Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff and The Jews' Beech Tree - a few unintelligible words

Das unheimliche – the uncanny - when something is not quite right. Weird and spooky. In the 19th century, the uncanny was a specialty of the German Romantics (Poe’s tales were sometimes dismissed as “too German”). Ludwig Tieck’s Blonde Eckbert or any number of E. T. A. Hoffmann stories are good examples. A story with some pretense to realism goes off track somehow. Dream-like elements intrude, or madness, or the supernatural. But whatever has gone wrong is hard to describe.

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff’s novella The Jews’ Beech Tree: A Picture of Manners from Mountainous Westphalia (1843) is a brilliant, original tale of the uncanny, centered around an unsolved murder and its consequrnces. She’s careful to never quite violate ordinary realism. But strange things keep happening.

Here’s an example. Margreth’s son Frederick has gone to work for his devil-like uncle:

“It had been the first night the boy had ever spent away from her, and still Frederick did not come. She was angry and anxious, yet knew that she had no grounds to be either. The clock in the church tower struck seven, and the cattle returned home; he was still not there, and she had to get up and look after her cows. When she returned to the dark kitchen Frederick was standing on the hearth; he was bending down and warming his hands at the flames. The firelight was playing on his features, giving them a repulsive look of emaciation and frightened twitching. Margaret stopped short in the doorway; her child looked so strangely altered.

‘Frederick, how is your uncle?’ The boy murmured a few unintelligible words, and pressed closer to the wall. ‘Frederick, have you lost your tongue? Child, say something, you know quite well that I don't hear well with the right ear.’ The child raised his voice and began to stammer so badly that Margaret could not understand anything.

‘What is that you say? A greeting from Master Semmler? Back again? Where? The cows are already home. Wretched boy, I can't understand you. Wait, let me see if you still have a tongue in your mouth!’ She moved a few steps nearer him. The child looked up at her with the sad eyes of a half-grown dog learning tricks, and in his terror began to stamp his feet and rub his back against the wall.

Margaret stood still, her look grew anxious. The boy appeared to her to have fallen together, even his clothes were not the same, no, that was not her child! and yet - ‘Frederick, Frederick!’ she called.”

Weirder and weirder, but we’re in a realistic world here. There’s nothing supernatural – Margreth’s son has not, it turns out, been replaced by a weird doppelganger. The strangeness is caused by the mother’s anxiety, not just about her son’s absence, but about his new adult status.

The Jews’ Beech Tree is one of the most unstable stories I’ve ever read. No interpretation of events is entirely consistent. A ghost appears, or maybe it doesn’t. One character is the devil, or just a bad fellow. Actual, verifiable events often have some detail that suggests an alternative explanation. Somebody is guilty of something, but who, and what?

This tale is the only one by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, who is otherwise an important 19th century German poet (“most important female German-language etc.”). I read the Three Eerie Tales version this time, but look for anthologies titled German Romanticism and the like. And it’s here. It will never be a well-known story in English because the author’s name is too forbidding.


  1. This sounds a very interesting story, I will have to hunt it out. I was just mentally going through the Victorian/ Edwradian collections of ghost and uncanny stories I have and I think Guy de Maupassant, Hoffmann and a Polish writer Stefan Grabinski that I'm reading at the moment, are possibly the only non-English language authors on my shelves, something which I will have to remedy - if the translations are available of course, which may well be the reason.

  2. It's only about 50 pages, so if you can stand reading on the computer, the version at the above link should work. Otherwise, this is a job for the library, or Powells, not Amazon.

    How's the Grabinski? Actually, "who" was my first question, but the internet helped with that. So, how?

    For more foreign-language ghosts and oddities, keep Nikolai Gogol in mind. In fact, tune in to Wuthering Expectations on Thrusday and Friday.