Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Stories by Foreign Authors: German I by Paul Heyse, et al.

The lighter side of German lit
Paul Heyse
This is the first of two volumes devoted to German literature in the Stories by Foreign Authors series. The ten-volume series, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1898, provides an overview of European literature in the late 19th century. This volume consists of six works of short fiction, translated into English, by six German authors. While other books in the series favor naturalism and realism, this volume tends to lean more towards romanticism.

The book leads off with its most recognizable name, Paul Heyse, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1910. Unfortunately, his entry, “The Fury,” is the weakest in the book. A young Italian boatman ferries a priest and a beautiful young woman to the isle of Capri. The title refers to the nickname of the woman, an independent shrew with no interest in marrying. The story is pure romanticism, utterly predictable, and thus rather boring.

Though German literature may be known for its angst-ridden sturm und drang, the editors of this volume choose to showcase more lighthearted fare. In “The Bookbinder of Hort” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the title character, a Hungarian Jew, moonlights as a ghost writer of love letters. “The Egyptian Fire Eater” by Rudolph Baumbach is a humorous tale about a boy who loves the theatre so much he would do anything to get on stage. It’s a very descriptive piece, with little plot. The longest story in the book, Heinrich Zschokke’s “Adventures of a New-Year’s Eve” is a farcical romance in which a poor gardener trades places with a mischievous prince for one wacky night. It’s like a movie you might see after midnight on TCM, starring Tyrone Power or Ronald Colman. For what it is, it’s a skillfully crafted tale, but the century-old humor is not about to cause a stir among today’s reading audience.

There are, however, two very good selections here that are worthy of note. “The Philosopher’s Pendulum” by Rudolph Lindau is the best piece in the book. A man reconnects with an old friend from his youth, only to find his former classmate much changed. Having suffered disappointments and heartbreak, this long-lost companion has developed his own brand of stoicism by which he expects nothing from life and actively strives for a state of emotional indifference. It’s a thought-provoking premise, and the characters and plot are quite engaging. Stylistically, it calls to mind the novels of Hermann Hesse or Knut Hamsun. Of all the pieces in the book, this one feels the least antiquated.

Another exceptional offering is E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Cremona Violin.” An eccentric lawyer, when he’s not exhibiting extremely bizarre behavior, spends his spare time collecting and building violins. One day a beautiful young woman with an angelic singing voice enters his life, causing everyone to speculate what her connection might be to this aged nut. The story is very Balzacian—convoluted and incredible, but also riveting and fun.

Overall, this collection is a mixed bag of the worthwhile and the undistinguished. For readers who appreciate premodernist literature—romanticism, naturalism, early realism—the Stories by Foreign Authors series is a good way to introduce yourself to some new authors. This volume will appeal primarily to those with more romantic inclinations.

Stories in this collection
The Fury by Paul Heyse 
The Philosopher’s Pendulum by Rudolph Lindau 
The Bookbinder of Hort by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch 
The Egyptian Fire-Eater by Rudolph Baumbach
The Cremona Violin by E. T. A. Hoffmann 
Adventures of a New-Year’s Eve by Heinrich Zschokke 

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