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.