Friday, February 6, 2009

Puppets, witches, and sharp, white teeth - more Theodor Storm novellas

Another reason I don’t just read Important Classics is that so many not-so-important books are so good. Everyone knows this already, I know.

Case in point, the novellas of Theodor Storm. I just finished Paul the Puppeteer and Other Short Fiction, another of Denis Jackson’s lovingly translated and annotated little Storm books. Three stories here: The Village on the Moor (1872), Paul the Puppeteer (1874), and Renate (1878). They’re all set in or near Storm’s home of Husum, and two are even in the same tiny town of Schwabstedt, out on the moors. One can visit Schwabstedt and see the ruined bishopric and the big farmhouse next to it, just like in the stories.

The three stories are of a piece. All three are about thwarted love affairs, each with a quite different ending. All three are told through some sort of filter – in The Village on the Moor, for example, is basically a mystery, with a judge piecing together the story, while Renate is told through the discovery of an early 18th-century memoir. All three, inevitably, include uncanny elements – a sort of werewolf in the first story (a girl with "sharp, white teeth"), a witch in the last, and marionettes, of course, in Paul the Puppeteer.* Marionettes are inherently weird:

“As the wind blew against the house and the small draughty windows, the silent company on the wire behind me began to clatter with their wooden arms and legs. I instinctively turned round and saw their heads waggling and their stiff arms and legs swaying about in all directions in the strong draught. When the injured Kasperl suddenly tossed his head back and stared at me with his white eyes, I thought it better to move a little to one side." p. 96

There are some echoes of the marvelous puppet theater at the beginning of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. If there is any relation to Kleist's "On the Marionette Theater", essay, I don't see it, but I do not understand that piece well.

Because some of the themes and techniques of these novellen are so similar, the art of Storm's writing is highlighted. He returns to an idea because he's exploring it, not because it's a shtick. Storm wrote so many stories that their must be some poorer ones, but the consistency of those that have been translated is amazing. Lovely books. A shame they're not better known.

* To be clear: there's not actually a witch - the story is about superstition - or a werewolf. The marionettes, though, are a bit spooky.


  1. Oh I love, love, love Theodore Storm. I read the famous ones - Immensee and Der Schimmelreiter (I think - years since I've done any German now) while at university. And then I haven't read further because I'd like to be able to in the original and can't any more. Interesting to know that these are available in translation.

  2. Have you seen the new Storm collection from New York Review Books? It has the 1964 foreword and translations by James Wright and includes Rider on the White Horse, In the Great Hall, Immensee, A Green Leaf, In the Sunlight, Veronika, In Saint Jurgen, and Aquis Submersus. Looks good.

  3. I hope to track down the James Wright translations soon. There are six stories in it I haven't read.

    For Americans, it's also a bargain. Those Denis Jackson translations are really well done - useful notes, attractive books - but are extremely expensive.

  4. I think I'll see if I can find these in German here and pass them along to the Swiss fellow - sounds like something he might enjoy. And then of course, if I can find a translation (maybe the Swiss have put them in French, might be a way for me to get around ordering a set of expensive books in English...hmmm)

  5. This is all making me feel a bit disgruntled that I never read Storm at university. I feel like I read some of the dullest...well, too late to be bitter. The Storm just sounds so good.

  6. I'm not sure why Storm is not read more. He's got an edge, but is not off-puttingly weird like Adalbert Stifter. He can be sweet without being sentimental. He has a sense of literary detail that approaches Flaubert, but with real warmth toward his characters.