Sunday, December 4, 2016

"But that's poetry" - A Doppelgänger, Theodor Storm as Naturalist

A Doppelgänger (1886), the novella in Denis Jackson’s recent translation that is new to English, is a shocker, not like anything else I have read by Theodor Storm.  It is about the life and sufferings of an ex-convict, John Hansen, in Husum, walking around where I have walked.  He suffers because of the prejudices of his neighbors, the economics conditions of his time, but also due to his own psychology – his guilt, his lack of impulse control, that sort of thing.  He is in some ways a sympathetic figure, but at his worst he is violent and dangerous.  The domestic abuse in the story is the most shocking part.

Storm was for many years a judge, and much of the detail of the story must have come from his courtroom.  It was no surprise to see Jackson write that A Doppelgänger is “considered even today to be the first Naturalistic literary work in Germany” (188).  Meaning Naturalism as a subject, a genre, the unsentimental literature of the poor and downtrodden as in Zola’s Germinal, not anything to do with style.  For Storm, though, the style is pretty plain.

The world was increasingly hostile towards him; whenever he needed help, or wherever he sought it, he received in response only a reproach for the crime in his past; and he was soon to hear it too where no other person could hear it.  One might have asked: ‘You with those strong arms, with your mighty fists, why do you tolerate it, why don’t you just silence them?’  He had once, when a loud-mouthed sailor had called his wife a beggar girl.  He had knocked the fellow to the ground and almost cracked his skull…  (128)

Less plain language is reserved for special occasions, and for an uncanny old well that for some reason torments John.  You know someone is going to end up in that well.  You can pretty much guess who.

The other place where the prose is less plain, where it is Storm’s ordinary poeticized prose, is in the frame story, a forest idyll, in which the Stormish narrator, in a distant land, meets a woman from his home (he recognizes her accent).  A few clues and he realizes that he of course knew her father, the notorious ex-con.  But she barely remembers him:

“I looked up at the stars, and they all shown down at me so peaceful and friendly.  ‘Father,’ I said, ‘ask Him for a small piece of bread this evening!’  I felt a warm drop fall onto my face; I thought it came from the dear Lord. – I know I was still hungry later that night in my bed; but I quietly went to sleep.”  (111)

She has escaped her early poverty, now living in a world of “yellow irises blooming at its [a pond’s] edge in a profusion I had never seen before” (112).

Strangely, the central story is not a discovered document or memory of the narrator, but a vivid fantasy.  He imagines the life of the father of the woman in the woods, tempered by his few childhood associations with the character, one of which involves the well.  In a directly anti-Naturalism move, the narrator acknowledges that he’s made it all up.  “’Hm,’ said the level-headed man [the woman’s husband], his eyes resting on me trustingly.  ‘But that’s poetry’” (157).  However far from his usual work, still Theodor Storm, in other words.

How lucky we are to have these new translations.


  1. He imagines the life of the father of the woman in the woods, tempered by his few childhood associations with the character, one of which involves the well.

    This is so irritating. Every time I think I've invented a clever novelistic conceit, I run into some book that's gotten there first. The novel I'm currently shopping around is an imaginary memoir written by a man who admits he has only partial knowledge of actual events and so fills the gaps with fantasy and wishes. If nothing else, it was fun to write. I will tell you that my novel is an extended metaphor about literary criticism. Take that, Storm. Unless his novel is already an extended metaphor about literary criticism, in which case my book is about bears.

    Storm is another one of those writers who I've heard about over the years but never actually read. Infuriatingly enough, it looks pretty good. I might try it auf Deutsch.

  2. Storm is wonderful. Even, probably, for readers who have not been to Husum. Immensee, Storm's early masterpiece, has no connection to Schleswig-Holstein at all, and is a work of great beauty.

    In my understanding, A Doppelgänger is in no way about literary criticism.

  3. Not one I've read - perhaps when I get a moment (and then there's always another GLM coming around...).

  4. Meine Frau says her 900 page, densely packed, German Storm collection is all treasure.

  5. I almost bought a monstrous two-volume collection of prose, poetry and letters on several occasions - alas, I never did, and it now seems to be unavailable (at an affordable price, at least...).

  6. In Husum, Storm's stories are widely sold as, basically, pamphlets, cheap little editions that I have not seen anywhere else.