Selected and translated by Peter Wortsmann ….

and what a fantastic selection it is covering the development of the German fairy tale, parable and fable from the Grimms’ The Singing Bone (1812) to Jürg Laederach’s Conversation (1984).  That’s the first surprise – Ingeborg Bachmann’s  The Secrets of the Princess of Kagran (1971) isn’t the final story in the volume, so the title’s a misnomer.  I understand why. Bachmann’s the bigger name. One has to assume the bigger pull although she is only one of two females represented in the 28 tales included. Unica Zürn is the second, and I covered both stories during German Literature Month.  As I found them in the third and final section of the book, I decided to continue reading from back cover to front.

It was a rewarding experience.  The more recent section consisting entirely of authors I had never read before (in reverse order: Laederach, Bachmann, Celan, Borchert, Zürn).  As  I worked back through the second section I encountered work by new-to-me surrealists and expressionists, and the mega famous (Kirsch, Tucholsky, Klabund, Schwitters, Lichtenstein, Heym, Musil, Kafka, Kaiser,  Rilke, Mynona, Altenberg). I found myself travelling into ever darker territory, into the unmitigated disasters of the 20th century, while discovering storytelling that simply took my breathe away: the anger of Wolfgang Borchert’s The Dandelion (1947), the madness of Georg Heym’s The Lunatic (1913). Cosy, comfort reading this section was not, but it was perfect for the dark evenings and the howling gales of December.  I don’t believe I’m about to write this but I was actually looking forward to settling down with Kafka’s In The Penal Colony (1919).  Nothing could have prepared me for the heart-thumping horror of it – imagine me reading through my fingers, simply unable to look away.  Authors Claudel and Terrin recommended throwing Kafka’s novels away and concentrating on the short stories earlier this year.  I see what they mean.

After that I was ready for the relative solace of the 19th century Romantics. (Heine, Eichendorff, Chamisso, Kleist, Tieck, Hoffmann, Brothers Grimm), where hallucinations, visions and madness are individual not communal concerns.  The horror is gothic in Hoffmann’s The Sandman (1816-17),  and darkness curiously humorous in Chamisso’s Peter Schlemiel (1814).  The closer to Grimm we get, the more magical.  Heine’s piece, an extract from The Harz Journey (1826), suggests the following origin of the German fairy tale:

the trembling ancient crone seated in the cosy nook between the big cupboard and the warm oven, herself as old as the hills, may already have been seated there for a quarter-century, and her thinking and feeling were definitely intertwined with every corner of this oven and every hand-carved notch and crevice of this cupboard, and cupboard and oven are alive, for a human being imbued them with a piece of his soul. 

It is only through such a deeply contemplative life … that the German fairy tale could come into being, for its uniqueness consists in the fact that not only the animals and plants, but also seemingly lifeless things have the capacity to speak and act.

The selection from Grimm which ended this reverse reading evidenced all those elements: the old crone in Hansel and Gretel (1812) and The Singing Bone (1812) which brought a murderer to justice.  Having travelled back to the world of once upon a time, I closed the book with a wondrous sense of having read myself happily ever after.