Wednesday, September 29, 2010

And when I came back, and when I came back, there was nothing there - beautiful Theodor Storm

Meine Frau does not share my unhealthy suspicion about beauty in literature.  When I asked her who she thought of as especially beautiful, she replied with exactly the writer I was thinking about, Theodor Storm.  Two things about Storm, I think.  First, he was a lyric poet of the highest quality, and lyric poems are close to music, close to a more direct idea of beauty.  See the first one here, for example, at least pretty even in English.  Lyric poems can be quite pure, almost free of meaning, and still be effective, beautiful.  Storm often worked these poems directly into his fiction.  Immensee (1850) depends on them.

Second, Storm’s fiction is, temperamentally:  gentle, sweet, calm, pleasant, quiet, wistful, and so on.  Picturesque qualities, signifiers of “beautiful.”  Like Adalbert Stifter, he often ties his stories directly into landscape, into nature, but he’s rarely as weird as Stifter.  Stifter undercuts beauty with uncanniness.  Storm seems more likely to let the beautiful be, at least until he destroys it in a hurricane.  And Storm has a sublimely uncanny side, too.

One can see my difficulty, my groping for terminology.  Now I need two kinds of uncanniness, and distinctions of sublimity.

Storm begins The Swallows of St. George’s (1868)* with “It is just a small ordinary town, my birthplace, set on a flat treeless coastal plain, and its houses are old and grey” (97).  He does not claim that it is beautiful – he is ironically downplaying its beauty – but merely “pleasing.”  The story is one of many Storm renunciation-of-love pieces, not especially beautiful in its substance but rather in its surroundings – storks and swallows, crocuses and red hepatica.  Storm is never really interested in nature on its own, but rather man in nature, so the title’s swallows are intimately tied to a church tower.

The story ends with a flock of sparrows:

The sight held me transfixed.  I could readily see they were preparing to migrate; their homeland sun was no longer warm enough for them.  The old man next to me tore the hat from his head and waved it to and fro.  “Be off with you!” he babbled. “You sinners!”  But the display up there on the gable continued a little while longer.  Then suddenly, as if blown upwards, the swallows rose as one almost vertically into the air, and at the same moment disappeared without trace into the blue sky. (131)

All of this is tangled up with a death, a lost love.  I balk at simply labeling it beautiful.  The word seems insufficient.

A gust of wind blew against the window. I seemed to hear from outside, from the highest air currents in which migrating swallows fly, the last words of their old song:

      And when I came back, and when I came back,
      There was nothing there. (132)

*  All quotations from the typically outstanding Denis Jackson translations, this time from Carsten the Trustee and Other Short Fiction (2009), Angel Books.  The Swallows of St. George’s is also available (as In St. Jürgen) in James Wright’s translation in the NYRB collection The Rider on the White Horse.  Jackson’s title novella, Carsten the Trustee (1878), is a bittersweet father-son story that ends with the same freakish storm as The Rider on the White Horse (1888).  The other two stories are lesser, but show the variety of Storm’s writing.  The little meta-fiction about ghost stories, By the Fireside, is especially clever.  Many, many readers would like this book.


  1. "The word seems insufficient."

    Beauty, that is.

    But isn't the insufficiency part of the meaning of the term when applied to sounds, landscapes, evocations, and representations?

    Take Blood Meridian.

    Gross subject matter, horrifying brutality.

    But in the hands of McC, it becomes an aesthetics of violence.

    At times freakisbly sublime and beautiful.

    By the by, you write too fast - I can hardly keep up with you, hardly think about one post when, lo, another nudges it off the cliff.

    That's the only complaint you'll ever hear from me.


  2. Interesting. I've never heard of Theodore Storm before. I'll have to check him out!

  3. So is that the cause of my resistance to the word "beauty," that it's by definition the indescribable part of whatever I'm trying to describe? How upsetting. No wonder I want to push back. What am I trying to do here, if not describe the indescribable?

    My worry, then, is that "beauty" becomes a catch-all, that I would use it as a catch-all - anything I like is beautiful. I haven't read Blood Meridian, but I refuse to call Child of God beautiful.

    I'm going to take a shot at this tomorrow, with a different book.

    Kate, welcome - Storm is amazing. I've written plenty about him (don't miss this one), but can summarize. The best novellas are Immensee (or The Lake of the Bees) and The Rider on the White Horse (or The Dykemaster). The former is sweeter, the latter is rougher. Every recent translation is good, but the Denis Jackson volumes are unsurpassed in their attention to Storm's world.

  4. You're doing a wonderful job in describing the indescribable as does Jackson in translating the sublime.

    This volume awaits my attention - having read the other 3 Jackson translations, I'm saving this for a rainy day. And there's plenty of those coming up this autumn in Scotland.

  5. Dear Wuthers, I could have been clearer, as usual.

    How about this: we can’t define the concept of beauty in such a way that it covers all instances of its application. That’s a lost cause, in part because literary experience — and I think this is *the* major difficulty — has many levels. We can analyze literary experience at the level of word choice, word order, syntax, grammar, sound, sense, economy of use, vividness of detail, composition, scenery, situation, originality of perception, insight and wisdom, and so on. Or even at a level (or from a perspective) that involves several of these aspects at once. Tough work.

    As for Child of God, certain scenes are drop-dead gorgeous, what your wife might call beautiful, and if she won’t, I will, like the scene in the book when the townspeople have compassed Ballard in a dilapidated farm structure of some sort, and he’s pacing, pacing through bands of light that filter through the slats (this just from memory).

    Further, the kind of beauty one can experience in, say, The Pastures of Heaven, depends on the lush valley Steinbeck evokes. If the beauty of a real valley can arrest you and make you sigh the b-word, then a fictional one can, too. No?


  6. Lizzy, thanks. This last volume is at the level of the earlier three.

    Kevin, I think you were clear. I suspect I am in fact fighting for the lost cause.

    The McCarthy example is a good one. He's clearly doing something with an idea of beauty. The last sentence of Child of God (G rated):

    "As they went down the valley in the new fell dark basking nighthawks rose from the dust in the road before them with wild wings and eyes red as jewels in the headlights."

    Some clear signifiers of beauty here. But now combine it with the sentence that comes before it, and then the paragraph before that. Still beautiful? The meaning has radically altered - surely the aesthetic effect has, too?

    You've helped ferret out my prime doubt: what does irony do to beauty? I haven't thought this through, but my guess is: irony destroys beauty.

    I concede the last point in theory. I'd like to see, though, a description of a painting that is as beautiful as the original painting. That might convince me.