Archive for the ‘novella’ Category

IMG_0019Translated 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.


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China Miéville has said that he wants to write a book in every genre. If the brilliant The City and the City is his detective novel, and October  (the latest addition to my TBR,incidentally) his contribution to the history shelves, then what is This Census-Taker? A novella of only 140 pages obviously, but is it post-apocalytic realism, futuristic fable, or perhaps even a horror movie …

,,, because it is very visual even if it is really hard to pin down.

It starts with a young boy running down a mountainside screaming that his mother has murdered his father, or perhaps his father has murdered his mother. Either way the child is deeply traumatised and as the history of his childhood unfolds, we can understand why. It turns out that his mother has disappeared and the boy suspects his father of having bludgeoned her to death and disposed of her body in a hole in the mountainside, as he does the corpses of the animals he kills during periodic apoplectic rages. So when the child is returned to his father, the sense of foreboding is palpable, even if there is no evidence of murder or even of physical maltreatment.

Time passes living “uphill”,  in isolation with this maniacal parent, the boy biding his time until he can mount another escape bid. The second time he seeks help from the waifs and strays of the “downhill” town, a run-down/partially destroyed (?) place where resources are scarce. This attempt to flee also fails. It’s not until a census- taker knocks on the door that flight becomes a distinct possibility.

But who is this census-taker and where does he come from? Why does he take the boy’s tale seriously, when the locals did not? What does he find when he descends the mountain-hole to corroborate that story?

I’m not sure answers are actually provided in the text, although there’s sufficient information to interpret  (rightly or wrongly).   Normally this would infuriate me, but here it adds to the overall strangeness of a tale, told at times with such precision, at others deliberately cloaked in the mists of vagueness.  In any event, the arrival of the census-taker precipitates the denouement, resulting in our boy becoming a census-taker in his own right: in fact, this census-taker of the title and narrator of his own history even though he doesn’t remember specifics – such as his age at the time of his mother’s disappearance. He also tells his story in third-person, suggesting the need for psychological distance even when years removed from events.

Miéville seamlessly employs multiple techniques (helpfully explained by Francis Spufford here). The result is a compelling yet puzzling novella, requiring a second, and maybe even a third read for me to get a proper handle on it. Perhaps I shouldn’t have raced through it in one sitting!

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About 12 years ago I started my 20th Century Challenge – to read 100 authors, one book for each year of the 20th century. The idea was to complete it by the time I turned 50.  Then I started this blog and got distracted.  The new deadline is to finish the project in the next 18 months (or by the time I hit 60).  If all my choices are as delightful as the 1917 entry, the prequel to Morley’s more famous The Haunted Bookshop,  then this won’t be any hardship.

imageParnassus on Wheels is a delicious bibliophilic delight with none of the cloying sweetness I’ve tasted in other book of this nature.

Miss Helen Mcgill lives on the farm with her brother Andrew. When he become an author, he  neglects his farmer’s duties, and Helen finds herself running the farm as well as the household. Naturally she resents this, so when she is given an unexpected opportunity to escape she takes it.

One day, out of the blue, Mr Roger Mifflin shows up with his horse-drawn travelling bookshop, the eponymous Parnassus on Wheels.  He has decided that life on the road is too lonely and is hoping to sell his business to Andrew.  But Andrew is not at home.  Helen is, and she is in the mood for an adventure.

An avid reader herself, she believes that

When you sell a man a book, you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue – you sell him a whole new life.

When she buys herself the Parnassus, she buys herself a whole new life.  She sets off with Mr Roger Mifflin, who will first train her in the art of preaching the gospel of good books before he catches his train back to New York.  Now he could sell coal to a coalman whereas Helen has no natural patter and a knowledge of the book trade that is less than encyclopaedic. Still she shows promise. A series of misadventures, however, results in an extension of her apprenticeship, during which Roger and Helen become unwittingly fond of each other.  Though they don’t recognise it until the machinations of her brother, incandescent at losing his unpaid skivy, threaten to deprive Roger of his freedom.  It is now Helen’s turn to ride to the rescue.

This a charming romantic comedy between an unlikely couple: Helen, a matter-of-fact spinster approaching middle-age and Roger,  a funny looking-man with a red beard, who, for all his salesmanship, might possibly read more books than he sells.  Set in a world in which the First World War had yet to encroach although there is a light-touch political undertone regarding the revolt of womenhood as Miss Helen McGill strikes out for the right to make her own decisions.  Three cheers for her and for the man who enables and defends her right to do so, Mr Roger Mifflin! While we’re cheering another three for all the books they discuss along the way!

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Denis JacksonIn part one of this inteview, Denis Jackson demonstrated how he and Theodor Storm have, through the literature and translation, have become one in spirit. Today Denis proves that there is no one, except perhaps the author, who is so intimately acquainted with a text as its translator.

8) You recently published a small volume of Storm’s fairy tales The Rain Maiden and other Tales. They are as different from Grimm as it is possible to be: charming and without an ounce of terror. You published them in e-book format only. Why is that?

The Rain MaidenStorm was a keen collector of legends, ghost stories, folktales and fairy tales, all of which in one form or another appear in his later novellas. His most notable fairy tale, Die Regentrude (The Rain Maiden, 1864), remains today a favourite among the German young, and is published in many finely-illustrated editions. Mine is the only translation into English. It was Storm’s farewell to the late Romantic age with its evil fire goblin as a gothic reminder of the past. It was also my first Storm translation, primarily due to its intense dialogue that runs throughout the narrative between the girl and her boyfriend as they search for the Rain Maiden in a cavern below the earth. Natural dialogue is most difficult to produce in a translation, and The Rain Maiden provided for me what might be called a ‘dialogue apprenticeship’. Regretfully, today’s publishers are not interested in traditional fairy tales, like The Rain Maiden. After many rejection slips, I was forced to publish it myself, together with translations of Knecht Ruprecht and Der kleine Häwelmann (Little Hans), the latter written for his son Hans, as an eBook for Amazon and for Barnes and Noble in the US. Such is progress.


9) Which of Storm’s novellas gave you the most pleasure to translate and why?

For me there are two novellas that gave me the greatest of pleasures to research and translate: Pole Poppenspäler (Paul the Puppeteer, 1874) and Renate (1878), both now in the same volume. Paul the PuppeteerPaul the Puppeteer is a magical tale which speaks to all ages, an affectionate portrayal of the vanishing world of the marionette theatre which also contains sharp social criticism of contemporary society. The Low German title of the story, Pole Poppenspäler, is a jeer at the central character, Paul, who befriends a puppeteer and his family with their gypsy-like way of life; puppeteers being viewed at the time as thieves and vagabonds by a guild-dominated society. To translate this work, I set about to learn the travelling puppeteer’s hard way of life, to understand the puppet theatre and its role within nineteenth-century Europe, where it was the entertainment of princes, dukes, kings and queens. Visits to puppet museums in the capitals and cities of Europe, especially in Lübeck, which has the finest collection of puppets in Europe, and to the Puppet Theatre Barge on the river Thames, gave me a firm understanding of the puppeteer’s way of life and of his struggles just to survive. I even learned how to manipulate the puppets and of the various techniques that were used across Europe. But above all, it was the diary of a travelling puppeteer in nineteenth-century Europe, kindly given to me by the Puppet Theatre Barge, that was the most valuable, and which confirmed just how accurate Storm’s descriptions of the puppeteer’s way of life were. It was a most harrowing diary to read, and when I write of ‘experiencing’, the events related by this puppeteer should be essential reading for any translator attempting to translate this novella. When I received the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize for this translation, it was the puppeteer’s story I told, and how translating Storm has taken me on many a similar emotional journey to discover the many ‘worlds’ within his novellas.

Paul the Puppeteer projects the deep humanity of the author and his profound understanding of human feelings. There is no finer monument than this novella to the lives of those travelling entertainers who gave so much to so many people, yet in the process were treated as the lowest members of society.
In one memorable scene, the puppeteer in the story is put in prison in Heiligenstadt in southern German, his daughter, Lisei, attempts to visit him, but is ushered away by an official. So she sets off up the hill in the town in the freezing cold and kneels before a cross. She is observed by Paul Paulsen, the main character in the story:

As I was about to turn away from the window, the woman came up the street again. She stopped in front of the prison door and hesitantly put a foot on the stone step below the entrance; then she looked round and I saw a young face whose dark eyes wandered over the empty street with the most helpless and forsaken expression; she appeared simply not to have the courage to face the official’s threatening fist yet again. Slowly, and continually looking back at the closed door, she went on her way; it was evident that she did not know where she was going. When she now turned into the narrow lane at the corner of the prison that led up to the church, I instinctively grabbed my cap from the door hook to go after her.
​“Yes, of course, Paulsen; it’s the right thing to do!” said the good-hearted Frau Meisterin. “Go after her; I’ll heat up the coffee in the meantime!”
​It was fiercely cold when I stepped outside the house; the town seemed deserted; from the high hill that reared up at the end of the street the dark fir forest looked down almost threateningly; white curtains of ice hung in front of the window-panes of most houses; for not everyone, like my old Frau Meisterin, had a rightful claim to five bundles of wood for domestic use. I went up the narrow lane to the church square; and there on the frozen ground at the foot of the tall wooden crucifix knelt the young woman, head bowed, hands folded in her lap. I quietly stepped closer; but when she looked up at the bloodied face of the crucified figure, I said: “Excuse me if I’m interrupting your prayers, but you’re a stranger to this town, aren’t you?”
​She simply nodded without shifting her position.
​“I’d like to help!” I continued. “Where is it you want to go?”
​“Don’t know any more,” she said without expression, letting her head sink lower on to her chest.
​“But it’ll be dark in an hour; you won’t be able to stay out much longer on the open street in this deathly weather!”
​“The good Lord will help me,” I heard her say quietly.
​“Yes, yes, I’m sure,” I said, “and I almost believe He’s sent me to you!”
​It was as though the firmer tone of my voice had woken her, for she rose and walked hesitantly towards me; with her neck straining forward she brought her face nearer and nearer to mine, and her gaze fixed itself on my face as though she wanted to seize me by it. “Paul!” she cried suddenly, and like a cry of joy the word flew from her breast. “Paul! Yes, the good Lord’s sent you to me!”
​Where had my eyes been! I had her here again, my childhood friend, Lisei the little puppeteer! Of course, the child had become a beautiful slim young woman, and on the child’s face once so radiant, after the first ray of joy had spread over it, now lay an expression of deep sorrow.
​“How is it you’re here all alone, Lisei?” I asked. “What’s happened? Where’s your father?”
​“In the prison, Paul.”
​“Your father, that fine man! — Come with me; I’m working here for a good woman; she knows all about you, I’ve often told her about you.”
​And hand in hand, as we had been as children, we walked to the old Frau Meisterin’s house.

Pure Storm! It is a scene that is often cited as confirming Storm’s religious beliefs, but his belief remained ambiguous to the very end of his life, not even allowing a priest at his funeral.

The overall narrative reveals not only Storm’s intense interest since childhood in the puppet theatre, but also his consummate skill in being able to enter into the puppet’s world:

The second act was even better. Among the servants of the castle there was one dressed in a yellow Nanking suit called Kasperl. If this boy wasn’t alive, then nothing or nobody ever had been; he made the most outrageous jokes so that the whole room erupted with laughter; he must have had at least one joint in his nose, which was as long as a sausage, for when he let out his mock-stupid laugh, the tip of his nose swung from side to side, as though even it was unable to stop itself in the fun; at the same time the young fellow opened his huge mouth and snapped his lower jaw-bone like an old owl. “Whoops!” he would cry every time he came jumping on to the stage; then he would settle himself down and speak with just his large thumb, which he could move back and forth so expressively that it really went like: ‘Here nix and there nix! You get nix, so you have nix!’ And then his squint — it was so bewitching that the whole audience instantly squinted too. I was simply infatuated with the dear fellow!

Storm’s intense love, since childhood, for the puppeteer’s world is artistically and brilliantly displayed in this novella’s conclusion, in what could be viewed as his personal farewell to it. The puppeteer’s puppets had to be sold in his old age, and the whereabouts of his favourite puppet, Kasperl, becomes unknown, much to the sorrow of the old man, father Joseph, who dies. The final scene opens with the old man’s funeral:

The churchyard was thick with people; from the burial of the old puppeteer it seemed that a final, special performance was expected.

And something special actually did happen; but it was noticed only by those of us standing close to the grave. Lisei, who had come out of the church holding on to my arm, had just convulsively clasped my hand as the old priest, in accordance with custom, grasped the waiting spade and tipped the first soil on to the coffin. A dull thud sounded from the bottom of the grave. “For out of the ground wast thou taken!” rang the words of the priest; but hardly were they spoken when I saw something flying towards us from the churchyard wall above the heads of the people. I thought at first it was a large bird; but it dropped and fell straight into the grave. Glancing quickly behind me — for I was standing a little above ground level on the dug-out earth — I had seen one of the Schmidt boys duck behind the churchyard wall and run away, and I knew at once what had happened. Lisei had let out a cry at my side, our old priest held the spade undecidedly in his hands for the second cast of earth. A glance into the grave confirmed my suspicion: on top of the coffin, between the flowers and the soil, which had already partly covered them, there he had seated himself, my old childhood companion, Kasperl, my little jolly friend. But he didn’t look at all jolly now; he had let his great beak of a nose fall sadly on to his chest; the arm with the elaborately crafted thumb was stretched up at the sky, as though he were saying that when all puppet plays had ended here, another one would begin up there.

​I saw it all in a brief moment, for the priest had already cast the second spadeful of earth into the grave: “And unto dust shalt thou return!” And as the earth slid off the coffin, so Kasperl too rolled off its flowers into the bottom of the grave and was covered.

​Then with the last pitch of earth the comforting promise rang out: “And together with my dead body thou shalt arise!”

​When the Lord’s Prayer had been said and the people had dispersed, the old priest came over to us as we remained staring into the grave. “It was meant to be a wicked act,” he said, as he kind-heartedly grasped our hands. “But let us take it another way! As you’ve described it to me, the deceased carved the little figure in his youth, and it brought him a happy marriage; later, and throughout his life, by means of it he brightened many a human heart after a day’s work, and in the mouth of the little jester he placed many a word of truth agreeable both to God and the people — I watched it once myself, when you were still children. – Let the little puppet simply follow his master; that will be entirely in the spirit of the words of our Holy Scripture! And be of good cheer; for the Blessed may rest from their labours.”

​And so it was over. Quietly and at peace we went home, never to see old father Joseph or the magnificent Kasperl again.

No one can but fail to hear the actual voice of Storm himself in this concluding narrative.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Theodor Storm as a writer is the range of subjects and moods (Stimmungen) within his novellas. For the translator, each novella opens the door to a totally different ‘world’. Such a range being forcefully demonstrated in his novella, Renate, whose conclusion is equally of the highest artistic quality.

Renate records within a narrative frame the memories of an eighteenth-century Lutheran pastor and his love for a farmer’s daughter who is persecuted by the local community for alleged witchcraft; a clash between religious bigotry and spontaneous emotion which drives one of the most moving stories in all of Storm’s fiction. The second in Storm’s series of ‘chronical novellas’, it takes the reader through a narrative frame technique back to the years of the witch craze in the beautiful village of Schwabstedt on banks of the river Treene, south of Husum. Storm researched the period within the local context in great detail, recording the trial, torture and burning of two women convicted of witchcraft in the village in 1619. Of all his novellas its swift descriptions of the North Frisian landscape, and of the village itself, surpass many in his works. Its taut style closely follows the chronicle of events throughout.

Only the moor lies between here and Schwabstedt, a bird would soon wing its way across it; but some thirty years have passed into eternity since that day — without increasing it; for man alone exists in time. I am sitting here in the village of Ostenfeld, as an all too prematurely disabled emeritus and wretched boarder with the local parish priest, with my dear, thoroughly able-bodied cousin Christian Mercacus. I should therefore have time enough to record, like the other details of my life, the events of that afternoon as well. They still lie within me, an exuberant sweet memory in the soul. I have even prepared a whole sheet of paper for it and had my quills cut by the sexton, and now my mind’s eye sees nothing before me but a lonely path between green hedgerows that gradually winds its way up into the forest. I am certain, though, that this was the way we took that afternoon, and the summer scent of honeysuckle and dog-roses seems still to hang here in the air about me.

Storm’s descriptions of landscape are swift, almost in passing, a quick glance at a scene, then to move on:

And so we left the wedding celebration silently together. And as we came to the rise in front of the bishop’s residence where the path crosses over it, we remained standing under the tower, looking down on to the lowlands before us; for there in the early dawn of the day, in the deep red glow, the river flowed away into the still half-darkened land. At the same time, however, a sharp breeze blew from the east, and as Renate shivered, I put my arm round her bare neck and drew her cheek close to me. She resisted gently. ‘Let be, Herr Studiosi,’ she said, ‘I must go home now!’ and pointed down to her father’s house which lay to one side among the dark trees. And as a shrill cock-crow now rose from there, I saw her already running down the hill; but then she turned and looked up at me openly with her dark eyes.

Or a slightly longer look at a scene:

Not far from the village, the path was crossed by a stream which flowed out of the forest down towards the river Treene. Water-loving birds gather here, and the joyful songs of finches and blackbirds now rang out as if they were already announcing the arrival of May. I was so enthralled by the charm of the spot that I did not cross the little bridge over the stream, but walked a few paces on this side of it up towards the forest and sat down on a bank where the stream broadens out into a small pond. The water, as was usual at this time of year, was so clear that I could quite easily make out the tangled stalks of the water-lilies deep at the bottom and the budding leaves on them, and so was able to admire God’s wisdom even in these small things which are usually hidden from our eyes.

But even here in this novella, and in its conclusion, Storm cannot resist a ghostly element; for he is forever the prime artist in its telling:

Now when the Almighty God covered the forest and fields and the desolate moor too with darkness, Held Carstens, the blacksmith, was skirting the edge of the forest around midnight, returning home after taking his mother-in-law back to Ostenfeld after she had been helping her daughter during confinement. The man had his old and trusty carriage team in harness and was beginning to doze when the otherwise quiet horses suddenly became restless and edged over, snorting, to the side of the forest. He roused himself, now struck with fear, for out on the moor a light flickered like a lamp in the darkness; one minute it was still, the next swaying to and fro. He thought at first it might be jack-o’-lantern about to dance — being the courageous man he is he had frequently observed it in the past during his journeys — but when it came nearer he made out a dark figure close by the flickering light wandering about on the firm ground between the dark ditches. Saying a quiet prayer, he whipped up his horses and made straight for home. But early next morning people saw the Hofbauer’s daughter in the street below without her cap, with hair dishevelled and a smashed lantern in her hand, making her way slowly towards her father’s farm.

The Lutheran pastor, Herr Josias, who saves Renate from being lynched by a mob as a witch, retires in old age to the village of Ostenfeld, north of Schwabstedt, with nothing more known of Renate’s fate. The conclusion to his life is found and read in an old manuscript:

In the self-same month of my departure a rumour spread round the village: on Sundays, when everyone was in church and the streets were empty, a pale grey horse, the likes of which had not been seen in the community before, would stand tethered before the door of the parsonage. And soon afterwards it was further said that a woman would come riding from the south over the heath, tether her horse to the ring on the wall, then enter the parsonage; but that each time the pastor and the stream of church-goers made their way home from the church, she had already ridden away.

That this woman visited Herr Josias was not difficult to guess, for at such an hour there was no one else in the house. But there was something strange about it all; for although she was undoubtedly already in her late years, the few who saw her have disputed it and have asserted that she was still young, and others, that she was even beautiful; but when more closely questioned they turn out to have noticed nothing other than two dark eyes that glanced at them as the woman rode by.

There was only one person in the whole village who learned nothing of these things, and that was the pastor himself, for everyone was afraid of his quick temper and all had great affection for Uncle Josias.

But one Sunday, when spring had returned and the violets were already in bloom in the garden, the woman from across the heath was there again; and on this occasion too, when the pastor came home from the church, he saw neither her nor her horse; everything was quiet and solitary as usual as he entered his grounds, then his house. And when he went into his cousin’s room, where he was now in the habit of going after church, it was quiet there too. The windows stood open so that the whole room was filled with the scent of spring from the garden outside, and the pastor saw Herr Josias sitting in his large armchair; but to his surprise, a small bird was perched unafraid on one of his hands, which rested folded in his lap. The bird flew off and out into the open air when the pastor approached with his heavy tread and bent over the chair.*
Herr Josias continued to sit motionless and his face was filled with peace; only the peace was not of this world.

Soon a loud rumour had spread round the village, even the pastor was told about it by everyone he was ready to hear it from; it was now known that it was the witch of Schwabstedt who had come to the village each Sunday on her horse; indeed, some had certain knowledge that she had taken poor Herr Josias’s life while pretending to heal him by her deceitful art.

But we, when you have now read it all, you and I, we know better who she was who took the last breath from his lips.

Here in Renate we have a combination of Realism in the trials of Renate, Romanticism in the ghostly and mysterious, and folklore in the departure of the soul from the dead and other such references in the text. The belief that birds are the winged souls of the dead, or that they carry/accompany the souls of the dead to the next world, is ubiquitous in folklore and mythology. In the original edition of this story (1878) Storm wrote: ‘only his soul was no longer within him.’

It is this artistic combination of genres that makes Storm supreme in the craft of fiction, and a prime reason for my becoming his translator.

10) Which is your favourite non-Storm Novella and why?

Without any doubt Eduard Mörike’s Mozart auf der Reise nach Prag (Mozart’s Journey to Prague, 1855). A light-hearted tale of the composer’s journey from Vienna to Prague to attend the opening performance of the opera Don Giovanni. It is Mörike’s supreme achievement in prose, clearly revealing Mörike’s spiritual affinity with the composer and the profound emotions aroused in him by his opera. I attached my affections to this novella for I have travelled this same route and have visited the theatre in Prague in which this first performance was held. So, as with Storm, I can ‘see’ the journey taken and the many facets of it that are described.

11) I’ve heard that the 5th volume of your Storm translations will be the last. If I cast you off on the proverbial desert island with the remaining Storm novellas to translate, would you do it?

The simple answer is that I am continuing to translate Storm – for the time being. I was going to finish, but needed to keep a promise I gave to a friend some years ago to translate Zur Chronik von Grieshuus (1884). My publisher too is interested, should it not be too alike with Aquis submersus. Failing a printed book edition, I would publish it personally as an eBook. It is all a question now of a publisher.


Editor’s note

  • The novellas which Denis has focused on so closely and so generously are those which won him the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize in 2005.
  • In addition to novellas, Theodor Storm also wrote beautiful lyric poetry. This will be the subject of the final installment of this interview, which I can reveal will contain a surprise and a world exclusive!

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2015

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imageI shall devote the last three days of GLM V to one of my very favourite German authors.  It’s a fitting finale also to #novellanov, because Theodor Storm is the master of the C19th novella.  Woefully undertranslated into English, although that has changed during the last two decades thanks to the endeavours of one man, Denis Jackson, who recently published a fifth volume of Storm’s novellas (in which I currently luxuriate).

Today I am delighted to welcome Denis to German Literaure Month to find out more about the spell that Storm has cast upon him.

image1) How did you become a literary translator?

It all began one summer’s evening at a social gathering on the Baltic coast. My host, the headmaster of the Katharineum Gymnasium in Lübeck, read a passage from Theodor Storm’s last Novella Der Schimmelreiter as part of the evening’s entertainment. And as he continued to read, I became aware that I was listening to an author whose prose was like none other I had ever heard; its tautness, linguistic grace and economy were to impress themselves on my mind from that evening on.

It was All Saints’ Eve in October. All day a wind had raged from the south-west; in the evening a half-moon stood in
the sky, dark-brown clouds raced across it, and shadows and dim light flew in confusion over marsh and polder; the storm was gathering…….

A violent gust of wind came roaring in from the sea, and rider and horse fought their way against it up the narrow path towards the ridge of the dyke. When they were on top, Hauke forcefully reined in his horse. But where was the sea? Where was Jeverssand? Where had the opposite shore gone? – He saw only mountains of water before him which towered up menacingly towards the night sky and in the terrible twilight sought to roll one over the other, and one over the other crashed against the dry land. Crowned with white plumes they rolled in, roaring, as if the cries of every ferocious wild beast in the wilderness were contained within them. The grey stamped the ground with its forehoofs and snorted with its nostrils into the tumult; it felt to the rider that here all mortal power ended; that now the forces of darkness, of death, of nothingness, were about to descend.’

I was unfamiliar with this writer at that time, and inquired into the life and works of the author I had just heard. My host, whose Gymnasium had once been attended by the author in his youth, knew of him in detail, and proceeded to reveal to me not only an unfamiliar author but a world on the west coast of Schleswig-Holstein, North Friesland, that immediately captured my imagination. It was this world, he said, that defined Theodor Storm, his world and his works: I should go there. And I was to go there the following day.

North Friesland is like no other region of earth: its tall dykes, picturesque villages, polder, marsh and heathland not only define its character, but the North Sea Tidal Flats that dominate its coastline, the largest area of mudflats in the world, upon which ‘like dreams lonely islands rest in the mist upon the sea,’ provide the region with a fascination and beauty unique to the eye. When looking out over these tidal flats, from the vantage point of a dyke, one looks out as if into eternity. This was the world of Theodor Storm, into which he was born in 1817 and in which he lived for the major part of his life, whose works were to embody the very nature, culture, and history of this unique region.

Like Storm, I have lived by the sea for the greater part of my life; his thoughts and experiences of its beauties and perils were akin to mine. And as I explored the coastal town of Husum in which he lived, and the heathland and beautiful Frisian villages that became the settings for his prose and lyric verse, I grew to become one with this author. His past life and mine were henceforth to co-exist through the medium of translation.

2) Reading between the lines, Theodor Storm is the only author you want to translate. If true, why is that?

On returning to England I searched in vain for Storm’s works in English – only to discover that he was virtually unknown in this language. The few works that were available, lay out of print and in dust on the shelves of the British Library in London. It was then that I decided to devote my future retirement to translating his works; that his fiction deserved to be far better known to the English-speaking reader. It was to be a significant task that was to extend over the next 23 years – researching, translating and publishing.

Having completed the research and translation of Der Schimmelreiter (The Dykemaster, 1888), the first volume in the future series, I was fortunate to discover a publisher, Angel Books of London, whose objective was the same as mine. It had been looking for a translator of Storm for many years! Together we have published thirteen of Storm’s novellas in English, ten of which into English for the first time. Without such a publisher this series would never have been possible. To have had to search for a publisher for each and every translation would have been out of the question, for I had approached some twenty-five publishers, both in the UK and in America, with my translation of Der Schimmelreiter without success, before discovering Angel Books. Very few editors have studied German and consequently have minimal knowledge of German literature, hence little incentive to publish it: French literature predominates. In addition to this, only some 3% of all fiction published in the UK annually, according to the Translators Association, is in translation, in comparison with some 48% in Germany. The literary translator’s task in the UK is therefore a difficult one.

3) How did you choose which of Storm’s novellas and stories to translate?

The question of which novella to translate does not admit of a single answer, but above all it is made against a background of an intimate knowledge of the author, his life, his times and of the specific setting. Attention is paid equally to literary criticism and academic appraisal in the choice of a work to be translated. But the translator himself must admire the work, must wish to translate it, and to see it ‘reborn’ in the English language, for it is a lengthy, disciplined task that lies ahead of him, demanding visits to the settings in North Friesland. The weakness with literary criticism is that certain academic ‘schools’ tend to favour the same few novellas with the resultant neglect of the many others. The autor becomes like a composer whose overture is all that is repeatedly played. And publishers, too, follow these ‘schools’ for commercial reasons, denying the reading public of choice. Example of this critical bias are Der Schimmelreiter and Aquis submersus, as if these are the only two novellas that Storm ever wrote, although he wrote fifty. Such classics as Pole Poppenspäler (Paul the Puppeteer), Hans und Heinz Kirch, Renate, and Carsten Curator (Carsten the Trustee) to name but a few, are frequently neglected even in their own language.

4) What challenges does Storm present to his translator?

A translator must be able to ‘see’ or ‘experience’ what the author sees or experiences. Storm was to tell the original translator of Immensee (1849) to translate what he meant not what he wrote. To do this one has to ‘see’ and ‘experience’. In Storm’s case, what he saw and experienced in most cases is there to be seen and experienced: a church interior or exterior; a specific view across a marsh or polder; specific places in the town; its harbour; a boat journey across the mudflats to one of the lonely islands; the specific paintings and pond described in Aquis submersus; or to be out alone on a dyke in the biting cold of a winter as I was when translating Der Schimmelreiter. There are scenes in the town and village churches where the protagonist sits in the gallery from which Storm describes the view from it in his ‘economic’ detail. To have sat in these galleries, to have ‘seen’ these views, enables the translator to truly capture what Storm intended – what he ‘means’. There are hundreds of such examples throughout Storm’s works. It must also be borne in mind that readers of today’s classics expect comprehensive notes to accompany the text. Storm was a meticulous researcher and his texts are filled with historical, cultural and social references, a reader’s knowledge of which greatly enhances the narrative.

The value of this ‘seeing’ and ‘experiencing’ is no more visible than in the rendering of Storm’s style: it is taut, concise and economic, the very factors that make him the greatest among Poetic Realists. A good description of it would be: ‘minimalist’. One adjective suffices where many writers would use two; a single short paragraph, even a single sentence, describes a scene or landscape where others would need a page. He is an artist who paints a scene with the fewest brushstrokes possible – it is the reader who ‘paints-in’ the remainder of the picture and its colours. To render this ‘minimalism’ in translation the translator must know precisely what Storm is seeing and describing, for there is no room for textual ‘extensions’.

But no discussion on Storm translation would be complete without mention of Storm’s vocabulary and the challenge it sets the translator. Storm had one of the largest vocabularies in the German language, many words being ‘Storm-created’. It is a nineteenth-century language, sometimes an eighteenth-century one to match the setting of the novella. Over the many years I have been translating Storm, I have needed to collect together a library of nineteenth-century German-English dictionaries, collected during my visits to European capitals. A translator cannot use twentieth-century German-English dictionaries when translating Storm. Even then, one’s own ‘Storm Dictionary’ has to be created as translation problems are solved and archaisms resolved. Today’s data-processing greatly assists the translator by having such dictionaries speedily accessed, but few such facilities exist for these much older dictionaries.

5) How did you differentiate your translations from the ones that came before? Why did you choose to retranslate stories that already had English translations?

Firstly, there is the question of faithfully reproducing Storm’s ‘economic’ style as previously described. Some earlier translations disregarded this vitally important characteristic of Storm’s writing, and in so doing, destroyed all that is essential in Storm.

It was also clear when the translator had never been to North Friesland or to Storm’s coastal town of Husum, for the works involved contained errors that misled the reader. Today’s readerships also expect comprehensive notes, information and introductions to accompany such classics, which cannot be adequately provided without a local knowledge by the translator.

imageMy rendering of Der Schimmelreiter as The Dykemaster, has frequently been questioned – why not, it is asked: ‘The Man on the White Horse’? My response has always been twofold: firstly, as I am later to explain, Storm’s words are chosen as much for their sounds as for their meanings, therefore the title The Dykemaster meets this need, as well as keeping the title’s focus on the central character, the Deichgraf (Dykemaster); and secondly, it avoids a title that in my view is incorrect. There is no such horse in equestrian terms as a ‘white horse’. A white horse is a ‘grey’, a term I use throughout my translations. I am sure that Storm would never have produced a title such as ‘The Man on a White Horse’, as frequently appears in previously published translations of Der Schimmelreiter. In my view it is both contrary to his crisp style of titles over his 50 novellas and to his literary intention.

6) When do you decide a translation is finished?

After the initial translation, the text is generally laid aside for a month or so, then re-visited to remove the ‘German-English’ elements and to improve the translation, and English, where needed. A translation is consequently never finished; it can always be improved, but an English readership is waiting – and so is a publisher.

7) I assume there was a lot of on-site research. Where did you go and which locations are a must-visit for someone who has yet to make their own Storm pilgrimage.

Storm’s settings that I have visited primarily reside not only in the coastal town of Husum itself, but in the principal villages of Schwabstedt, south of Husum (Renate), Hattstedt, north of Husum (Der Schimmelreiter, Aquis submersus), Drelsdorf, north of Husum (Aquis submersus) and Ostenfeld (Renate) east of Husum. The churches in each of these villages are a must to visit. Not only have they delightful Frisian interiors, but their descriptions occur again and again in one form or another in his novellas. Husum itself is also the home of the Theodor-Storm-Gesellschaft which is a mine of information regarding his life and times. Of all the villages, Schwabstedt is by far the most beautiful; the setting of one of Storm’s finest works, Renate, a story of alleged witchcraft and religious bigotry – a farmhouse there is called Renatehof. But the off-shore islands must not be forgotten and a boat journey from Husum harbour out to one these islands is a journey to remember. It features in Storm’s novella Eine Halligfahrt (Journey to a Hallig, 1871). A ‘Hallig’ is the name given to a small undyked island on the mudflats (Wattenmeer). The sea journey to a Hallig takes you over the legendary village of Rungholt, mentioned in the text of the novella, a small village that was submerged and swept away in the great flood of 1362 and whose church bells can still be heard beneath the waters! The interiors of the farmsteads on these islands are worth many a visit, and are truly characteristic of Frisian life and culture. They feature in many a Storm novella – particularly the dykemaster’s house in Der Schimmelreiter. Frisian longhouses on their high earthworks to protect them from the sea are classic features of the flat landscape.

To be continued.  In part two, Denis discusses Storm’s fairy tales, personal favourites from Storm’s oeuvre, and recommends a novella written by someone else!

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When Peirene #16, White Hunger, dropped through the postbox last week, I was horrified to find that the whole of Series 5 remained in the TBR.  (Where does the time go?) Serendipitously I needed to read just three books to complete #tbr20.  The time was right for a catch up.

I’m not going to review all three in depth because a) time just isn’t on my side right now, b) The Blue Room wasn’t really my cup of tea. (Let’s just say as Tomorrow Pamplona was too testostorony, there was far too much oestrogen in The Blue Room’s pages) and c) Under the Tripoli Sky with its depiction of abused womanhood and an ignored child made my blood boil.  I need to calm down before writing about it.

I may come back and write full reviews of both at a later date because there is plenty to say.  As a whole, I found Peirene’s Coming of Age Series to be the most thought-provoking to date.

Today though I’m concentrating on my favourite of the three.  The review also serves as my first contribution to Stu’s Eastern European Literature Month.

The Dead Lake – Hamid Ismailov 
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield

An unnamed narrator is travelling by train across the boundless steppes of Kazakhstan when he meets an incredibly talented 12-year old busker.  The boy’s thick, adult voice and his snappy attitude belie the appearance of his body.  He is a 27-year old man trapped in the body of a child.

Conditioned by The Tin Drum, my mind immediately sprung to Oskar Mazerath, but, thankfully stunted growth is the only thing Yerzhan has in common with Oskar (thankfully, because the world’s only big enough for one Oskar.) As Yerzhan travels on the train with the narrator, he reveals the story of his life in a place that is beautiful, remote and utterly exploited.  His home, an isolated station on the Kazakhstan railway, lies in the vicinity of the Zone (the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site).  His childhood spent riding to school on horses, fox hunting with his grandpa, learning to play the dombra is punctuated by strange and frightening phenomena; a rumbling and a trembling, and then a swirling, sweeping tornado. Ominous to us with hindsight, but to Yerzhan this is everyday life.  (It would be – between 1949 and 1989, a total of 468 nuclear explosions were carried out at the SNTS.) Thrown to the ground, he gets up, dusts himself off and carries on with his daily business.

There appear to be no consequences and so, on the day when he is taken with his classmates to visit The Dead Lake – a beautiful lake that had formed after the explosion of a nuclear bomb – he casually strips off, takes a dip despite warnings to the contrary and his destiny is sealed.  In the words of one of his folk songs:

When I am one, I’m in the cradle,
When I am five, I am God’s own creature,
When I am six, I’m like the birch pollen,
When I am seven, I’m the earth’s dust and its rot,
When I am ten, I’m like a suckling lamb,
And at fifteen I frolic like an elf and gnome ….

Others face fates no less dreadful. While the older generations live to a goodly age, radiation sickness takes hold of  Yerzhan’s beloved cousin, Aisulu, who has grown inordinately tall.  The cost is extraordinary with Yerzhan and Aisulu representative of blighted lives in the hundreds of thousands. The train journey across the Steppes, which has already lasted 4 days when the story begins, continues throughout the entire novella and beyond the end page.  This emphasises the boundlessness of Kazakhstan, an area as large as Europe, and also the environmental devastation.   On page one:

At every way station, the train was boarded by ever more vendors – all women – peddling camel wool, sun-dried fish or simply pellets of dried soured milk.

Busy bustle everywhere. As the train crosses the Steppes, approaching Yerzhan’s home, the narrator is seized by a nameless fear, the feeling of something inevitable yet hidden, that could be here, just round the next bend.  By the time the train arrives at Yerzhan’s home station, Kara-Shagan, there are no signs of life, no chickens running around under the single elm some distance away, no old man with a little flag, no hay laid in for the winter, not even a single little cowpat anywhere.

The final sentence, which I won’t quote, couldn’t emphasise the plain fact more chillingly: it’s not just the lake that is dead.


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I’m reading from the Impac and Folio Prize Longlists and decided that a couple of shorties (i.e novellas) would help the #tbr20 cause along quite nicely.

I’ll start with Jenny Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation, which appears on the 2015 Folio Prize longlist.  I heard so much about this upon release last year.  Reviewers fell in love with it one after the next and I can certainly see some of the charm.  The story, to be truthful, is nothing outstanding – a domestic drama of courtship, marriage, parenthood, adultery. It’s the manner of the telling which lifts this novella beyond ordinariness.   Like the jigsaw on the dustjacket, this story is told in fragmentary pieces that need to be put together to form the bigger picture.  Fortunately the fragments are chronological, so it’s not too difficult to piece them together.  

Told from the wife’s point-of view, I read the collection of small, concise paragraphs like a collection of memories jotted down in a notebook: a memory about the husband, her child, feelings interspersed with philosophical bon-mots. The ebbs and flows of a long-term relationship reflected in all honesty: that time of initial discovery,  fondness,  love, happiness, familiarity, sadness, disillusionment, bitterness, counselling, reconcilation. At the moment of greatest difficulty the narrative switches from first person (I, we) to third (the wife, the husband) to denote estrangement and distance.  The concision of thought lending an at times poetical melody to the text.

Some have described it as postmodern, an adjective shared with Kristina Carlson’s Mr Darwin’s Gardener, which is longlisted for the 2014 IMPAC prize. This is a much more complicated prospect; its ambition to depict the collective mind of an English village during the advent of Darwinism.   Set in Darwin’s home village of Downe, Darwin remains off page, leaving them to his gardener, Thomas Davies;  a grief-stricken widower, with two young children, who eschews religion and adheres to his employer’s theories.  Unsurprisingly he takes his comfort from nature.

He is both distanced from and surrounded by a multitudinous and at times motley cast of characters.  The village drunk doctor, the publican, the grocer, a book group, a would-be author,  the wife-beater, the do-gooders, the gossips.  We see them at home with all their imperfections, we see them grapple with the questions that Darwinism has brought to their faith, we see a microcosm of society and we need to pay attention. I haven’t read a review of this book that hasn’t used the adjective polyphonic because that’s what it is. Ofttimes the villagers act like a chorus, each having their say in a single scene, not always explicitly and individually introduced.

I can’t say I did pay the necessary attention (despite the publisher’s warning that this book needs to be read slowly and savoured). There’s no doubt that I would benefit from a second reading, to pick up on what I missed first time round. This is an incredibly detailed and quiet text, and I’m not the most attentive reader of those.   Still I came away with positive impressions.  It’s clever, thoughtful, sympathetic to the foibles of human nature and open to the restorative power of nature.  Perhaps a little less sympathetic to those not accepting of Darwin’s theories. The criticism implicit in the portrayal of their flaws? I can’t quite make my mind up about this. Hence the need for a second reading of an admirable historical portrait in  fine, nuanced translation from Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.  

© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2015)

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