Thursday, December 3, 2015

Ivo, the Gentleman by Berthold Auerbach

The long, tiring road to the priesthood
Berthold Auerbach
Ivo, the Gentleman is included in German author Berthold Auerbach’s 1843 fiction collection Black Forest Village Stories, but, comprised of 15 lengthy chapters, it is a complete novel in its own right and merits a separate review. Ivo, the son of a carpenter, lives in the village of Nordstetten. As a little boy, he witnesses a young man from his hometown perform his first Catholic mass as a member of the clergy. After the ceremony, Ivo’s father suggests that perhaps he too could one day become a “gentleman”—that is to say, a minister or parson. Young Ivo, awed by the respect shown by the townsfolk to this new priest, greets the idea with enthusiasm. From that point on, the course of his studies is planned out for him with this goal in mind, and he begins his long journey to the priesthood.

And the reader begins his long journey of reading this novel. Like the other entries in Black Forest Village Stories, the narrative presents a vivid slice of rural life in 19th century Germany. The various stories and novellas in the collection are tied together by a common village and recurring characters for an effect that falls somewhere between Balzac’s Comédie Humaine and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. While I have enjoyed Auerbach’s Black Forest stories so far, this novel was an ordeal to get through. Ivo goes about his business attending school. He has a crush on a young neighbor girl, but of course his future calling won’t allow him to act on any feelings of earthly love. The plot just kind of lopes along with the leisurely pace of changing seasons, nothing worthy of note really happening until about the ninth or tenth chapter (out of 15). At that point it starts to get a little more interesting, but by that time it’s already been a long haul. The reader can see that it’s all building up to a will-he-or-won’t-he decision toward the priesthood, yet is too tired to really care what the resolution to this conflict might be. The most interesting parts of the books are the two stories-within-a-story that don’t have anything to do with Ivo: one the story of Aloys, an emigrant to America, and the other the tale of Nat, Ivo’s former family servant and closest friend. 

The narrative of Ivo’s education reminds me a lot of Hermann Hesse’s novel Beneath the Wheel (Unterm Rad), enough to think that the latter was likely familiar with this work. Hesse’s novel is darker than this one, and a little less dull, but not much. Auerbach is an impressive writer of short stories, as evidenced by “Christian Gellert’s Last Christmas” (included in Scribner’s Stories by Foreign Authors: German II) or “The Gawk” (in Black Forest Village Stories), but Ivo, the Gentleman doesn’t say much for his talents as a novelist. One can see how Auerbach’s realistic portrayals of village life were a refreshing departure from the romantic fiction that preceded them, and how his work presages that of later authors like Hesse, Anderson, or even William Faulkner’s tales of Yoknapatawpha County. Admiration doesn’t always equate to enjoyment, however, and this novel is a bit of a bore. On the other hand, I have heard high praise for Auerbach’s novel On the Heights, so perhaps this is a just one failed effort in an otherwise illustrious career.

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