I guess I have done my share of raving about the great tradition of the Romantic German novella, that shadowy, uneasy alternative to the overstuffed Victorian and ponderous Russian and elegant French books that define 19th century literature for so many readers. Because of its use by expert practitioners like Theodor Storm and Adalbert Stifter, among others, I associate the form with a mood of bittersweet weirdness. Not that the form required a particular atmosphere: Eduard Mörike’s Mozart’s Journey to Prague (1856), to pick one example of many, is positively joyful.
So I can think of plenty of early melancholy novellas, but none so unrelentingly grim* as Gerhart Hauptmann’s 1888 story “Flagman Thiel.” I am skeptical of the tastes of readers who do not like "depressing books", but I also doubt that any of us need too much “Flagman Thiel” in our reading diet.
Thiel is a stolid railroad signalman. He marries but loses his wife in childbirth, and remarries for the sake of his son. The first marriage is a sort of love match; the second a disaster. The story, after the first few pages, is the unfolding of the disaster, misery turning into tragedy, tragedy into nightmare. Hauptmann is labeled a “naturalist,” a word I never find helpful, but one possible use is to associate him with the intensely pessimistic stance of some of his contemporaries. I am told that they were all under the spell of Schopenhauer.
Aesthetically, though, Hauptmann’s method is identifiably within the tradition of Storm and Stifter, with the world around the characters knocking the unpleasant story off kilter. The railroad tracks “looked like the strands of a huge iron net drawn together to a point on the horizon,” and the telegraph lines are “spun by a huge spider,” but all of this is unnoticed by Thiel, who at this point in the story is merely depressed, for good reason:
The pillared arcades of the pine trunks on the yon side of the embankment took fire as from within and glowed like metal. The tracks, too, began to glow, turning into the semblance of fiery snakes… For a while a reddish sheen lingered on the extreme crowns [of the pines].
Then the train, “a snorting monster” blasts by in “a mad uproar.” Odd, odd, odd. Hauptmann’s “realistic” fiction can be as intensely uncanny as Storm or Hoffmann, especially in a series of hallucinations that foreshadow and follow the story’s tragic center. A plain “realism” to describe ordinary life, a peculiar lyricism to describe the natural world, and a disturbing bizarreness to describe Thiel’s extreme mental state: Hauptmann’s story does not merely contrast these fictional tones, but smashes them against each other, leaving nothing but wreckage.
I read an old translation of “Flagman Thiel” – the story has been translated many times, under many titles, all trying to be precise about Thiel’s railroad job. Adele S. Seltzer was my translator; the story is in the 1933 Modern Library Great German Short Novels and Stories. Hauptmann was still alive when this collection was published, a contemporary writer, his Nobel Prize twenty years in the past. German Literature Month – mustn’t forget that.
* Update: How could I forget Kleist's unflinchingly grim "The Earthquake in Chile" (1807)?