Having read and thoroughly enjoyed 2 novels from Alma Books (Child’s Play, Dear Everybody) earlier this year, it was only a matter of time before I sampled something from their OneWorld Classics imprint, specifically something from their German literature shelf.  Click here to enter a proverbial sweetie shop. But where to start?

I have previously bemoaned the fact that for my German literature degree I read not a single female author. (It was 30 years ago – maybe the syllabus has changed since.) Thus did Annette von Droste-Hulshoff’s novella, The Jew’s Beech , the only female offering on the OneWorld Classics shelf, rise to poll position.

Based on true events involving two murders in a Westphalian logging village, this novella contains many gothic plot elements: murder (one involving an axe to the head), domestic violence, madness. A prodigal son. Mistaken identities. Written in 1842, it’s often marketed as a prototype for European crime fiction. While that may be true, I found it stronger as a social documentary depicting the smallness of the village mind with disturbing hints of anti-semitism. And an independent woman who believes she can change a tiger’s spots …. It’s bound to end in tears.

I didn’t really connect with this story. I’m unsure why.  Maybe it’s because it was my first 19th century read for almost a year.  The prose felt antiquated.  The symbolism of the tree forced.  Maybe it’s that old bugbear of mine – novels written by poets.  Poetic language that fails to flow in prose because it’s trying too hard.

My second pick from the OneWorld Classics German bookshelf is also based on true events although you might be forgiven for thinking its inspiration is Shakespearian. Gottfried Keller’s A Village Romeo and Juliet are two children whose families fall into feuding over a piece of farm land. Such is the ferocity of the feud that the families are both ruined. It is only at this point that the erstwhile childhood friends form their romantic attachment. Of course, it cannot be and while the end is inevitable, it approaches with a dignity and grace that is truly beautiful. None of the overwrought drama of Shakespeare’s equivalent.

Keller is Swiss literature’s foremost proponent of poetic realism. The poison of the feud, the growing attraction and the joy/despondency of the lovers are all portrayed vividly. There’s no doubt that these people are flesh and blood. Blended in the mix, however, is the symbolic character of The Dark Fiddler, a threatening character in childhood, a tempting one in adolescence but one whose temptations are to be resisted, even as the couple elope and party in an inn called “The Paradise Garden”. Such innocence.  Only in the 19th century.

The Jew’s Beech 1/2

A Village Romeo and Juliet

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Berlin – 3 days and counting ….

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