Saturday, December 3, 2016

an irresistible feeling of compassion - the new translation of Theodor Storm's Aquis submersus

The great Theodor Storm translator Denis Jackson published his fifth volume of Storm’s novellas recently – A Doppelgänger with Aquis submersus.  The latter is also available in the old James Wright collection, The Rider on the White Horse; the former is new to English.

No offense meant to the actual translations of Wright, but the editions Jackson produces are ideal.  Jackson loves the North Frisian landscape and culture as much as he loves Storm, so his research on the villages and landscape and their connections to Storm’s fiction are worth seeing for their own sake.  I have been to Husum, Storm’s home, visited his grave and all that.  I have never been to a place more tangled with the works of an author.  Thomas Hardy’s Wessex is a useful comparison, but Wessex is much bigger, with novels set over a much larger space.  In Storm’s stories – in the two I just read – the characters keep walking past places I have been in Husum.  They keep visiting places that now have plaques telling me that this building stands on the site of the Aquis submersus house.

The hedgerows of hornbeam in our ‘Schlossgarten,’ which had earlier belonged to the ducal castle yet since time immemorial had been quite neglected, were once laid out in the old French fashion but in my youth had already grown into narrow, ghostly avenues.  (p. 31)

This is the first line of Aquis submersus (1876), and a good example of why I associate him with W. G. Sebald, who I assume knew his work well.  Although Storm is an author full of hope and joy, openly striving for beauty, his fiction has a similar sense of historical entropy.  He lived in a landscape where once in a while a North Sea hurricane destroys everything, literally smashing islands into pieces and drowning entire cities.  Storm is well aware of the natural history of destruction.

On the other hand, that garden, where I have been, is now best known for its spectacular spring crocuses.

In both of these stories, the “present” is idyllic, but the past is tragic.

Aquis submersus is historical fiction.  The narrator, as a child, was fascinated by a painting in a local church that showed

a beautiful boy of about five quietly lying in a cushion with lace decoration, holding a white water lily in his small pale hand.  The delicate face, as though beseeching help, still carried the last sweet trace of life beside the horror of death; and an irresistible feeling of compassion came over me when I stood before this painting.  (34)

The narrator actually describes the entire contents of a church, with Jackson, in his notes, telling me either where I can visit each artifact or when it was lost, but most importantly this painting, inscribed “1666” and “C. P. A. S.”, perhaps Cupla patris aqua submersus – “Through the fault of the father drowned.”  The bulk of the story is a fortuitously discovered manuscript written by the painter telling the tragic story of that painting and that inscription.

Back to the narrator:

[The painter’s] name does not belong among those who are named; hardly would he be found in any dictionary of artists; indeed, even in his own land no one knows of a painter of this name.  The chronicle of our town does in fact mention the large Lazarus painting, but the painting itself, like the rest of the art treasures dispersed following the demolition of our old church at the beginning of the present century, has disappeared.  (99)

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