, for many reasons, am no longer as much of a fan as I was.

For one thing, you can get free e-copies very easily anyway, which kind of defeats the object of cheap, low-quality editions.  Secondly, the Hamburger Lesehefte editions are for use in schools, which means that the language conforms to the new writing reforms.  This means little to most of you, but it basically means that what you're reading is not the original text (I especially hate the ß-lessness of the new standards!).  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, to save on printing costs the font size is minuscule, and my eyes aren't what they used to be...

What does that mean for me?  Well, in future I think I'll be downloading e-books for the most part and buying better, more expensive versions for books I really want.  And which books would they be?  Well, I would imagine that they would be books by classic German authors that I know and trust - like, for instance, the two Teds :)