Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Stories by Foreign Authors: German II by Berthold Auerbach, et al.

A masterpiece from Auerbach, a dud from von Chamisso
Berthold Auerbach
This book is the second of two volumes of German short fiction included in the ten-volume series Stories by Foreign Authors, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1898. It contains English translations of four stories by four German authors. While the first book of German stories in this series, subtitled German I, leaned toward the lighter side of 19th-century literature, this second volume delivers more of the deep thoughts and dark drama one might expect from this romantic, philosophical period in literary history.

So far I’ve read five of the volumes in the Stories by Foreign Authors series, and the best story I’ve encountered yet is “Christian Gellert’s Last Christmas” by Berthold Auerbach. It takes place in 1768, when Gellert, a real historical figure, was professor of philosophy at the University of Leipzig. He is a well-respected man but poor, sickly, and dejected. When a peasant reads a passage of Gellert’s verse, he is so touched by it that he sets out to meet the great man and give him a gift. Gellert’s faith in God and life is renewed by this simple act. This story is quite moving and profound. Although the philosophical message is expressed in Christian terms, in accordance with Gellert’s philosophy, there is a core of ancient stoicism to it that can be valuable to nonbelievers as well. As I read it, I couldn’t resist highlighting several passages. It’s one of those deeply affecting stories that really makes you consider your own life and look at it from a different perspective.

Also quite moving, though not as philosophical, is Leopold Kompert’s “A Ghetto Violet.” A teenage brother and sister living in a Jewish ghetto learn that their father will be returning home after five years of incarceration. In the past, he was an inveterate gambler whose transgressions drove their mother to die of despair. Has he learned from his mistakes, and how will the children react to his return? Overall the story is very good, though some of the dialog is a bit clunky, possibly from the translation, and it could have used a less expected ending.

“The Severed Hand” by Wilhelm Hauff belongs to the horror/mystery drama and has an air of Edgar Allen Poe about it. Zaleukos is a doctor and merchant from Constantinople whose wanderings eventually lead him to settle in Florence. One night a mysterious stranger asks him to make an unusual house call, and for the sake of surprise, the less said about it the better. This story reminds me of a tale by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle entitled “The Case of Lady Sannox.” Both stories revolve around a fictional doctor making a stupid mistake that a real doctor would never make. Hauff’s tale is stylishly done but ultimately based on a silly premise.

The collection ends with “Peter Schlemihl,” a novella by Adelbert von Chamisso that takes up fully half the book. It tells the tale of the title character, who sells his shadow for a bottomless bag of gold. Stylistically, it feels like a Twilight Zone episode written by Balzac. Though fascinating at first, it goes on way too long and devolves into comic absurdity. There’s some indelible imagery and a few fun moments of dark humor, but ultimately it all feels rather pointless.

Overall this is a fairly good, diverse sampling of German stories. Your enjoyment of it will largely depend on your tolerance for “Peter Schlemihl.” Auerbach’s selection alone makes this collection well worth downloading.

Stories in this collection
Christian Gellert’s Last Christmas by Berthold Auerbach 
A Ghetto Violet by Leopold Klompert 
The Severed Hand by Wilhelm Hauff 
Peter Schlemihl by Adelbert von Chamisso 

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