Thursday 10 November 2011

Please don't miss the Swiss!

Climb on board!  After a few days in Austria and Germany, it's time for the German Literature Month Tour Bus to trundle over the mountains again for a brief trip around Switzerland.  The Swiss can be the overlooked cousins of the G-Lit family - certainly, my reading experiences reflect that -, so I thought it was time to see what they have to offer.  Today's treats?  A couple of tasty nineteenth-century novellas for you all to get your teeth into - onward, driver!

The first of today's two stories is Conrad Ferdinand Meyer's Der Schuß von der Kanzel (The Shot from the Pulpit), an entertaining and amusing novella set in a small Swiss town.  Pfannenstiel, a young man with clerical ambitions, pays a visit to General Wertmüller, a returning local hero with dubious morals and a mischievous sense of adventure.  Pfannenstiel is hoping for a preferment overseas, mainly to escape from an unsuccessful romance, but the General, always with an eye for the comical and ludicrous, has other plans for our young friend...

This is a short tale, eleven chapters spanning about thirty-five pages, but it's highly entertaining.  In some ways, it feels more like a play, with clearly defined changes of scenery, an impressive (and humorous) turning point and a neat resolution pleasing all and sundry.  The  characters are surprisingly well drawn for such a short text: the devilish General; his cousin, the shooting parson; Pfannenstiel, the pessimistic young lover, and his intended, the feisty Rahel.  There's more than a touch of Trollope about proceedings - and I mean that in the best possible way ;)

The first half of the novella is suggestive of Gothic literature, with the tense nocturnal discussions between Pfannenstiel and the General, and the spooky lodgings the young cleric is led to for the night, but once the sun has risen (as should be the case), things look very different, and the wry humour takes over.  I don't want to say anything more about the plot, but the title is there for a reason - and a very good one it is too!  Meyer shoots and definitely hits the mark :)

Today's second offering, Die schwarze Spinne by Jeremias Gotthelf, reverses the progression of Meyer's novella in some ways.  It starts peacefully enough, following a group of farming folk in a small Swiss village as they get ready for a Christening.  Once the child has been baptised (not without one minor hiccough), the guests head back to the farmhouse for plenty of food and lashings of drink.

In between courses, some of the men decide to stretch their legs, and when they sit down under a tree to rest, the grandfather of the house begins to tell the guests a story - one which will remain in the memory far longer than the food...  You see, the misleading first ten pages or so form the first part of a frame narrative, and the grandfather's story, suggested by the Christening and the mention of an old piece of wood used in the new house, is the real start of the story (and an amazing one it is).

A few hundred years earlier, a group of farmers are set an impossible task by the knight who owns the village.  Desperate, and at their wits' ends, they are offered help by a mysterious stranger, but at a certain price - the gift of an unbaptised child...  From here, events turn eerier and darker, and when the villagers attempt to cheat the stranger, it soon becomes clear that this was someone they should not have messed with.  Winds howl, storms thunder over the valley, and the pregnant women start to get extremely nervous.  And when you have trouble with the devil, who are you going to call?  A clue - it's not the Ghostbusters...

Die schwarze Spinne is a stunning piece of short fiction, evolving from a commonplace piece of naturalist writing into a full-blown horror story, pitting good against evil and scattering the countryside with the corpses of the unjust and unfortunate alike.  The religious implications are fairly clear, but the story works on many other levels too.  The idea of collective guilt and the inability to speak up against the crowd, even when you know that what is being done is wrong, is an important one, as is the role of the outsider in bringing disaster to an otherwise harmonious community.  There may also be overtones of the 'Black Death' plagues which afflicted Europe in the dark ages, represented by the black curse which sweeps over the valley.

If you want good writing with a high body count, look no further.  The further the story progresses, the higher the death toll, and it is genuinely gripping reading.  Then the story returns to the present day, and the guests (in a slightly more sombre mood) return to the table; just when we could be forgiven for thinking that the worst is over, the grandfather takes the story up again, leading the reader through another round of death and chaos...

And the spider?  Well, I'd got about half-way through the story when I began to wonder where this black spider (Black Widow?) had got to - and then it began to appear (and I chose those words deliberately)...  I'll say no more (you'll enjoy the book more that way!), but remember this: if you start looking under your bed for spiders after reading Die schwarze Spinne, don't say I didn't warn you...