Monday, December 21, 2015

Black Forest Village Stories by Berthold Auerbach

The shorter the better, the longer the duller
Berthold Auerbach
I first became aware of Berthold Auerbach from his story “Christian Gellert’s Last Christmas,” included in the 1898 collection Stories by Foreign Authors: German II. After reading this excellent short story, I decided to seek out more fiction from this masterful storyteller. Black Forest Village Stories was Auerbach’s first published book, originally appearing in 1843 under the German title of Schwarzwälder Dorfgeschichten. Regrettably, I didn’t find any of the pieces in this collection to be as compelling as the Christian Gellert story, but overall the short stories are of good quality. The problem is, there’s a lot more going on here than just short stories. The collection also contains two novellas and one work that could qualify as a complete novel by itself. Unfortunately, Auerbach’s literary talents have not translated well to these longer format works.

The collection opens with six short stories which together comprise a mere quarter of the book’s total length. The best of these are “The Gawk” and “Manor-House Farmer’s Vefela.” The former is about an awkward young man, nicknamed the gawk, who suffers the jokes and insults of his neighbors in their small Black Forest town. His cousin is the only person who shows him any kindness, so he falls in love with her. To prove his manhood to her, he becomes a soldier. The latter selection tells the tale of a manor-house farmer who is wealthier than his neighbors, a fact for which they resent him. As a result, his daughter, Vefela, suffers the sins of the father and grows up in an antagonistic environment devoid of friends. Auerbach’s stories exhibit a sort of proto-realism—too romantic to be called naturalistic and vice versa. Realistic details of German village life are interspersed with philosophical interludes displaying keen insight into human nature. The stories all take place in the village of Nordstetten, in Wurtemberg, and feature recurring characters throughout. The effect is similar to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, suffused with a touch of the earthy authenticity of Wladyslaw Reymont’s The Peasants.

Ivo, the Gentleman,” about a young man’s journey to the priesthood, is a novel of 15 lengthy chapters, most of which are unnecessary. By the time you get around to caring about the characters, the plodding pace has grown tiresome. Likewise tedious is the novella “The Lauterbacher,” in which a new school teacher arrives in Nordstetten full of idealism, only to be shocked by the close-minded anti-intellectualism of the peasant population. Though ultimately the message of the story turns out to be moving and inspirational, it takes forever to get there. Faring slightly better, but likewise suffering from long-windedness, is “Florian and Crescence.” Florian, a butcher, has just returned to his hometown from Alsace. He finds that his sweetheart Crescence has taken up with a surveyor from the city. While her new boyfriend is educated, has career prospects, and has been granted her father’s approval, Florian is merely a lovable good ol’ boy with tendencies toward gambling, partying, and unemployment. The touching and pathetic story of the titular couple ends up resembling a Bruce Springsteen song set in 19th-century Germany.

Black Forest Village Stories would have been a much better collection if it were comprised entirely of short stories. Instead, the three longer works feel like short story plots that have been stretched out well beyond their welcome and are really an ordeal to get through. Auerbach later wrote a novel entitled On the Heights which is often described as his finest work, but frankly, after reading the three dull novellas included here, I’m scared to even attempt it.

Stories in this collection
The Gawk 
The Pipe of War 
Manor-House Farmer’s Vefela 
Nip-Cheeked Toney 
Good Government 
The Hostile Brothers 
Ivo, the Gentleman 
Florian and Crescence 
The Lauterbacher

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