It would be a shame to let 2015 pass without reviewing what was the longest literary experience of the year, both in terms of page count and time committment: 1696 pages which because I listened to the three unabridged audio books translated into 60 hours of listening over a period of 6 months.  (I only listen to audio books when I’m alone in the car.)

The Ibis Trilogy is Ghosh’s retelling of that infamous episode in British history, the first Opium War (1839- 1842). I still remember the incredulity I experienced when – it was years and years ago and I’m more worldly-wise now – I first heard that we fought a war to preserve our right to trade in hard drugs, so when Sea of Poppies was first published in 2008, with that beautiful dust jacket, it was added to the TBR right away.  Same thing happened with River of Smoke in 2011.  For some reason though, I didn’t make a start until the final part, Flood of Fire was published in 2015.

If that was a strategy, it worked well, because “reading” the three parts back to back let me appreciate the coherence of the whole in a way that may otherwise have been lost.  To summarise briefly:  Sea of Poppies shows the impact of the Opium trade on the little men, the people in The Bay of Bengal, who grow and manufacture the product; River of Smoke shifts primarily to the viewpoint of the traders, with growing resistance to the trade from the Chinese authorities; and in Flood of Fire all hell breaks loose!

imageBut let’s start at the beginning and admit that Sea of Poppies was not what I was expecting at all!  For some reason, I thought that most of the action would be on the Ibis – the ex-slaver – and at sea.  Not so, it is a leisurely gathering together of those who finally take to sea in the Ibis in the final chapters of the book.  The device  allows Ghosh to explore in detail the back stories of those that find themselves on board: the officers, the crew, and the indentured Indians on their way to work in the Sugar plantations in Mauritius.  And therein lies the emotional pull of this first part.  For amongst the passengers are Deeti and Neel; the former, the widow of a heroin addict, fleeing death on her husband’s funeral pyre.  Neel, once a wealthy rajah, is now being transported as a debtor after his creditors unscrupulously call in debts when he refuses to sell them some of his ancestral lands.  Much to his disgust, he shares his cabin/cell with a filthy Chinese heroine addict, and yet, the story  how Neel overcomes his prejudices, and not only helps but befriends Ah Fatt is one of the most humane subplots of the piece.  Among the officers, who in the main are as beastly and sadistic as you would expect, given that they are representatives of the British Empire, is a fine, young, honourable, American, named Zachary Reid.

These people, like the IBIS, form a backbone through the trilogy. Although, given that they all set off on the voyage to Mauritius, they all end up in different places.  A storm and a mutiny at sea take care of that!

imageRiver of Smoke introduces us to another ship, the Anahita, which is floundering in the same storm.  She is owned by Barum Modi, a Parsee business man.  Her hold is full of opium and it is crucial that this trip is successful, if Barum is to buy out his double-dealing brothers-in-law.  The storm does not augur well, nor do the times.  It is 1838, a year before the First Opium War, and the Chinese are beginning to crack down on the trade.  Luckily for Barum the Anahita and most of his cargo makes it through the storm to arrive in Canton.  As do Neel and Ah Fatt, who is Barum’s son by his Chinese mistress.  This revelation allows Ghosh to   inject a domestic drama – father and son are estranged – into the midst of intense commercial and political negotiations. Which are staggering  in their self-righteousness and hypocrisy to say the least.  Here in a nutshell is the British argument.

… the only offence cited against us is that we have obeyed the laws of Free Trade – and it is no more possible for us to be heedless of those laws that to disregard the forces of nature, or disobey God’s commandments.

And yet, even though Barum is one of them, he became my favourite character in the trilogy, whereas Commissioner Lin, the bogeyman for the opium traders, became my favourite villain!   Who would have thought it.

imageI spent the pages of River of Smoke missing Zachary Reid.  I needn’t have worried.  I got more than enough of him,  his mistress, Mrs Burnham, and their sexual peccadilloes, during Flood of Fire.  Pages and pages – or hours and hours of listening, which I couldn’t fast forward.   Quite simply, too much information.  In my view, a miscalculation by Ghosh – I’m not sure what the point was beyond the fact that the C19th was as libidinous as the C21st.  What started as an affair of convenience though, did result in  real feelings, and Mrs Burnham did the best she could to turn Zachary into a successful man of his time.  She did a fabulous job and these pages see Zachary turn from a charming , honourable freshman into …..

…. a man of the times  …. a man who wants more and more and more; a man who does not know the meaning of “enough”.  Anyone who tries to thwart my desires is the enemy of my liberty and must be expected to be treated as such.

Something which bodes badly for Ah Fatt.  Of all the heinous acts in this trilogy, Zachary Reid’s treachery is the lowlight.  Although it’s hard to condemn him.  He has been remoulded by the opium trade to become a man of his time after all.

As I write this, I wonder if the Reid/Ah Fatt dynamic is metaphoric in some way …..

…. because this is where the British Empire finally strike the Chinese.  The first Opium War arrives and with it battle after battle, during which the Chinese are hopelessly outgunned and completely outmanoeuvred, despite outnumbering their foe.  We see the war up close through the eyes of Kesri Singh, an Indian soldier in the service of the British army (and brother of Deeti) and observed by a non-combatant in the diary of Neel Rattan, who following his stint with Barum, is now in the employ of the Chinese.

Ghosh’s narrative is incredibly detailed; the result of his prodigous research. Occasionally he  forgets not to let it show and the narrative sags as a result.  (The start of book two and botanic epistolary interludes.)  His ambition though is to recreate a panoramic overview of the world of that time and, in that he succeeds with a multi-national cast of dozens from all social strata, detailing not only the microcosms of their lives but also their languages, specialist vocabularies and dialects.  The linguistics were quite challenging as l listened – I feel sure that I wouldn’t have lost my way had I been reading.  Eventually I let it wash over me – I got the gist anyway …

… and I became as fond of Ghosh’s characters as the author himself.  Even if the ending can’t be a happy one for China (and Ah Fatt), things work out, as far as they can, for most who had a hard time on the Ibis in book one. For a significant number the Ibis plays a key role as she sails off into the distance at the end of book three, mirroring the way she sailed into view at the very beginning.   Neat it may be, but I can think of no more satisfying way to tie up almost one million words of great historical writing.

It’s almost seven years since I read and reviewed Alex Pheby’s debut novel, Grace. (A must read for those who love modern takes on the fairy tale.) I enjoyed it so much that Pheby became the first author interviewed on the blog.  In that interview he revealed he was writing a novel about Daniel Paul Schreber, a high-ranking judge whose Memoirs of my Nervous Illness have become mandatory reading for psychologists and psychiatrists  through the intervening decades. They’re fascinating, horrifying and heart-rending said Pheby as he promised to make his novel equally good.

imagePlaythings was published in November 2015 and has already been dubbed “the best neuronovel ever written” by the Literary Review.  This suggests that Pheby has succeeded in meeting his objectives, and if you’re looking for a second opinion, I would concur.  You won’t find anything more fascinating, horrifying and heart-rending in the 2015 fiction releases.

The novel fascinates from the first paragraph.

Coal dropped through the chute, sending a hint of black rising up the stairs into the hall.  Schreber stopped.  Framed in the archway into the drawing room, he swallowed and took a deep breath.  Nothing to be concerned about. Quite the opposite really. Some coal dust mingling with the scent of fresh flowers.  The post laid in a fan on the hall table.  Dim light.  The opaque mist of bacon fat heated past transparency on to smoking and spitting.  Simple matters.

Indeed but even in this everyday scenario, there are hints of consternation.  A third person narrative but from Schreber’s point-of-view.  Broken sentences. A man trying to retain his balance when there is nothing to worry about.  Just waiting to fall off the nervous edge.  So when he finds his wife lying prone after suffering a stroke, over the edge he goes.

Following a distressed meander through the Dresden suburbs, during which he does something obscene, he is apprehended and committed to a lunatic asylum.

It’s here that the horror truly begins.

imageAt first the regime is benign.  He is a gentleman.  His room is comfortable and he has a personal attendant.  But he is bewildered.  What has happened to his wife?  Why is he not allowed visitors?  He becomes bellicose and difficult, even as he tries to prove his reasonableness and sanity.  Each incident leads to a tightening of the regime, and Schreber is no novice.  The novel is set during his third and final incarceration.  He knows that patients deemed incurable eventually end up in the isolation cells below from which most never return.

It matters not.  He is a sick man unable to control his inexorable downward spiral. (And indeed, given the details of the conditions in that place, that’s entirely unsurprising.)

More horrifying than the physical circumstances are his tormented memories – the cause of his dementia praecox (paranoid schizophrenia in C21st speak).  The sensitive son of Moritz Schreber, a famous child-rearing expert of his day, Daniel Paul Schreber appears to have been damaged by the totalitarianism of his father’s harsh edicts.  A tendency to effeminateness and transvestitism will not have helped either in those times.  Freud, in his analysis of Schreber’s case made much of this.  Pheby makes mention of it but emphasises more the culpability of his father’s cruelty as an explanation for the son’s mental fragility.

As Pheby said, Schreber’s circumstances are heart-rending.  But not only his.  A series of rare conversations with his relatives make clear the impact on Schreber’s illness on their lives.  His wife is ashamed of her husband’s erratc behaviour and mortified by the publication of the afore-mentioned Memoirs. (OK this may not be the most sympathetic stance but it is entirely understandable.) His step-daughter, who adored him, loses him at a tender age and grows up without him.  It is clear that Schreber had broken the mould, was not going to repeat the pattern of his own childhood and had formed a truly loving bond with her.  Unfortunately fate, and the inefficacy of early C20th psychiatric care, were to rob them both.

So how much of Schreber’s psychotic drug-addled point-of-view can we believe?  Where is the line between fact and hallucination? How many events and motivations in Pheby’s novel are imagined? Where are the gaps (the chronology isn’t always clear). I decided not to bother myself with any of that, and I still haven’t read Schreber’s real memoirs.  I decided simply  to experience events from inside Schreber’s fictionalised head.    It’s surprising how rational it seemed …. Not all of it, but most of it.  Is that a cause for worry?  Probably but like Schreber I prefer my own spin, and choose to see it as evidence of authorly ambition well realised.


What can 44 bloggers achieve in the course of one month and 10 days with the aid of 100+ authors and 65+ translators?  Impressive, isn’t it?

Anthologies: Vienna Tales (1)

Features: An Anecdote about Jean Paul (1) German Literature on the International Dublin Award Longlist (1), Meet the Translator: Denis Jackson (1 2 3) Meet the Translator: Katy Derbyshire (1), Three Female German Writers (1), Two Winter Treasures from Seagull Books (1)

Fiction and Poetry:  Abonji: Fly Away, Pigeon (1), Aichner: Woman of the Dead (1Arjouni: Ein Mann, Ein Mord (1), More Beer (1Benn: Poems (1Bernhard: Old Masters (1), The Loser (1), The Voice Imitator (1Biller: Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz (1Böll: Irish Journal (1), The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1 2Borchert: The Dandelion (1) Brecht: Mother Courage and Her Children (1 2Broch: The Death of Virgil (1Busch: Neues Wilhelm Busch Album (1Canetti Elias: The Voices of Marrakesh (1),  Canetti Veza:  The Criminal (1), The Tortoises (1Celan: Death Fugue (1de la Motte-Fouque: Undine (1Dorn: Kalte Stille (1Dürrenmatt: Hangman (1), Suspicion (1 2 3), The Assignment (1Enzensberger: New Selected Poems (1Erpenbeck: The End of Days (1 2), The Old Child (1Fallada: A Small Circus (1), Every Man Dies Alone (1), Wolf Among Wolves (1Fontane: The Poggenpuhl Family (1), The Woman taken in Adultery (1Franck: West (1Geiger: We are Doing Fine (1) Glauser: Thumbprint (1Grass: Cat and Mouse (1), My Century (1), The Flounder (1Hebbel: How a Ghastly Story was brought to life by a Common or Garden Butcher’s Dog (1Hermann: The Start of Love (1Hesse: Demian (1), Narcissus and Goldmund (1Hilbig: The Sleep of the Righteous (1Hoffmann: The Devil’s Elixir (1 2), The Lost Reflection (1Jalowicz Simon: Gone to Ground (1) Jean Paul: Die wunderbare Gesellschaft in der Neujahrsnacht (1Kästner: Emil and The Detectives (1), The Parent Trap (1Kafka: The Verdict and Other Stories (1Kempowski: All for Nothing (1Keun: After Midnight (1), The Artificial Silk Girl (1 2Kleist: Anecdote from the Last Prussian War (1), The Duel (1), The Foundling (1Kling: Collected Poems (1Köhlmeier: Two Gentlemen on the Beach (1Kolmar: Poems (1Kretchel: Landgericht (1Lenz: A Minute’s Silence (1Lernet-Holenia: I was Jack Mortimer (1Lichtenstein: Leaving for the Front (1Lothar: The Vienna Melody (1Maier: The Room (1Mann: Buddenbrooks (1), Death in Venice and Other Stories (1), The Magic Mountain (1Meyrink: The Green Face (1Müller: The Passport (1Nenik: The Marvel of Biographical Housekeeping (1Opitz: Der Büchermörder (1Plenzdorf: The New Sorrows of Young W (1Poznanski: Erebos (1 2Preussler: Krabat and the Sorcerer’s Mill (1Reh: The Secret of the Water Knight (1), This Brave Balance (1Remarque: A Time to Live and a Time to Die (1 2), The Black Obelisk (1Rilke: Die Weise von Liebe und Tod (1), The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigg (1Roth: Hotel Savoy (1), Letters from Germany (1), Rebellion (1), The Hotel Years (1Sacher-Masoch: The Mother of God (1), Venus in Furs (1Schalansky: The Giraffe’s Neck (1Schiller: A-Z (1) Maria Stuart (1), The Robbers (1),Wallenstein (1), Wilhelm Tell (1 2Schlink/Popp: Self’s Punishment (1Schmidt: The Egghead Republic (1Schneider: Berlin Now (1), The Wall Jumper (1Schnitzler: Late Fame (1Schulze: Adam and Evelyn (1Schwitter: Eins im Andern (1), Goldfish Memory (1Sebald: On the Natural History of Destruction (1), The Emigrants (1 2), The Rings of Saturn (1 2Seethaler: A Whole Life (1Simon Christoph: Zbinden’s Progress (1Spyri: Heidi (1 2) Stamm: All Days Are Night (1Storm: Aquis Submersus (1),  The Dykemaster (1Tawada; Études in the Snow (1Trakl: Our Trakl – Book One (1von der Vogelweide: Poems von Droste-Hulshoff: The Jew’s Beech (1von Schirach: The Collini Case (1Wagner: Ice Moon (1Walser: Jacob von Gunten (1), The Robbers (1Weiss: Leavetaking (1Wolf: August (1 2 3), Cassandra (1 2), The Quest for Christa T (1 2), They Divided The Sky (1Zeh: The Method (1Zweig:  Beware of Pity (1), Burning Secret (1),  Chess (1 2), Fear (1), Incident on Lake Geneva (1), Journey into the Past (1), Leporella (1), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1), Mendel The Bibliophile (1), Montaigne (1 2), The Governess (1), The Invisible Collection (1)

Non-Fiction:  Engelmann (Editor): Schillers Bitt- und Bettelbriefe (1) Hens: Nicotine (1), Recommended Novellas (1Kiermeier-Debre Schillers Frauen (1Schilleriana (1), Schumann: The Ghetto Swinger (1Unger: Schillers Kritiker (1Weidemann: The Summer Before the Dark (1)


Continue Reading »


It was a bit of a challenge fitting everything in – #germanlitmonth, #novellanov, #nonfictionnov, but I got there.  I read 15 books in total for this year’s event (still have 5 to review ….), amongst them 3 that are likely to make my best of 2015 list.

There was some seriously impressive reading and reviewing in the G-lit blogosphere.  We were a community of 43 bloggers producing 157 reviews of childhood favourites, dramas, novellas, great doorstops of novels, plenty of poetry, and lots of new-to-me authors.  That’s what I love about German Literature Month – it’s a real journey of discovery.   What I’m not so clear on is whether my bank manager approves …. I didn’t manage to abide by my I-won’t buy anything new pledge.  My willpower failed a total of 8 times (and then there was the Pushkin Press sale last weekend. I’m definitely not talking about that.)

This was the first year we kept an index of the translators. Our index isn’t complete but it looks as though somewhere in the region of 60 translators past and present contributed to the event.  Thanks to each and everyone for their efforts in bring German Literature to the world stage. Special thanks to Katy Derbyshire and Denis Jackson for participating in Meet the Translator.

(By the way, the first part of the Denis Jackson interview was my 1000th post.)

I find it particularly gratifying that #germanlitmonth is inspiring people to read more G-lit throughout the whole year.  So, if you can’t wait until GLM VI, and it appears some can’t, there’s no need.  TJ  is hosting a 12 Germans in 12 Months challenge throughout 2016.


I also hear rumours of a Hermann Hesse Reading Week early next year.  (Kaggsy, Caroline, are they true?).

It’s usually at this time that #germanlitmonth morphs into #germanlatemonth – an extension to allow those with books read but not yet reviewed a chance to catch up.  As I still have 5 reviews to write and the traditional author index to produce, I see no reason to break the habit. I’ve given myself a deadline of 10th December to produce the index.  Feel free to add reviews to the list at http://www.germanlitmonth.blogspot.co.uk until then.

And finally, thanks once more to everyone for another terrific month.  You do deserve a treat, and Caroline, my co-hostess, has the very thing.

Let’s do it all again, next year.


In the interview with Denis Jackson, that I published yesterday, I shortened his answer to question 9.  The full response is so special that it deserves a post of its own.  So with profuse thanks to Denis Jackson, I herewith conclude GLM V with a world exclusive.

9) Are you tempted to translate Storm’s poetry?

I should love to have the time. Storm was above all a lyric poet; as he himself said: ‘My craft of fiction grew out of my lyric verse.’ His words are chosen as much for their sounds as for their meanings – an aspect of his prose essential to be known by a translator. Some critics have described him as ‘primarily a poet for the ear’, a lyrical attitude of mind that is apparent in all his works. The translator will therefore find himself translating ‘poetry’ whether he is aware of it or not.

So we entered the thick forest. It grew increasingly quiet about us and the darkness grew thicker; I barely recognised the graceful figure of Renate as she walked ahead of me so rapidly amid the tall tree-trunks. From time to time I felt as though my happiness were flickering there before me, and that I should grasp it if I didn’t want to lose it. But I knew full well that the girl’s thoughts now excluded everything and everyone but her father.

Eventually, what seemed like grey twilight broke through the trees, the forest came to an end, and there it lay before us – wide open and misty; here and there shimmered a pool of water, with dark round piles of peat rising up beside it; a large dark bird, as though it had lost something, quartering the ground with slow wing beats. (Renate)

Amid all of Storm’s lyric poetry there is one poem that not only perfectly describes the scene from the top of a dyke looking out across the North Sea Tidal Flats (Wattenmeer), and its tiny islands, but also describes his homesickness for his region while he was away in political exile. It is called ‘Meeresstrand’ (‘The Seashore’) and was contained in a letter to his father in 1856. He tells his father that he is homesick, and writes that this poem explains why:

An’s Haf* nun fliegt die Möwe,​​​
Und Dämm’rung bricht herein;​​​
Über die feuchten Watten​​​
Spiegelt der Abendschein.​​​

Graues Geflügel huschet​​​
Neben dem Wasser her;​​​​
Wie Träume liegen die Inseln​​​
Im Nebel auf dem Meer.​​​

Ich höre des gärenden Schlammes​​
Geheimnisvollen Ton,​​​
Einsames Vogelrufen – ​​​
So war es immer schon.

Noch einmal schauert leise​​​
Und schweiget dann der Wind;​​​
Vernehmlich werden die Stimmen,
Die über der Tiefesind.​​​​

© Denis Jackson

© Denis Jackson

A gull flies over the waters,
And twilight clothes the land;
The sunset’s mirrored, and sparkles,
​On the watery flats and sands.

​Grey birds are darting, skimming,
Close to a darkening sea;
Like dreams the lonely islands
Rest in fog upon the sea.

I hear the grey mud churning –
Its deep mysterious tone.
​​​The lonely calls of sea-birds –
It was always so at home.

Again the rain falls lightly,
The wind then dies away;
Clearer become the sounds,
That now drift across the bay.

© Denis Jackson 2015

* A Haf in North Friesland is the waters on the surface of the Wattenmeer, it is not a ‘harbour’.

These are most haunting images and sounds, translated by me into English for the first time. It is just a perfect description, both visually and aurally. And having stood there on a dyke myself and looked out, over at this scene, listening to the churning mud and the birds (of which there can be tens of thousands), it is a perfect experience of being one with nature. If there is one poem, as a translator, that binds me to Storm it is this one, for it brings back my own childhood memories of the seashore on the North East coast of England. To translate Storm’s poetry one has to ‘see’ and ‘experience’ its words, without which only lifeless words will result. It is best not to translate Storm’s poetry at all, than to translate it in this way. There are many other such poems waiting to be translated, but to do them justice, much time and effort must be expended. Simply to freely-render the verse would do Storm a gross injustice.

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


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,761 other followers