Monday, November 3, 2008

W. G. Sebald's influence on Theodor Storm - safely locked away in the secure land of the past

The beginning of Theodor Storm's short story Journey to a Hallig (1871):

"There were once vast forests of oak along our coast, and so dense were the trees that for miles a squirrel could spring from branch to branch without touching the forest floor...

But these forests have long since disappeared; only occasionally is a petrified root still dug out of the dark earth of the moors or out of the mud of the tidal flats, which gives us descendants a sense of just how violently those crowns of leaves must have swayed in their struggle with the north-west storms." (tr. Denis Jackson and Anja Nauck)

Theodor Storm had clearly been reading W. G. Sebald. The connection to the end of Chapter IX of W. G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn (1995), describing the destruction of southern England's trees by the 1986 hurricane, seems obvious to me:

"The forest floor, which in the spring of last year had still been carpeted with snowdrops, violets and wood anemones, ferns and cushions of moss, was now covered by a layer of barren clay. All that grew in the hard-baked earth were tufts of swamp grass, the seeds of which had lain in the depths for goodness knew how long. The rays of the sun, with nothing left to impede them, destroyed all the shade-loving plants so that it seemed as if we were living on the edge of an infertile plain. Where a short while ago the dawn chorus had at times reached such a pitch that we had to close the bedroom windows, where larks had risen on the morning air above the fields and where, in the evenings, we occasionally heard even a nightingale in the thicket, its pure and penetrating song punctuated by theatrical silences, there was now not a living sound." (p. 268)

And then, as if this were not clear enough, two pages later the characters in the Storm story sail over the sunken port of Rungholt, utterly destroyed by a storm in 1365, a passage clearly modeled after the Dunwich section of Chapter VI of The Rings of Saturn, which describes the pulverization of an English port on the opposite coast of the North Sea in 1328.

Perhaps it was Sebald who was reading Storm.* Regardless, what a marvellous story. It's a close relative of Immensee, with the narrator reflecting back on the moment he ruined a love affair. Or maybe he didn't, maybe it wouldn't have worked anyway:

"I kept my hat and my moustache until finally both became the general fashion and were absorbed in it. On the other hand, it has not been vouchsafed to me to know whether in the course of life the look of those blue eyes, besides the radiance of a precious stone, might not also have taken on something of the same hardness. The day on our Cousin's hallig, and in the middle of it Susanne's youthful figure, remain for me, like Rungholt, safely locked away in the secure land of the past." (p. 88)

Journey to a Hallig is set in, thematically as well as physically, the North Sea tidal mud flats, a strange and possibly unique landscape (a "hallig" is an island, just barely, at high tide). Meine Frau, it turns out, has not only been there, but went swimming with seals. I asked her if the terrain was like the mud flats we saw in the Ria Formosa Natural Park in Portugal. Yes, she said, except completely different. The Denis Jackson translation, linked above, includes a useful map.

Since I wrote about Immensee I have read a bit more Thedor Storm. Even though it was immediately clear to me that Immensee was a real work of art, I had sort of assumed that Storm was otherwise a minor writer. I am now sure that I was wrong about that. More Storm, and less Sebald, the rest of the week.

* I'm obliquely responding to this post at The Valve, which as usual I only half understand.


  1. Immensee was as good as you promised. There is quite a talent in creating such an outstanding story in so few words. The description is seldom found in even much longer works.

  2. I've been hugely impressed with Storm, and plan to read eveything I can get my hands on, although it certainly can't all be as good as Immensee.

  3. Interesting, I hadn't linked Sebald to Storm (I like this 'backwards projection of influence' idea). Your recent posts have got me thinking I'd better read more Storm, esp. Immensee and the story about Hans & Heinz.

  4. The link between Sebald and "Journey to a Hallig" is so obvious I almost laughed out loud when I saw it. I mean, who would think to look there? But more generally, the common Storm themes of man's relation to his landscape, and retrospective loss, are shared with Sebald.

    Meine Frau tells me that a common response to Sebald in Germany was to wonder why he wrote in such an old-fashioned style. They saw the traces of Stifter and Storm, their old school texts, right away.

  5. Concerning the backwards projection of influence and so many other things, Shakespeare went there first. As King Lear's fool once said:
    [Of] this prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time.