Reading – Deutsch

Thomas Mann (1938)

Thomas Mann: Schopenhauer

Somehow, Schopenhauer was not among the philosophers of current interest during my formative years, so I never stopped to look into his thinking. That is a bit peculiar, since he was highly thought of by many eminent persons, including for instance Albert Einstein, reputed as a physicist, but with a mind that well grasped the unsettling philosphical implications of the physics he laid out.

Schopenhauer, however, like a number of his philosophical contemporaties, produced only very extended expositions of his thought. I am not quite prepared to dive into a multi-volume version of his work at this point, so I will start with Thomas Mann's 85-page summary essay and commentary. If that is of some interest, I can enlarge to his complete work, as Einstein did.

Italiänische Reise
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1816)

Goethe painting

Travelogues are mainly out of style, now that travel has become commonplace. That's too bad. I usually enjoy reading travelogues, old or modern. Goethe's powers and scope of observation are amazing. He notices the buildings, the plants and trees, the soils, the rocks, and how the people behave.

Goethe was a painter as well as a writer. Much of the scene above is quite flat, in the mode of paint-by-number or coloring book, but the tree is a fairly sophisticated take on a tricky subject.

Wilhelm Tell
Friedrich Schiller (1804)

Wilhelm Tell

I had only the foggiest impressions and misimpresions about William Tell, the story of his shooting an apple from his son's head, and Rossini's rabble-rousing William Tell Overture. I was interested to learn that the story is an old one in Swiss lore, and that Goethe had contemplated writing a play on it but instead persuaded Schiller to.

It is certainly a tale of heroism, independence and populism. The spirit of democracy was on the rise, though in Switzerland at that time, as in modern England, people were not prepared to go as far as to throw out their beloved, titled heads of state.

It will be somewhere on my list of things to do to learn more of earlier versions of the Tell legend.

Kritik der reinen Vernunft
Immanuel Kant (1787)

Kritik der reinen Vernunft

I read a fair part of this when I was in college, but my interest flagged midway through. Decades later, I believe Kant was one of the major thinkers of the Western philosophical canon. His work is sometimes theoretical, but it says so in the title: Critique of Pure Reason. Both abstract thinking and perceptual experience, even put together, take us only so far down the road of what we flatter ourselves with as "understanding."

I shall try it again, this time in the original.

Römische elegien; Venetianische Epigramme
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (ca. 1790)

Römische Elegien

I have read little of Goethe's poetry. The Roman Elegies are a noted work, like Werther, from his early days. Their model is Ovid, his Amores, and perhaps Catullus. Elegiac couplets are a new form to me. I am finding them rather to my taste. There is a rhythm, with a bit of complexity to it, hexameter for the first line, pentameter for the second. Goethe is a bit looser than his Latin counterparts, which fits the German language. The lines don't rhyme.

He speaks of counting out the beat of the hexameter on his mistress's back as she sleeps:

Oftmals hab ich auch schon in ihren Armen gedichtet
Und des Hexameters Mass leise mit fingernder Hand
Ihr auf den Rücken gezählt. Sie atmet in lieblichen Schlummmer
Und es durchglühet ihr Hauch mir bis in Tiefste die Brust.

Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder
Bertold Brecht (1949)

Mutter Courage

Mother Courage takes her name from a book of Grimmelshausen, the author of the more famous Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus.

I started Brecht's work many years ago but put it aside because my classical German didn't get me far enough into the dense slang. That still was a barrier this time around.

Brecht pictures war in a very cynical light, full of inanity, venality and stupdity. I would not disagree with that, and recognize that at the time his portrayal was a strong and dangerous political act. His work is lacking, however, in the presence of any noble people or things, so in my eyes suffers from its complete negativity.

I'd like to go back and look at Grimmelshausen's work. I am not sure that it's in print, though.

Die Leiden des jungen Werthers
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1774)


Werther was one of the early monuments of the Romantic movement. I have read it a couple of times before, once in English and once in German. As I had remembered and expected, Werther is a monument of Empfindsamkeit, passion and sensitivity.

– Mein Freund, rief ich aus, der Mensch ist Mensch, und das bißchen Verstand, das einer haben mag, kommt wenig oder nicht in Anschlag, wenn Leidenschaft wütet und die Grenzen der Menscheit einen drangen.
– My friend, I cried, a human is human, and the little bit of understanding that one may have, comes little or not at all into play when passions rage and the limits of humanity press in.

This time around, I noticed the attention to individuality, consistent with Goethe's republican sentiments – without, however, any of the overt political element of Foscolo's Jacopo Ortis.

Die Geschwister Oppermann
Lion Feuchtwanger (1933)

Die Geschwister Oppermann

I have long been intrigued with the question of what life was like for ordinary Germans during the time of Hitler. I have long searched for reading on this topic, without success. Only recently have I run across citations of the work of Lion Feuchtwanger, who was a Jewish German writer of some prominence in the early days of Naziism. His first-hand perspective fascinated me. It is the view that I've wished for and coveted. I don't quite know why it took me so long to find it, other than perhaps that I had been looking in history and journalism rather than literature.

It turns out that I had incorrect impressions of what it was like. I had imagined that ordinary Germans had little idea of the atrocities of Naziism, which was sanitized and screened from view. It is correct that few knew of the scale and deliberateness of the genocide, but hatred and episodic violence were overt. In the earlier part of the Reich, local cells and party groups shared an ideology but had not yet coalesced into an organized and coherent whole.

Is is like the ultranationalism of today? – Yes.

Die Leute von Seldwyla
Gottfried Keller (1855)

Leute von Seldwyla

I became acquainted with Keller through his Der grüne Heinrich, remarkable for its deep psychological insight into an artist's years of growth and formation. I will approach this work, like other very long ones on my reading list, a piece at a time. Since this one is a collection of novellas, that should work out very naturally.

Volume I

Pankraz, der Schmoller

Pancraz is a curious work. It is, I gather, the only one of the stories that does not take place in the village of Seldwyla. The threads of its plot are out of the ordinary: Pancraz as a youth is sulky, lazy and self-centered. An incident gives him umbrage and he storms off from the neighborhood to enlist as a soldier. He is successful in that structure, except for a frustrated amour with his commandant's daughter. Again, he leaves in a huff, going off to Africa. There, he has a long staring contest with a lion, which makes him stop being sulky. He returns to his family and Seldwyla and tells them his story, except that they sleep through it. He declines to repeat it. He lives out his days in the village, companionable and well-liked.

The plot of the story is contrived, almost juvenile. The painting of Pancraz's mind and conflicting emotions in his awkward first brush with tender feelings is, as with Der grüne Heinrich, done with the touch of a master.

Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe

This story is frequently read by itself. As the title suggests, a young man and young lady, children of poor, feuding villagers, fall deeply in love. Recognizing the impossibility of their situation, after a day and night of fairy-tale celebration, they decide to throw themselves into the river together.

The love death reminds me of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. It is undiluted romance. – As far as I can see, Keller himself never married.

Frau Regel Amrain und ihr Jüngster

Frau Regel Amrain tells a very moral story with rather a feminist twist. After Frau Amrain's husband runs away, she takes over management of the family stone quarry and raising of their son Fritz. When Fritz lands in jail after a rash escapade, she deliberately lets him languish there for a while before coming to pick him up. When he angrily demands why she didn't come sooner, she just laughs and gives him a kiss. The author reports, "He said not another word, and showed from then on, that in fact he had learned something from the imprisonment." Fritz turns into a very responsible and hard-working manager of the quarry. When his father returns much later, Fritz gently but firmly lets the father know that he is no longer in charge.

At Frau Amrain's death, she stretches herself out, still proud, and "never in Seldwyla was there such a tall and noble corpse borne to the church."

Die drei gerechte Kammacher

This is a curious story. In it, three combmakers, solid bourgeois citizens of the village all, fall under the charms of an attractive young heiress neighbor, Züs. To resolve the choice, she sets them all to race each other, with herself as prize – but holds back one of them, Dietrich, and nestles up to him. Obliviously, he is anxious to break away to take part in the race for her hand. She insists, I don't want to be left here all by myself, please stay with me.

Sie hatte ihn in dies Dickicht gelockt, um ihn zu verraten, und war in Handumdrehen von dem Schwäbchen erobert; dies geschah nicht, weil sie etwa ein besonders verliebte Person war, sondern weil sie als eine kurze Natur trotz aller eingebildeten Weisheit doch nicht über ihre eigene Nase wegsah.
She had lured him into this imbroglio in order to betray him, and was conquered by the Swabian in the twinkling of an eye. This did not happen because she was a particularly love-smitten soul, but rather because with her simple nature she could not see beyond her own nose, despite all her pretentions to sophistication.

Quickly, the two are arm in arm, covering each other with kisses. Meanwhile, the other two combmakers race through the streets of Seldwyla, much to the amusement of the villagers. However, the race goes not to the swiftest, but to the one who stayed behind. They marry.

Dietrich der Schwabe allein blieb ein Gerechter und hielt sich oben in den Städtchen; aber er hatte nicht viel Freude davon; denn Züs ließ ihm gar nicht den Ruhm, regierte und unterdrückte ihn und betrachtete sich selbst als die alleinege Quelle alles Guten.
Only Dietrich the Swabian remained as a good citizen of elevated status in the village, but he had little joy from that, since Züs scarcely left any honor for him, dominating and suppressing him and considering herself as the sole source of anything good.

The satirical downplay of the bourgiosie class reminds me of Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Again, the hinted misogyny reminds me that Keller never married.

Spiegel, das Kätzchen: ein Märchen

Spiegel, the cat is described in its title as a fairy tale, and is just that. Its story is a bit like that of Faust. The hungry cat is willing to trade his life for sumptuous food from an evil wizard. Not surprisingly, Spiegel outwits the evil wizard with an improbable tale of a hidden fortune and a beautiful maiden.

Volume II

Kleider machen Leute

Like Spiegel is in the idiom of fairy tales. The premise is, as the title says, that "clothes make the man." An impoverished but well-dressed tailor is taken for a nobleman when he goes to another village. There, he becomes engaged to the daughter of a blue-blood. Though unmasked in the penultimate pages, he retains the love of the lady. He becomes quite successful in his business, and the couple live happily ever after. – There is no particular moral to the fable, as far as I can see.

Der Schmied seines Glückes

Der Schmied seines Glückes, Master of One's Own Destiny, is a tale with a clear moral: crime does not pay.

Johannes schemes and connives how to improve his own fortune, changing his name to the English form of John as part of an effort to romanticize his presence. An early plot to marry a rich neighbor falls flat on its face when it turns out that his name, combined with her unknown true name, combine to form the appellation "Cabbage-head."

Discouraged, he wanders away from Seldwyla and comes across a man who is childless but looking to establish a heir. Together, they concoct a plan to forge a history that would make John his natural son. This is on the verge of success when John decides, just as icing on the cake, to seduce his benefactor's wife. Soon enough, she becomes pregnant and gives birth to a boy, making the scheme irrelevant.

Sad and chastened, John goes back to Seldwyla and works to make a humble living.

Die mißbrauchten Liebesbriefe

The collection of stories is one of plots and twists, rather like the Grimms' Kinder und Hausmärchen or the Decameron or the Canterbury Tales. The misused love-letters is a trickster story, like those of Uncle Remus. The development of character is not a strong presence, as it is in the author's Der Grüne Heinrich.

In this story, one of the town citizens wants to raise his wife's plane of intellect. To this end, while he is away on business, he writes her intellectual letters and asks her to reply. At a loss, she rewrites her husbands letters as her own to a local student, feigning a passion for him, and uses his educated replies to reply to her husband. After a while, the truth outs, and the burgher divorces his wife. The student leaves town in disgrace, finding work on a local farm. Eventually, the deceiving wife entices the student into falling in love with her. – Not long on deep morality, but with a plot more intricate than most.


This story continues the fairy tale-like series that precedes it. The young hero Dietzegen and heroine Küngolt fall in love at a young age. Each is taken unjustly for an unnatural criminal act, but actually is a paragon of constant and unselfish virture. In the end, of course, they marry.

Das verlorene Lachen

In the end, of course, virtue pays and true love prevails.

Adalbert Stifter (1865)


Adalbert Stifter's Der Nachsommer certainly classes as one of my all-time favorites. His own favorite of all of his works was Witiko. Like Der Nachsommer, it is extremely long and considered by everyone I've run across as taking slow and deliberate reading. I read it up in installments, as I do with many other extended works, alternating with other fare.

Volume I

If Der Nachsommer is a story of growth and development, I might describe Witiko as one of life following attainment and maturity. The manners of its characters are highly polished and attuned to nature. Their speech and conduct is ritualized, as is the narrative. If Witiko never omits to care for his horse with his own hands, Stifter for his part never neglects to recite that act.

It is very readable. The language is, like the characters, down-to-earth and approachable.

Volume II

Midway through the second volume, the message is becoming unambiguous.

„Es soll immer das Rechte und Gute geschehen," rief Bolemil.

„Das Rechte und Gute," riefen nun alle Männer.
"The right and the good should always be," cried Bolemil.

"The right and the good," cried all the men after him.

Volume III

It is an extensive work, full of ritual, describing the good life. That life, to my taste, is all fine and good, but rather static and bland. I don't feel that we know and have everything that's important, but that the greatest joys are in the process of experiencing and creating new things – growing.

Goethe (1788)


Egmont is a relatively early work of Goethe's (in the fifth volume of my fifty-volume chronological set), like Götz heavily influenced by Shakespeare's historical dramas. Egmont is heroic for his support for freedom, a radical passion which was just about to burst out in the French Revolution. The play is probably best known from Beethoven's incidental music for it.

The play ends, seemingly, tragically with Egmont's execution. Yet it is his departing dream that his death will advance the cause of liberty: "Ich sterbe fur die Freiheit," "I die for freedom." In that sense, Goethe's drama and Beethoven's music have triumphal closes.

Der grüne Heinrich
Gottfried Keller (edition of 1879)

Der grüne Heinrich

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.

At the end: Wow! It does deserve being ranked with Wilhelm Meister and Der Nachsommer. Its spirit is amazingly like that of my own coming of age, though of course not in all incidental details. I rate it very highly. It is certainly not a "light read," being long, very internal, and written in complex language. (It seems to have a lot of Swiss usages that my more classical German can't quite follow.) It took me quite a while to get through it, but it was more than worth it.

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

Götz von Berlichingen

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 Enlightenment and the approaching 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)

Zur Farbenlehre

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

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)

Hermann und Dorothea

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)

Die Elixiere des Teufels

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.