Tuesday, July 16, 2013

It is just a small ordinary town, my birthplace, set on a flat treeless coastal plain, and its houses are old and grey.

The town is Husum, on the North Sea coast of Schleswig-Holstein, home of Theodor Storm and inspiration for much of his fiction.  It is now, because of Storm, much less ordinary.  Also, the houses have been painted.  It is quite pretty.  I was just there.  I spent more time there than in Lübeck, Thomas Mann’s birthplace.

By a coincidence of lodging I passed by Storm’s grave several times a day.  It is in the cemetery attached to St. George’s Hospital, which is featured in Storm’s 1868 story titled, in Denis Jackson’s translation, The Swallows of St. George’s; the title quotation is from page 97, and more quotations can be read in this old post about beauty.

Never before have I been in a place so suffused in a writer’s work.  The reverse is not true – other writers have plunged into their landscape.  But they rarely have so many plaques to show for their effort.  Here is the old rifle club featured in Paul the Puppeteer; this is the house from Aquis Submersis, while the one from Carsten the Trustee is across the square.

The landscape around the town is even more – what word do I want?  More useful.  The network of sheep-covered dykes  immediately evokes The Dykemaster (or The Rider on the White Horse).  The bizarre tidal mudflats are obviously those of Storm’s poem “The City”:

By the grey shore, by the grey sea,
And set apart, lies the town;
The fog lies heavy on the roofs,
And through the stillness roars the sea,
Dully around the town.  (Denis Jackson’s translation – scroll down a bit)

The poem gives Husum its nickname, the “grey town by the sea,” although the town is no longer grey, honestly.  Those mudflats are, admittedly, extremely grey.

The tidal flats are now part of an enormous marine national park, home of seals and gulls and worms and a handful of hardy maniacs who live on the halligen, the tiny, flat, undyked islands that presented an uncanny aspect, the large farm buildings appearing to float on the sea.  The narrator of Storm’s “Journey to a Hallig” visits Süderoog Hallig, inhabited by his cousin and some sheep, much as it is today judging from the satellite view.

It is true he remained on his hallig, but they carried him out of his house; the green turf lies protectively over him.  He was bold enough to retire here in peace, well knowing that the storm could one day drive the tide to his very grave, that the tide could churn it up and carry him in his narrow resting-place out to the open sea.  (89)

It is a paradox of landscape writing, that it can be so well described as to be instantly recognizable, yet almost impossible to imagine correctly without seeing it.

The Theodor Storm House and Museum was not particularly enlightening, but only because I had already read so much about Storm in Denis Jackson’s thorough notes and introductions, and on his magnificent website devoted to Storm.

I would not recommend a trip to Husum to a party depending solely on English.  Danish might work, but not English.


  1. Another great writer - and a nice place to while away some time :) I read a fair few of Storm's stories and novellas a couple of years back. Perhaps I'll be doing more of that in November...

  2. More in November, that would be great. I have read some minor Storm amid the masterpieces, but no duds, nothing close to a dud.

    I would love to go back to Husum, although what I really want is to spend more time on the islands and halligen. More time out in the mud.

  3. Mud... hmmm. I think I'll stick to the literary descriptions and keep my shoes clean ;)

  4. P.S. All this talk of Storm has me eyeing off a two-volume 'Collected Works' (2200 pages in total) as an early birthday present to myself. I'd just like to be sure first though that the font is easy on the eye...

  5. I really like to visit literary places such as the birthplaces, homes, etc. of poets and authors. Sometimes, such visits really help me to connect with the author's works.

  6. What a lovely trip. I read some Storm last year but will join Tony this November to read more.

    Have you read Erskine Childer's The Riddle of the Sands? If you're interested in the mud flats of the Frisian islands, it's an absolute must.

  7. Brian, I am mostly quite skeptical of the value of visiting writer's homes, not that my skepticism stops me or that I will not write about them when I do visit. "Here, upon this very desk, was written the immortal words" and so on, yet I am looking at an old desk.

    Besides, many of these houses are more or less phony - reconstructions of some kind. The Poe house in Philadelphia is one of those, as is the Buddenbrooks House.

    The exceptions must be those where the landscape really matters, not the house. Storm, Hardy, Jewett's Maine coast, Sebald's East Anglian coast. Does crossing the Mississippi at some wide point help with Huckleberry Finn? It must.

    The Husum mud is famous. People go on mudwalks at low tide, from island to island, looking for crabs and bizarre seaworms. Squish squish. It was too dang cold while we were there, though.

    No kidding about Childers - I did not know that. I see the relevant islands are the other Frisian islands, though, the ones by Holland. Well, I want to visit those, too.

    1. Mostly the other Frisian islands, but Childers does manage to sail around a bit in Schleswig-Holstein as well. That book has mind-boggling descriptions of water currents and mud.

      In the Victor Hugo house in Paris, the docent let us linger in Hugo's bedroom; I stood for a long time at that escritoire where Hugo would stand and write after getting up as much as 20 times a night.

  8. Based on keyword searches in the Gutenberg text, where I could easily have missed something, the Childers characters turn east before getting to the area I was in, taking the Eider and its canal over to Kiel and then sailing around the Baltic coast of Schleswig-Holstein. In other words, missing Storm's tidal flats completely.

    The desk at the Hugo house has the advantage that it is actually signed by Hugo, giving me something to look at. I do not remember the exact inscription or which book he had just finished. One of the big poetry books, Les Contemplations maybe?

    The Hugo house was a good one.

    1. You're right - Childers has his characters sail over on the Baltic side, but I thought there was also a part in which they make it over towards the west side of the peninsula. In any case, I imagine the tidal effects are not dissimilar between the Dutch Frisian isles and the German ones.

      I don't recall what was on the escritoire either. It did make me want to write standing up, though.

    2. Similar, yet different enough that I am ready to visit them - you have got me looking at maps and photos. The strange flat hallig islands are unique to the northern area, while the coast near Holland has something more like barrier islands (the northern part has a couple of those, too).

  9. I marveled at Green Gables. Not because Montgomery sat there (because she didn't), but because Anne did, which doesn't quite work because Anne is fictional, but impressed me none the less. Montgomery desrcibes the immediate lanscape well enough that the parks people could create it so that I could look at it and think, "Oh, the birch path went that way? I always envisioned it going away from the sea" and adjust my re-reading accordingly.
    The greater landscape, the whole of PEI, I thought I understood from the books, but I didn't get the juxtaposition of spruce forests, potato fields and sea until I saw it.

  10. That's a good example. It more or less is the thing it is meant to represent, yes? There is the real thing, the imagined thing - imagined by Montgomery, and imagined by her readers, and the restored thing, as imagined by someone else, all occupying the same space.

    One of the useful elements of wandering around Husum - similar to what you mention about the PEI landscape - was understanding the scale of everything, the positioning.