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More reading. This time in German.

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Lest you all think that my summer vacation consisted of merely reading books for pleasure, under the terms of a wager that gets me free babysitting if I read them all and blog about them like a good girl, I present to you my “other” reading list. My real job requires reading of a different stripe and I’ve been reading or re-reading some 19th-century German classics over the summer in preparation for teaching an Intro to German Lit class in the fall. I’ll attest that I do not love all these books, even though they are universally recognized as significant or great in some way, but I think they’re all worth reading and discussing in the context of modernization, industrialization, and nationalization in the German-speaking lands of the nineteenth century. And, since you have very likely not read any of these, I will share a bit about them with you. Think of it as a mini-German seminar, I’ll give you all “A”s.

Brigitte by Adalbert Stifter. Like so many 19th-century novellas, this one has protagonists alongside an “embedded” narrator–an outsider who enters the community where the events take place and reveals the story to you. In this case, we’re in the Hungarian lands of the Austrian empire, guests of a wealthy landowner, whose past we get to investigate. He’s a stand-up guy–attractive, wealthy, moral, etc. Then we find out that he was once married to a young woman full of good qualities but So Ugly that even her family couldn’t find much love in their hearts for her. He left her, eventually, but then came to regret it deeply. The story explores how he tries to make up for that crime. How can he ever make it good?

Maria Magdalena by Friedrich Hebbel. A story to make your feminist blood boil. Good nineteenth-century daughter. Loves a young man above her station. He leaves to study and she thinks he forgets her. She succumbs to the seductive wiles of the local charmer (her family approves of him). Turns out the local charmer is a skunk, who only wants her daddy’s money. When he discovers that daddy has given the money to his old master, he renounces the good girl. After, of course, knocking her up. Why is the good girl having Illicit Sex with the local charmer? Her old flame is back in town and the charmer sees them eying each other and gets jealous and wants Proof of Her Love and Loyalty. Love and loyalty are good qualities, ones she’s been raised to believe in and support. So she ruins herself. Anyhooooooo, by the end of the sordid tale, her father (not knowing any of this, of course, because it’s all a secret) mentions in another context that, should she bring shame on him, he would cut his own throat and do himself in.

In order to save her father from the sin of suicide . . . she Throws Herself Down a Well.

And what do you know. . . no one is happy about it. Sheesh. They discover, too late, that their rigid morals and their notions of honor do not, in fact, guarantee any kind of civic peace–they just exacerbate bad situations.

Die Judenbuche (The Jews’ Beech Tree) by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. I’m sure you can’t get past the tenth grade in Germany without having read it. And for good reason. This is one of those marvelous novellas that takes as its starting point an actual event, in this case something her uncle experienced in his district when she was a child. A ne’er-do-well runs away from his village, suspected of having killed a Jewish money-lender. He also has some residual guilt about having aided and abetted the murderer of the local forest supervisor (who, funny, wasn’t too happy about village people cutting down trees in the night). Twenty-five years later, he returns, but pretends to be someone else. He tries to make amends, or at least live out his days in peace. He can’t escape his inner demons, though, and hangs himself on the same tree under which he had (most likely? probably? at this point in the story it might not even matter because it is all about Guilt in the Big sense of the word and not so much an individual act of knavery?) killed the Jew decades earlier. Happy Ending.

German literature is full of Humor and Happy Endings. Trust me. Really. I mean it.

Written by Jennifer

July 18, 2007 at 1:13 pm

Posted in German, summer reading

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