Translated from German by Denis Jackson
And so to the fourth multi-generational family tale I read for GLM VII, which turns out to be a precursor to the first. Written in 1884 by Theodor Storm, the similarities witb Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1901) are striking. It should come as no surprise – but it did, a very pleasant one at that – for Mann once said of Storm “he is a master, his work will survive”.
So for example Grieshuus, The Chronicle of A Family could easily be renamed Grieshuus, The Decline of A Family, because that is what it chronicles, a family coming to the end of a line in 4 generations as does Buddenbrooks. Any similarity between the families and the plots ends there. Storm’s family is from the Junker (noble) class, while Mann’s family is a family of merchants. Mann’s novel is heavily autobiographical. Storm’s novella is not. And at a mere 94 pages in length, Grieshuus is an exercise in concision. (Which is not to say that Buddenbrooks at 600+ pages is wordy. I wouldn’t cut a word from it. ) But Grieshuus is a novella from the pen of an author at the height of his powers, making full use of all the poetic and literary techniques at his disposal: foreshadowing, symbolism, leitmotif. The same techniques that Mann uses to such fabulous effect in Buddenbrooks, You really can see Storm coaching Mann when you read these two works in close succession.
Grieshuus (The Grey House) is set in the tumultuous time of the Northern Wars of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, a time when Schleswig-Holstein was not yet Germany, but was being fought over by Sweden and a coalition of other European powers. This serves as background, and only really becomes important towards the end of the story. Up till that point, this is very much a family tragedy precipitated by class issues
*** Spoilers ahead – you may choose to skip the next paragraph ***
Junker Hinrich (2nd generation) becomes infatuated and marries the low born Barbe, thus precipitating a rift with his father and twin brother, Detlev. Hostilities become so inflamed that, losing all control (his temper being foreshadowed in the very first scene of the novella), Hinrich actually kills his brother and flees. Years later, he returns, unrecognised, to the Grieshuus estate, not to reclaim his place but to act as estate manager. The intervening years have chastened and mellowed him and he wants to spend time with his grandson, Rolf. (His daughter, having served her purpose, has died in childbirth.) But, time is not on the side of Hinrich’s family and that great Northern War has its own agenda.
*** End spoilers ***
At the heart of the plot, then, is a classic Cain and Abel story, but one in which Cain is pays his penance and achieves redemption, although is unable to avert the ultimately tragic outcome for his family. It is a dramatic storyline though I would say a typical 19th century one. What makes Grieshuus less grey, if you will, is the power of Storm’s storytelling. For instance the structure: the absolute break that is represented by the murder is reinforced by the break between books one and two. There is also no sense of outrage that the murderer escapes. Storm has told us enough of preceding events to ensure that we understand his psychology and perhaps more than empathise. How modern is that? There are layers of natural description and symbolism that only a lyric poet and natural storyteller of Storm’s abilities could weave into his tale without overloading it for those of us with less poetic sensibilities (myself included). At this point I’m going to refer you to David Artiss’s excellent introduction in the Angel Classics edition with its clear breakdown of these elements. It’s a boon in particular for interpreters of animal symbolism: a multiplicity of birds, all with malignant reputations, bloodhounds, wolves. Ah yes, wolves. Artiss points out that these function as a leitmotiv, mentioned every 3 pages. I hadn’t noticed that. Which means that it did not irritate me. Perhaps this is one lesson Mann didn’t quite learn from the master. (I’m thinking here of Gerda’s overcooked brown eyes ….)
But I must not forget the horse.
A riderless dark-looking horse then appeared from the forest, with its white tail and mane flying in the moonlight; it was as if it was racing over the low ground and in he btidge to hurl itself into the midst of the flying soldiers; its dark eyes blazed, its small head flung from right to left, “That was no horse that we have known” …
Storm afficionados will recognise the precursor of The Dykemaster’s horse in that passage. What does it say about me that I found it inordinately exciting? (Rhetorical question – please don’t answer.)
Grieshuus is the 6th volume of Storm’s stories, published by Angel Classics and translated by the phenomenal Denis Jackson. Reviews of a selection of the other volumes, plus my Meet the Translator interviews with Jackson can be found here.