Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The semblance of fiery snakes - Gerhart Hauptmann's grim and depressing "Flagman Thiel"

I guess I have done my share of raving about the great tradition of the Romantic German novella, that shadowy, uneasy alternative to the overstuffed Victorian and ponderous Russian and elegant French books that define 19th century literature for so many readers.  Because of its use by expert practitioners like Theodor Storm and Adalbert Stifter, among others, I associate the form with a mood of bittersweet weirdness.  Not that the form required a particular atmosphere: Eduard Mörike’s Mozart’s Journey to Prague (1856), to pick one example of many, is positively joyful.

So I can think of plenty of early melancholy novellas, but none so unrelentingly grim* as Gerhart Hauptmann’s 1888 story “Flagman Thiel.”  I am skeptical of the tastes of readers who do not like "depressing books", but I also doubt that any of us need too much “Flagman Thiel” in our reading diet.

Thiel is a stolid railroad signalman.  He marries but loses his wife in childbirth, and remarries for the sake of his son.  The first marriage is a sort of love match; the second a disaster.  The story, after the first few pages, is the unfolding of the disaster, misery turning into tragedy, tragedy into nightmare.  Hauptmann is labeled a “naturalist,” a word I never find helpful, but one possible use is to associate him with the intensely pessimistic stance of some of his contemporaries.  I am told that they were all under the spell of Schopenhauer.

Aesthetically, though, Hauptmann’s method is identifiably within the tradition of Storm and Stifter, with the world around the characters knocking the unpleasant story off kilter.  The railroad tracks “looked like the strands of a huge iron net drawn together to a point on the horizon,” and the telegraph lines are “spun by a huge spider,” but all of this is unnoticed by Thiel, who at this point in the story is merely depressed, for good reason:

The pillared arcades of the pine trunks on the yon side of the embankment took fire as from within and glowed like metal.  The tracks, too, began to glow, turning into the semblance of fiery snakes…  For a while a reddish sheen lingered on the extreme crowns [of the pines].

Then the train, “a snorting monster” blasts by in “a mad uproar.”  Odd, odd, odd.  Hauptmann’s “realistic” fiction can be as intensely uncanny as Storm or Hoffmann, especially in a series of hallucinations that foreshadow and follow the story’s tragic center.  A plain “realism” to describe ordinary life, a peculiar lyricism to describe the natural world, and a disturbing bizarreness to describe Thiel’s extreme mental state: Hauptmann’s story does not merely contrast these fictional tones, but smashes them against each other, leaving nothing but wreckage.

I read an old translation of “Flagman Thiel” – the story has been translated many times, under many titles, all trying to be precise about Thiel’s railroad job.  Adele S. Seltzer was my translator; the story is in the 1933 Modern Library Great German Short Novels and Stories.  Hauptmann was still alive when this collection was published, a contemporary writer, his Nobel Prize twenty years in the past.  German Literature Month – mustn’t forget that.

* Update: How could I forget Kleist's unflinchingly grim "The Earthquake in Chile" (1807)?


  1. Not sure what you mean by Romantic German novella in this context. I wouldn't call Mörike Romantic (nor the other two). Mörike is pure Biedermeier something that doesn't exist outside of Germany. And yes, it's joyful. I'll review it for the German Literature Month. Storm and Stifter are realists but maybe you refer to something else.

  2. Great writing is never depressing as you once told a non-believer over at my blog, and "Flagman Thiel" sounds like it has enough going on to recommend a read annoying "naturalist" label or not. Speaking of "peculiar lyricism," though, I hope some readers take up Walser's Jakob von Gunten for German Lit Month since it is nothing if not peculiarly lyrical. In any event, thanks for the tip on Hauptmann.

  3. I do not mean to periodize here, but am referring to a vaguely defined body of ideas. I am using "Romantic" as something like "post-Enlightenment," the reaction to Enlightenment rationalism. People today write Romantic fiction.

    So you are right, as period designations, "Romantic" should be used in a much narrower way.

    Still, Stifter, "realist"? I will never call him that, I just can't. It breaks the word, empties it of meaning. He - his writing - is part of the Romantic tradition. Is post-Romantic better? Surely we can find a hint or two of German Romanticism in Immensee? Folk songs, pathetic fallacies, renunciation? Or compare Mörike's parties to Hoffmann's parties.

  4. Richard - you are on to me! I do not actually find the story depressing. In real life, these events would be depressing, but this is in fact a skillfully crafted artistic artifact. A great deal of distance is available to the reader who wants it.

    I have never read Walser, for the usual meaningless, random reasons. Sounds like my kinda guy.

  5. That's why I was aking, I thought that's what you meant and I agree to use it like this. Yes, Stifter is probably still Biedermeier. Yes, of cours, thinking of Nachsommer. Strictly speaking Novalis,Tieck, Eichendorff early Goethe etc. are Romantic but I know what you maen now and agree.
    I would also call Anette von Droste-Hülshoff romantic but she isn't period wise.
    And even Effi Briest with it's gothic feel has romantic elements

  6. They are such confusing words - Romantic, realist, etc. - with multiple meanings and we (I mean I!) often use them unthinkingly, following my own thoughts.

    It is always useful to clarify, to be precise.

    I do want to read Nachsommer. There is actually an English translation - of Witiko, too!

  7. My German Literature for November will likely be Kleist's The Duel and that book of Thomas Mann stories that's been eyeing me for months now.

    I forced my way through Alina Bronsky's The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, so I have met my 'current German literature' requirement.

    ~scott gf bailey

  8. I barely remember Kleist's Duel. If you are going to devote a lot of time to Nabokov and Chekhov, it will be good to knock off Mann's Deep Thinking essayism and thumping symbolism now.

    I like the title of the Bronsky novel quite a lot.

  9. I look forward to the Mann. I know nothing about Kleist, I have heard good things about The Duel. The title of the Bronsky novel is the best thing about it. It was surprisingly clumsy and hollow. It could've used big doses of Anton and Vladimir.

    I'll be interested to see how Nabokov and Chekhov play against each other next year. I'm a little scared, truth to tell. I may decide to leaven it with Shakespeare from time to time.

    ~scott bailey

  10. Kleist's Duel was super fun. Super fun.

    We read Bahnwärter Thiel in the same class as the Rosa Luxembourg letters. And that is all I remember about it. But you make it sound much better than I would have thought!

  11. Once upon a time, I might have put "Flagman Thiel" in the Gritty Realism category and moved on, but I have read enough of the tradition he is in to see past the decorative grit and the nominal realism.

    Not that this story is Immensee - I would put it in German novella Tier 2, along with all of that Stifter, most Hoffmann, etc.

    Geez, Scott, leavened with Shakespeare! Are you going to listen to nothing but Beethoven and Bach and look at nothing but Giotto and Rembrandt? Intense!

  12. Great minds obviously think alike (or even mediocre ones...) - I have a small review of this lined up for sometime next week :) Interested to learn that the translation for 'Bahnwärter' is 'flagman'...

  13. Alternatives, from actual translations: signalman, lineman.

    "Flagman Thiel" is a standard, now, of the German short story anthology, isn't it? Like "Young Goodman Brown" or "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" or "The White Heron," to pick some American parallels.

  14. It's a common prolem for me, this translation lark, as I only read the books in German, so while I know what I'm reading about, I rarely consider what the actual English word would be! The term 'Bahnwärter' has the connotation of someone who tends or looks after something, one which I think is important here.

    Or I could just be making something out of nothing there as usual ;)

  15. Not nothing, not at all - a fundamental issue of translation, what to do with technical words. German nouns, by the nature of their construction as bundles of ordinary word, contain all sorts of associations that will disintegrate in translation.