Berthold Auerbach

THAT Auerbach’s reputation should be very, perhaps unduly, great in Germany need surprise no one who is familiar with the generally feeble condition of fictitious literature in that country. The numberless German stories which are continually crowding upon one another are for the most part even more devoid of interest than are the most ordinary attempts of English or American writers. If this belittling comparison is too harsh, putting them on an equality is certainly enough to indicate their merit and to show by what height of contrast Auerbach’s merits shine. It is not his only merit, however, that he is better than so many writers who, in spite of their being so much read, might almost be called unreadable; he has certain qualities of his own which are nowhere common, and these are conspicuous enough to give him a high place in comparison with much more important rivals. Perhaps the first thing the foreigner notices in studying Auerbach is that he is so truly a German; his books are full of the air of Germany; although he wisely keeps to but one of the various regions of that country which is in many ways full of broad and striking differences, he succeeds in representing a sort of life which is German and German alone. The sincerity and picturesqueness with which he accomplishes this outlying part of his task deserve warm praise. His simplicity is a quality which he does not derive from any foreign source; his homely pathos smacks of the soil; and the same may be said of his less attractive qualities — of his moralizing at all seasons and over matters from which even Mr. Barlow would have failed to draw an improving lesson, of the undramatic setting of his stories, of his frequent long-windedness; one does not need to be an hereditary enemy of the Germans to know where these traits abound.

It was his village stories which first made him famous, and it is to these one must return who finds the praise showered upon Auerbach inexplicable by the merit of some of the longer novels alone. In all of them he draws very simple sketches of peasant life, not from the point of view of the peasants themselves, but from that of one who knows them by both experience and careful study, who is able to sympathize with them, who has at heart a great fondness for them, and who has devoted much time to observing their manner of life. By these means he is able to draw men and women, to interest us in their characters and their fates, to make ns tender sharers of their joys and griefs, while at the same time we know, even if we forget for the moment, how frequent are the technical faults of construction in these stories. He fastens our attention on the people he is writing about, and we forget everything else, for after all the human soul is more entertaining to us than the laws of composition or the artistic arrangement of a story. He complies with that first duty of the writer of fiction, the duty of interesting his readers, and we are willing to overlook his faults; one is apt to think of what is called form some time after laying down the book. His success is more remarkable when we carefully consider with what disadvantages he loads his stories; the method of telling them is most awkward, events are intermingled most confusingly, here a step forward and here an episode about something that happened twenty years ago, with the incidents in anything but the compact, closely connected order of which most writers are fond. Indeed, there are all the uneventful stretches, the wearisome repetitions, the delays in bringing matters to a conclusion, which are so noticeable in real life. Not that he is a slipshod writer, who errs through carelessness; this quality resembles much more the over-carefulness of a very conscientious writer, who wishes to treat his subject with perfect fairness and who is unable to decide what shall be left out. On account of this exactness of treatment the impression made upon the reader is likely to lose much of its force; the attention is diverted into too many diverse channels, and while the different incidents are life-like, their number is embarrassing. A truly artistic writer omits a great deal, just as our memory does; only what is of the utmost importance clings to us, and a story-writer who tries to bring everything into the same relief is sure to confuse rather than to aid us.

Perhaps Auerbach’s exaggeration in this matter is more readily overlooked on account of the strangeness and unfamiliarity to most educated readers of the material with which he works. Most of us—so much is true of us foreigners at least — take interest enough in the study of the little known phases of life he represents, to be carried over a great deal of ground which, if we consider for a moment, we find only retards the development of the study. In some measure, too, Auerbach seems to regard the story he is telling in very much the same way; he lets himself be led into introducing unnecessary details, apparently out of the joy he has had in collecting them. With all of their technical defects, however, these stories are in more essential matters very admirable; their faults are those due to exaggerated simplicity, and so are surer of pardon than if they arose from too great pretension. The number of village stories that he has written is very great, and the discussion of one or two of them may be of service in pointing out some of his distinctive traits. The one entitled Der Lehnhold (The Hired Man it might be called in English), for example, is not chosen for being the best, although it holds a very good position, but because it may serve as well as another for the purpose we have in view. We have the father of a family, a stern, passionate man, whose main desire in life is to hand down his estate undivided to one of his two sons. The elder is the one to whom it would come by right; he is also the one who has made good his claim by the work he has given his father; while the second son is a far inferior character, whose craftiness contrasts very painfully with the manliness of his brother. The father, however, had promised the estate to the younger one, in atonement for depriving him of an eye in a wild fit of passion. Such, rudely sketched, is the groundwork of the story; the action is all that interferes with the father’s determination, his intrigues, the sufferings of the elder and the craft of the younger brother. The tale, has a tragic end; the elder hurls the younger over a precipice, and soon afterwards dies of remorse. There is no lesson drawn against divisions in families; the story is told simply for its own sake, without any morbidness in the treatment or any hidden moral beneath it all. We read the story and enjoy it with very simple pleasure. What is best in it, as in so many of its companions, is the drawing of the characters; the elder son is especially well given, with his natural pride, his obstinate clinging to what, he considers his rights, and his deep-lying dislike of filial disobedience. It is lonely suffering, a sort of righteous revolt, that Auerbach always describes with peculiar skill. In Die Sträflinge (The Convicts), for instance, the attachment of the generally despised convicts for one another is beautifully told, and in this one, Der Lehnhold, the love between the daughter of the house and one of her father’s workmen is very pathetically set before us, although it escapes a tragic end. These merits are sufficient to outweigh some very marked defects. For instance, there is no hidden moral in it, but there is plenty of open, unvarnished morality, of which the following is a fair specimen: —

“ Beautiful is the tree with its tender blossoms, beautiful is the tree with its rich fruit, but more beautiful is a table, at which father and mother are sitting, and around them numerous children, whose round cheeks and bright eyes show the manifold beauty of life; honorable is the father who gives them to eat and to drink, b!essed the mother who has carried them near her heart and who with gentle seriousness instructs them.”

The reader is reminded of the way the eternal verities are sung in Mrs. Barbauld’s Hymns in Prose. There is no limit to such remarks, to which even the most paradoxical must give assent; the author never trusts the reader to do any moralizing for himself; everything is expounded to him in a way that is at first very amusing, but soon very wearisome. This is Auerbach’s greatest and most common fault; it appears in his longer novels even more frequently, at any rate more noticeably, than in the shorter stories, for in these it almost harmonizes with their remarkable lack of complexity. His inartistic style of chronicling the incidents, his readiness to make use of unimportant details, suggest to us his facility in setting before us trite maxims as unimportant as some of the events he describes.

Die Frau Professorin (The Professor’s Wife) is the name of another story, which is deservedly more popular. It narrates the fate of a young girl of humble birth, a very serious and largeminded person, who falls in love with and marries a young painter of a very different nature. The contrast between her thoughtful dignity and his frivolity is very well drawn; his natural mortification before the rustic simplicity which had once charmed him, the way in which she irritates his sensitiveness and he wounds her pride, his consequent neglect of her, her pathetic patience, and the final catastrophe, are set before us with a great deal of truth and most admirable skill. There is more power of selection shown in this than in some of the stories, and the subject is one of greater interest than many he has chosen. It makes a very complete and touching tale, told with very deep feeling and with great freedom from morbidness. This is just the subject which an inferior writer would choose for the expression of a loud wail at the wickedness of all things, but there is no trace of this in the story, and yet there is no lack of sympathy. This sympathy never fails him; we feel sure that he knows the peasants about whom he writes; their obstinacy, their cautiousness, their rigid sense of duty, their manifold rugged virtues, are all clearly described by him. His village stories, with all their simplicity, differ from other work — from Turgénieff’s Récits d’un Chasseur, for example — in the fact that they show less tragic discord between the characters and their surroundings, and that the German author has less ability to distinguish between what is tragic and what is merely uncomfortable in life. As to the art of the two writers no comparison is possible; but even granting this, there is a large and honorable and not too closely packed field in which to build a modest shrine to Auerbach.

All of these village stories have a wonderful air of truthfulness and naturalness and tenderness, to which, undoubtedly, their popularity is due. That this should be as great as it is. even in foreign parts, and with readers whose experience is so unlike that of the German peasants and villagers he describes, is good testimony to his excellence. That it should be so easy to overlook even glaring faults, such as it cannot be denied exist in his writings, goes to show how deserving of praise those good qualities must be which are not dimmed by their sometimes unfortunate setting. In our opinion, it is in these village stories, and in his shorter, less ambitious novels, that Auerbach is at his best; he is certainly infinitely more natural, and he comes much nearer life, than he does in liis long novels in which he discusses vague theories of social philosophy. In these humbler stories, however, there is to be noticed, in his attitude towards the rustic characters about whom he writes, a great disposition to study them, and in that way, perhaps, to find in them more than they actually contain. His characters are life-like in what they say and do, but they are possibly at times rather overstrained in their thoughts and emotions. In the pride of discovering them — for these stories at the time of their appearance were a sort of reaction against the artificial novel of society — he would seem to have committed the natural mistake of seeing too much in them, of giving them complex feelings, which, in fact, belong to more civilized beings. There are traces of this fault in many of the shorter stories, but nowhere is it so well exemplified as in the case of Walpurga in On the Heights, for there may be wise peasant women, but surely oracles are as rare among them as in other classes of society.

Edelweiss, Little Barefoot (Barfüssele), and Joseph in the Snow (Joseph im Schnee) are three novels which form the connecting link between the brief sketches we have just been discussing and the longer novels by which we fancy Auerbach is best known in this country. The two last named are simpler in form than many of the village stories; they are charming pastorals, full of deep feeling, and appealing to uncomplex emotions. Little Barefoot is indeed almost a child’s story, and it is not alone the plot of the story that makes it so; there is something in Auerbach’s delight in his innocent narration which may be noticed in any one who is entertaining children with a story. Everything is made perfectly clear, there is no obscurity; the passions are far from being a tumultuous ocean, they are, rather, a placid lake; it is, indeed, a modern Cinderella, without the shoes even as an episode, that Auerbach has written. Joseph in the Snow is almost as slight. Edelweiss, on the other hand, is a more serious attempt at novel-writing; it deals with more intricate matters than the repetition of a fairy story in the nineteenth century, like Little Barefoot; it is really a very thorough and well managed study of character. The hero, Lenz, a young man of delicate sensibility and loyal feeling but of a somewhat weak, lachrymose character, full of amiability and the gentle virtues hut inclined to sentimentality, falls in love with Annele, a young woman about whom the reader is likely to be of two or more minds before finishing the book. Her fascinations are very well presented; the reader is very likely to be blinded in the same way that Lenz was, and to open his eyes to the truth a very short time before the hero himself does. The humor of this story is of a sort that Auerbach does not always display, and the little conflict going on between the tearful Lenz, with his continual references to his mother departed, which might well have irritated a gentler tempered woman than his wife, and Annele’s sharp tongue, together with the interference of her father and mother, is amusing at those times when it does not get so sharp as to be painful. While the discord is only a matter of the future, however, the humor is great; it is after they are married that the book grows very serious, and we have set before us the misery of the lot of these people. Auerbach’s exact descriptive style is at its best in this novel; he paints the various scenes with great patience and admirable skill; there is no unseemly hurry and no omission. And as the novel grows more and more tragic, until the dreadful accident that crushes all wickedness and the memory of it from them both, we are led on with the keenest sympathy in their sad fate. Their reconciliation is beautifully told; and it is not every writer who could carry a novel to so great a height of feeling with so sure a hand. Here Auerbach shows a certainty of touch which makes one aghast when he thinks of his frequent uncertain possession of his talents. Not only is it in respect to the tragedy that Edelweiss is superior to much that he has written; it is also in the separate scenes, representing various sides of the village life, that he excels even himself. Take the landlord of the Lion, for instance; how admirably he is described with his pompous speeches, his Jove-like dignify, his way of humbling all who approached him! The whole book is written with admirable strength, and there is none which those who are unfamiliar with Auerbach can be more warmly advised to read.

In his longer and more ambitious novels, in On the Heights, and in Villa Eden (Das Landhaus am Rhein) more noticeably, there are very different qualities to be observed. Villa Eden, or The Country-House on the Rhine, especially is an eccentric book, which, with its immense diffuseness and ready discussion of all possible irrelevant matters, very few would imagine to have been written by the same man who saw so clearly and described so exactly what we have given us in the novel of Edelweiss and in many of the village stories. It reads like an attempt to give us a comprehensive and generously progressive view of the universe in three enormous volumes. The amusing references to Benjamin Franklin, the violent thrusting of recondite moral mysteries into ordinary incidents, the exhaustive treatment of all the complications, its lack of perspective, and what is even more noticeable than any of these qualities, the willfulness with which it all seems to be written, make the novel read like the deliberately planned attempt to win eternal fame on the part of a man who mistakes a wide and various interest in many subjects for the true poetic glow. It is a novel that would have been much better suited for Kaulbach’s rather sentimental, inaccurate, dull illustrations than were Goethe’s poems. The writer, if one were to judge from this book alone, and the artist might well have gone hand in hand as good representatives of pretentious commonplace.

On the Heights is a novel of still a different kind. It opens very charmingly with a picture, such as Auerbach always draws with great skill, of the life of the peasants. Nothing could be more attractive than our introduction to Hansei and Walpurga; the woman is especially well described, with her rosy face and her flaxen hair, with her Sunday-child in her arms, running over with happiness. Very gentle and unaffected is her pathetic parting from her mother, to whom she makes over her pillows, and from her husband, whom she counsels wisely about his shirts. In all of this we feel that Auerbach is master of his subject, that he is writing about what he is familiar with; but the reader is tolerably sure to feel a very different atmosphere, which is not wholly in the change of scene, when he enters the court. Walpurga herself becomes a very different being; she is intended to represent an element of purity amidst great corruption, of strength amidst great weakness; in fact, however, she turns into an utterer of moral sayings, losing her natural, unaffected simplicity, and replacing it by supernatural wisdom which does not accord so well with what we know of her. In short, when Auerbach has what he has observed to go upon, he can set before us a very life-like character; but when he abandons this sure ground and tries to portray that character in scenes which he has never studied, his imagination fails him, and he puts into its mouth remarks which he himself would like to make under the circumstances, if there were any one to listen to him. Hence, when Walpurga seems to us to be affected, to be merely a mouthpiece which shall utter fine moral sentiments in the. language of peasants, we lose our earlier interest in her, only to rejoice again when she rejoins her own people, and Auerbach ceases to rely on his imagination and falls back on observation once more. How true this is the reader may see by turning to the scenes when Walpurga returns home after her court-life; they are quite as charming as those at the beginning of the book. Walpurga, however, important as she is, is only a secondary character; the main interest of the novel lies with the Countess Irma. At the opening of the novel she is a fascinating creature, full of life, gayety, and independence of character, which contrast very agreeably with the monotonous formality of the puppets who make up the greater part of the court. As the story goes on, however, she is less easy to understand ; we learn that she sins grievously, and that the king, faithless to his young wife, is the partner of her guilt; but for this dreadful catastrophe there is no preparation. We see Irma a young girl, giddy and thoughtless, perhaps, but certainly of a pure and honorable nature, warm-hearted and loyal to her friends; in order that so great a fall should appear even remotely possible to us, the author must be able to plane before us in a very vivid light the temptation to which she succumbed. This, however, Auerbach is very far from doing; the character of the king is so artificial and stilted that we cannot imagine it possible that it should have aroused any love in her. Nowhere in this novel do we find so vague and unsatisfactorily drawn a character as the king; witness the incredible scene in which he climbs up the stepladder by the side of the statue of Victory and imprints the kiss of eternity upon its stony lips. After this apparently innocent girl has plunged suddenly and inexplicably into the degradation of sin, she is carried through theatrical scenes of remorse and presented to our admiration as a lyrical saint. She thinks fine thoughts every day, and for her only occupation in the new life she has chosen among the nucorrupted peasants, she writes them down in a little book. Some of these thoughts are certainly very beautiful, but we cannot help feeling as if their setting were unnatural. The reader is inclined to think that this conclusion was not so much the result of what went before, as an opportunity for the author to express some lofty sentiments of his own. And yet, in spite of all this moralizing, we cannot help having a certain feeling that we have been cheated out of the moral. It is certainly neither very profound knowledge of life nor very safe teaching, that there are no gradations between innocence and crime, and that such a tremendous fall is likely to lead at once to spotless saintliness, as is claimed for Irma.

Both this novel and The CountryHouse on the Rhine are full of discussions of disconnected subjects which are unlike the simple truisms of the village stories, but yet without, the charm of novelty. There is often a prosy philosophizing which no one can contradict, but which imposes on some readers by its intelligibility; the whole intercourse, of Eric with his pupil in this last-named novel is of this sort; it is full of what in real life is called priggishness.

Waldfried, Auerbach’s latest novel, hardly strikes out a new path for itself, but yet it is without, many of the faults which are to be noticed in the other novels. It has much more simplicity, and that is the author’s most amiable quality. It reads like the narration of actual events; what seems invented is very slight, and is really nothing in com parison with what we find in The Country-House on the Rhine, for instance. The design of the book is very simple; it is merely the history of a German family from about the year 1848 down to the present day, told in such a way as to illustrate the history of the country during that important period. The narrator is the father of the family; he is a south - German, for Auerbach has wisely contented himself with the description of that part of Germany in which he won his earlier success, and the growth of Germany is really the theme of the book. To be sure, but one section of the country is represented; and no account is given of certain remote regions of the motley German empire, but it does not appear that the novel is injured by the fact that it cannot be used to teach geography. As it stands it resembles sufficiently a dissected map, with the good-natured Suabian, the accurate, self-contained Prussian servant, and the German who goes home again after many years in this country. Then, too, the appearance of Richard, the professor, who stands as the representative of the learned element, while Funk does the same for the political intriguers, and Ernst for the young men who despaired of any good coming out of Germany, and the son-in-law, the major, for the military element — it is all very like a game in which the players take different parts. This is done in a very complete way; there is not a character introduced who does not bring in a good bit of modern history on his shoulders. This sounds very much more like the way in which laureates turn off birthday odes, or painters paint historical pictures, than the way in which masters of fiction lay out their work; but this statistical outline is so well managed, the characters are so truly human beings, that although they do not kindle a burning interest, the novel is not an arid imitation of history, but a very natural and life-like chronicle.

The more familiar the reader is with Germany, the more entertaining will he find this novel; it has not life enough to force itself upon those who have not a tolerably keen interest in that country; indeed, such will find it almost unreadable; and it demands a respectable knowledge of what has been going on in Germany during the last twenty-five, and especially during the last ten years, to be fully enjoyed. Like Auerbach ’s other stories, this lacks a great deal with respect to construction, a very pardonable offense, in view of the task the author has prescribed himself in undertaking to tell all the comings and goings of a large and complicated family. Almost all of the characters are well drawn; perhaps the least successful is Martella, the wild peasant girl, — a remote descendant of Mignon, — who, with her apt tongue, bears a strong likeness to the heroines in children’s stories who are befriended by fairies of influence. Her first introduction, as the betrothed of Ernst, is very promising, but she soon becomes oracular, and remains as untouched by civilization as she was before knowing anything about it. She is by far the most unnatural character in the book. Ernst is at first the most interesting, but he soon disappears from sight, for political reasons, for a long time (1866-1870), and the impression is marred. Of all the rest there is not much to be said; they take their places in the historical tableaux with equal success, and the rôle of every one is of sufficient importance to let us see a good deal of him. Heinrich Waldfried, whose journal forms the book, is well represented; we have all the calm of an old man who has been through a great deal, and seen a great many changes, but who has still an enthusiastic temperament. His account of his wife’s death and his subsequent grief are very pathetic. Here, as elsewhere, Auerbach shows how keen is his eye, and how deep his sympathy.

This book, although truly a work of fiction, can hardly be called a novel. It is in part an outburst of exultation at the successes of Germany, and hence those who took the part of the French in the last great war are sure to have no pleasure in it. There will be few Germans, we fancy, who will not read it with a certain amount of satisfaction, but this, it is to be remembered, is to be carefully distinguished from the real enjoyment of literature. In fact, however, the book is written so much from the German point of view, patriotism so pervades it, that it is very difficult at present either to praise or to condemn it with regard to its literary merits alone. But aside from its political tendencies, which really have nothing to do in this case with its value as a novel, there is enough to satisfy those readers who are not repelled by their ignorance of what is described or their dislike of the German point of view. There is no complicated study of character, no wonderful turn of the plot to amaze any one whose habit it has been for a few years past to read the daily papers, but there is plenty of good description of German life, and much that is common to life in all quarters of the globe, which give a certain value to the book.

To our thinking Waldfried is the best of the long novels. It is infinitely more natural than either the Villa Eden, or On the Heights, but it can hardly be brought into fair comparison with them. That many should find it intolerably dull is not surprising, for many readers require for their entertainment more than a disconnected assemblage of incidents; others, however, will read it with some pleasure, not with the keen enjoyment one gets from the few masterpieces of fiction, but with the calm satisfaction one has in reading about matters that turn out as one would have them.

In fine, Auerbach may be said to be a man with a sharp eye for observing what is said and done, with a strong tendency to add to the effect of what he observes by some sentimentality of his own. He has a very considerable sense of humor, but, strangely enough, without a perception of the ridiculous to save him from this excessive sentimentality, and another frequent fault, crude philosophizing. He sympathizes warmly with men and women, but sometimes his sympathy is ill-directed. His faults are not of the sort that would diminish his popularity with the majority of readers, but they would seem to go far towards injuring his chances of lasting fame, though that is a matter that will settle itself without the aid of prophecy. Like many other writers he is at his best in his simplest work; the closer the view he gets of what he is describing, the deeper his pathos, the more agreeable his humor; he sometimes confuses himself by mysteries of his own making. If not one of the greatest novelists, he is an amiable and agreeable one.

T. S. Perry.