Friday, October 16, 2009

A close, but not too close, reading of a page of Theodor Storm

In Theodor Storm's "A Green Leaf" (1850), a soldier is lying in the heather:

The brilliant Argus-eyed butterflies fluttered up and down, between them the rosy streaks of the sky shot down toward him, and the fragrance of the erica flower covered his eyes like a gentle cloud.

The image is more complicated than it first appears.  The sky is moving toward the viewer, between the butterflies, themselves in constant motion.  The smell of the flowers affects the soldier's eyes.  The butterflies themselves have many eyes, as many as Argus.  The spots on their wings, presumably.

A snake approaches:

The sleeping man turned his head, and, half-awake, he gazed into the eyes of the serpent that crept along beside him. He wanted to raise his hand, but he was not able to; the reptile's eye held him fast.

A woman approaches, and the soldier dreams that he is in a fairy tale.  He kisses the serpent to release the princess.

The girl had folded her hands across her knees, and she gazed out over the heath without moving. Only the mysterious rustling and swarming in the endless carpet of plants, here and there the cry of a bird from the air or, on the heath below, the sleeper's breathing, but no other sound. So a length of time passed. At last she bent over him; the long tresses fell down against his cheeks. He opened his eyes with a start; and when he saw the young face hovering over his own, he said, as though still half-dreaming, "Princess, how blue your eyes are!"

Gazed, eyes, eyes.  The soldier spends some time at the woman's home, where she lives with her grandfather.  But he is on his way to the war, and can't stay.  They fall in love; they must part.  Can he return?  "She and the forest are in the hands of the enemy" (p. 62).  That's where the story ends.  It isn't so much, is it?  But those eyes, and ways of seeing keep recurring, as do distant sounds, and the sense that the woman is intensely real yet a creature from a dream.

Every Theodor Storm story I've seen works like this.  I suspect it's possible, with too much analysis, to disfigure them.  They're delicate, these early stories.

I said, yesterday, that every Storm story I've seen has been worth reading, no matter how minor, or how repetitive the basic story.  Perhaps these passages, from a single page of "A Green Leaf," will suggest why.

All quotations, but one, from p. 52 of the NYRB edition of The Rider on the White Horse, tr. James Wright.

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