Reading – Deutsch

Der grüne Heinrich
Gottfried Keller (edition of 1879)

Der grüne Heinrich, Wikipedia observes, "stands with Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship and Adalbert Stifter's Der Nachsommer as one of the three most important examples of a Bildungsroman." The Bildungsroman, or novel of growth and development, is a genre very close to my heart, and the two other works cited are among my all-time favorites. (They are both famously, or infamously, long, and so is Heinrich.)

Heinrich is, in the words of Alice in Wonderland, "a book without pictures or conversations," not light reading. It is full of abstract ideas and complex expressions, with a lot of vocabulary that is beyond that of my dictionary.

Curiously, it is very like the early books of Rousseau's Confessions, another book I am reading, in finding significance in the vagaries and experiments of early childhood. I found myself feeling strongly empathetic with Heinrich as, at an early point in his painting work, enthused after reading a theoretical treatise on nature and art, he set out to draw a tree, with feeble results that his family and friends laughed at. I wished that I could have been there to tell him, Heinrich, trees are very hard to draw: they have a lot of leaves, and to get good effect, you need to draw around the leaves and limbs you wish to show off, because the white highlights that you haven't touched will be what will convince the eye. It's a bunch of work, even on the best of days.

More than halfway through, I am still feeling fascinated by Heinrich's story. It is a true portrait of the artist as a young man. He is alternately deeply likable and human, and socially inept and unrealistic about practical life. His failures are those of youth and inexperience, so lead us toward sympathy rather than dislike. This is the less surprising because his father died when he was young, leaving him in the hands of his mother. As he remarks of her on his leaving home,

Da sie aber die Welt nicht kannte, noch die Tätigkeiten und Lebensarten, denen ich entgegenging, und doch wohl fühlte, daß etwas nicht richtig sei in meinen Geschichten und Hoffnungen, ohne daß sie nachweisen konnte, worin es lag, so beschränkte sie sich schließlich auf den kurzen Zuspruch, ich solle Gott nicht vergessen.
Since she didn't kow the world or the activities or modes of life into which I was going, yet still felt that something wasn't quite right with my stories and hopes, without quite knowing where it was, so she confined herself to the brief observation that I should never forget God.

Geschichte Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand,
Goethe (1773)


I knew little of this work, but took up from my new set of the complete Goethe. It was an early work, found in the middle of Volume I. (A digression: After believing for a while that Goethe's work was so vast that no one had ever assembled a complete edition of his works, I found one. In picking up this work, I understood the situation better on happening across a note at the end of the first volue. It was one of a limited edition of 250 numbered copies, hardly enough to populate the libraries of the world. One wonders about the economics. Setting movable type for fifty volumes with the equipment of 1909 must have have quite an effort. – I haven't been able to find the numbering in my own set. It must be somewhere.)

Goethe, along with many of his European contemporaries, was in awe of Shakespeare. This play is heavily influenced by Shakespeare's historical dramas. At the same time, it is under the spell of the French Revolution. Its ruggedly individualist, tragic principal figure, Gottfried – Götz – falls to established society and rule.

A sidelight: Götz is noted as the source of the quote, "Mich ergeben! Auf Gnad und Ungnad! Mit wem redet Ihr! Bin ich ein Räuber! Sag deinem Hauptmann: Vor Ihro Kaiserliche Majestät hab ich, wie immer, schuldigen Respekt. Er aber, sag's ihm, er kann mich im Arsche lecken!" That is, as reported by Wikipedia, "Me, surrender! At mercy! Whom do you speak with? Am I a robber! Tell your captain that for His Imperial Majesty, I have, as always, due respect. But he, tell him that, he can lick me in the arse!" – This calls to mind Mozart's canon Lech mich im Arsch, K 231, written in Vienna five years later, in 1782.

Wilhelm Raabe (1876)

Horacker is a very humorous look at the mores of a small village. I enjoyed it a lot. Unfortunately, its language contains a lot of idioms and colloquialisms outside of my more classical German.

Zur Farbenlehre,
Goethe (1810)

I find it intriguing that such diverse and major figures as Sir Isaac Newston and Johann Goethe have studied color theory. Newton's work is scientific, full of diagrams of prisms and equations. Goethe's is about how we perceive color. Of course, both of these men would have benefitted from our current immense knowledge of how the eye perceives light. But the questions involved are not simply empirical.

It is also curious that such figures as the painter J.M. W. Turner and the composer Ludwig van Beethoven valued Goethe's color theory. Beethoven felt that the color theory was much more interesting than Goethe's other works – rather a peculiar observation for someone who wrote incidental music for the author's works.

I am recently learning that Goethe was a painter as well as a writer. I've only seen a little of his artistic work.

Soll und haben,
Gustave Freytag (1855)

Soll und haben was very widely read in Germany in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is traditional and nationalistic, extolling middle class and German values, deprecating Poland, other Slavic countries, and Jews.

I read books that have been very widely read, and books presenting beliefs that I don't particularly agree with. The Koran is one example. This is another. I've worked for quite a while to understand the factors leading to Nazism, Germany's push for Lebensraum, the background to World War II, and the Holocaust. I expected that this work would shed light on the mood when that era began. It did, a little, but not nearly as much as one can gain simply from observing the 2016 Presidential election campaigns. Yes, the villain is Jewish – but that much is true of The Merchant of Venice, which is accepted high school reading. Yes, the Poles misbehaved, but not particularly more so than opposition peoples in many other stories.

In the end, I felt that these volumes fairly rank as a neglected classic. The hero reflects the society around him, with its strong human values of behavior in an era of upheaval. He grows over the course of the story, after what is a youthful failure of judgment rather than an act of ill intent or particular harm to those around him. It's not hard to understand that its two volumes and 979 pages don't make for a "good read," and apparent that the social particulars are dated. Still, it was quite good, a bit after the mold of War and Peace, though not quite of that rank.

Curiously, it was not easy finding a copy. After some other efforts, a small seller working through Amazon provided a very serviceable edition a hundred years old. It was printed in the old German black letter script, which was interesting – a small barrier, but one worth crossing, in the scheme of things.

Hermann und Dorothea,
Goethe (1799)

I took a break in between two volumes of Soll und haben (as I often do with very long works) to read the short epic idyll Hermann und Dorothea.

I toyed in my mind with the idea of getting a complete set of the works of Goethe, who is indeed a giant, until I realized that he wrote such an amazing amount that no one has ever assembled such a thing. Offhand, I can't think of of another writer of whom this is true … to say nothing of his non-literary output.

In any event, Hermann und Dorothea is a truly fresh and creative work, still attuned to its desire to follow the great classics of Greek and Latin literature. Its cantos are each headed with the name of one of the Muses, its lines in hexameter. Taken as an epic, it is very brief; taken as an idyll, it is very long. Its messages – yes, there are strong messages – are explicit in the mouths of its characters. The messages are patriotic, republican, traditional in their views of virtue and roles within family and society. This are all melded into one strong, continuing whole.

After reading it, I am even more impressed by Goethe than when I started.

Die Exiliere des Teufels,
E.T.A. Hoffman (1815)

The story of The Devil's Elixir by Hoffman is a Gothic novel, a bit in the spirit of Edgar Allen Poe, with the added dimension of a morality-seeped horror. It is full of ghosts, spirits, doppelgängers good and evil, unknown twins, and a whole panoply of futher paranormal phenomena.

Curiously, in its unresolved ambiguities between what is real and what isn't, it calls to my mind the plays of Luigi Pirandello. I wonder if Pirandello knew Die Elixiere.

Der Nachsommer
Adalbert Stifter (1857)

Der Nachsommer has been a major reading event for me, the book most affecting me since I read Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind. These are books that not only offer insights and enjoyment, but have an effect on my life.

Der Nachsommer was received with considerable controversy. It is cited as one of the major novels of the 19th century. Nietzsche ranked it with Goethe’s work. It was also criticized for its excessive length, its tendency to langweilen – a fine German verb meaning to discuss trivialities “a long while.” Stifter’s contemporary Christian Friederich Hebbel famously offered the crown of Poland to anyone who could finish it. It is certainly lengthy, but I loved it.

It is often described as a Bildungsroman, a story of an individual’s growth and development, which it is. (I am very fond of this genre, with little patience for characters, like Stendahl’s Julian Sorel, who create and prolong their own misery, and the misery of people around them, through obstinate refusal to use their heads.) More than that, it is a work of utopian realism, describing in a very detailed and concrete fashion how life is most beautifully lived. Its principal character, well guided by an unnamed mentor, develops a love of nature and the arts, with little distinction between a prized specimen of marble and a painting – they both reward extended viewing. There is no conflict in the story. The closest any event comes to that is a mild suggestion about how a drawing in progress could be improved. Rather, the course of development is steady and progressive.

The mentor, who is unnamed for nearly all of the story, turns out to be a noted public figure in retirement – hence the title Der Nachsommer, or Indian Summer. He encourages the young narrator in a love marriage that he was denied during his own youth. In the end, the mentor defines the important things of life as first family, then the appreciation and creation of beauty. This is particularly poignant for me since, while I agree entirely, I have no close family left.

Excerpts follow.

… sagte mein Vater, der Mensch sei nicht zuerst den menschlichen Geschlecht wegen da, sondern seiner selbst willen. Und wenn jeder seiner selbst willen auf die beste Art da sei, so sei er auch für die menschliche Gesellschaft.

As ich den letzten Lehrer verlor, der mich in Sprachen unterrichtet hatte, als ich in denjenigen wissenschaftlichen Zweigen, in welchen man einen längeren Unterricht für nötig gehalten hatte, weil sie schweriger oder wichtiger waren, solchen Fortschritte gemacht hatte, daß man ein Lehrer nicht mehr für notwendig erarchtete, enstand die Frage, wie es in Bezug auf meine erwählte wissenschaftliche Laufbahn zu halten sei, ob man da einen gewissen Plan entwerfen und zu dessen Ausführung Lehrer annehmen sollte.

… my father said that man is not there in the first place for the sake of mankind, but for himself. And if each person is there for himself in the best possible way, so is he for mankind.

As I lost the last teacher, who had instructed me in speech, as I made such progress in the scholarly branches in which longer instruction is considered necessary, since they are harder or weightier, in which an instructor is no longer considered necessary, the question arose, how these stood in relation to my chose life course of scholarship, whether one needed to make a determinate plan, for which instructors should be taken on.

Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus Teutsch
Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen (1669)

Simplicissimus is a noted early German novel. I became interested in it because it is set in the background of the Thirty Years’ War, which I heard of in school but didn’t appreciate until more recently when I began to understand its effects on my ancestors in rural Germany. The book certainly provides vivid images of the lawlessness, devastation, and calculated cruelty. It helps me understand why the serfs were so dependent on their lords for protection. In particular, the story paints a picture of special animosity between the marauding soldiers and the farmers, including my peasant ancestors. The story is “low” in several senses, including language, characters, and unsparing discussions of bodily functions. Its picaresque hero Simplicissimus (Latin for “simpleton”), of very humble and undistinguished birth, wanders from adventure to adventure, with misadventures freely thrown in. Curiously, the manner and portraits are just the opposite of those I am reading now in the elevated and chivalric style of Orlando Furioso.

Ich fragte ihn
was sind das für Dinger
Leuten und Dorff? Er sagt
bist du niemalen in keinem Dorff gewest
und weist auch nicht
was Leut oder Menschen seynd?
sagte ich
nirgends als hier bin ich gewest
aber sag mir doch
was seynd Leut
Menschen und Dorff? Behüt Gott
antwortet der Einsidel
bist du närrisch oder gescheid? Nein
sagte ich
meiner Meüder und meines Knans Bub bin ich
und nicht der närrisch oder der gescheid:
Der Einsidel verwundert sich mit Seufftzen und Becreutzigung
und sagte: Wol liebes Kind
ich bin gehalten
dich umb GOttes willen besser to unterrichten.

I asked him
What kind of things
are people and towns? He said
have you never been in any town
and don’t even know
what people or men are?
I said
I’ve never been anyplace but here
but do tell me
what are people
men and towns? God preserve us
answered the hermit
are you mad or sane? No
I said
I’m my Ma’s and Pa’s kid
and not the Mad or the Sane.
The hermit in amazement sighed and crossed himself
and said, Well, dear child,
I am elected
to instruct you better about GOD’s will.

Simplicissimus is a likable fellow, in spite of or because of his total lack of worldliness and sophistication.

It has been interesting reading, a little laborious because it is very long and written in an older German. It is episodic in the extreme and wavers back and forth between piety and devil-may-care escapades. The last book is all piety, and to my taste rather preachy.

Der Schimmelreiter, Theodor Storm (1888)

I liked this quite well from its first pages, and it grew on me steadily as I went along. The story begins with a boy who cadges a Dutch copy of Euclid from his uncle, who thinks the boy will be able to do nothing with it because it is in a foreign language. From a tattered Dutch grammar, the boy soon learns enough Dutch to understand it. The father sends the boy to work carting clay for the dikes, thinking that will rid him of his intellectual affectations and daydreams, but the boy studies the geometry of the dikes and makes models of how they could be built better.

The people and setting of the Dutch dikes are elemental and primal, very compelling. The work of its main character to fortify the protective structures is both thoughtful and passionate, but not accepted by the community, who mistrust new ways of doing things. I certainly will look at other work of this author, although Der Schimmelreiter is generally considered his masterpiece.

Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin (1929)

This novel is considered by some as one of the most important of the 20th century, prompting comparisons with James Joyce. Unfortunately, it is not very approachable. It is written in dense and untranslatable slang. (Looking now, I can't even find an English translation in print.) I very nearly abandoned the effort to read the street argot after a few pages, which would have been the first time in many years that I gave up reading something because of its difficulty.

In the end, I could understand why people would point to the book as an avant-garde monument, but I found it hopelessly dark and morose. Döblin devotes an early chapter to describing in great detail slaughterhouse operations for various kinds of animals, and continually refers back to this motif as the human condition and fate.

Es ist ein Schnitter, der heißt Tod, hat Gewalt vom Großen Gott. Nun wetzt er das Messer, jetzt scheid es schon besser.

There is a cutter, who is death, with strength from the great God. Now he hones the blade, now better cuts are made.

I just can’t get interested in such obsessive and extended hopelessness, any more than I would crave the company of a human being who never had a cheerful word or thought. The New York Review of Books does have a good and less dismissive discussion of the book, if you would like to see a different vantage point.

Sommerhaus, später
Judith Hermann (1998)

Judith Hermann is a noted contemporary writer. This is a collection of short stories. They are dark in character.

I read the stories, but I found no enjoyment in obsession with characters who irrationally perform self-destructive acts and can’t manage minimal communication with their fellow creatures. To me, it’s rather like making a steady diet of oven scrapings and soggy garbage when there’s plenty of food in the cupboard.

W.G. Sebald (2001)

Austerlitz has received a number of awards. It is a discursive story, written without paragraphs, often in very long sentences, with frequent images that may be poignant or stark.

The critics and reviewers usually focus on Austerlitz’s unearthing of the horrors of Nazi Germany, which are ignored or buried in present life. The story does include that. I think that, more than that, it reflects the curiosity of Austerlitz about all kinds of phenomena that he runs across, and about his intense focus on these. Sometimes his focus is on his own story, sometimes on a variety of moths.

The wandering structure, without breaks, calls for special attention by the reader. That may be a good thing. I liked it a lot. I certainly would recommend it to those who might fancy such an approach.

Anton Reiser
Karl Philipp Moritz (1785 - 90)

Anton Reiser is notable as being perhaps the first work with the explicitly stated goal of being a "psychological novel." Johann von Goethe knew Moritz and his work. Goethe's long masterpiece Wilhelm Meister is often cited as the origin of the bildungsroman, the novel of growth or coming of age, but Anton Reiser is earlier and I would say clearly a book about the formative process of its protagonist. Its psychology it not highly complex or evolved, yet it is remarkably in a different vein from anything before it.

The story ends with a very unexpected twist in the last few lines, which shouldn't distract us too much from the main character's long psychological journey.