Recent German Fiction
AUERBACH has recently collected some of his lighter work in a little volume, to which he has given the name of Unterwegs.1 The value of most of the little sketches — for they are not more — is not very great. At the beginning are some brief stories, after the manner of his village tales, which may be left unread without much harm, and may be read without much profit. So much one is justified in saying, while it is yet very possible that there may be some who will find pleasure in these simple chronicles of simple life.
In fact, Auerbach occupies a singular position in literature. He is no longer a young man, and he persists in keeping to just the method of writing that he hit upon many years ago. While his successors and his present contemporaries have sought for exciting situations and complex characters, he has been contented for the most part with very simple beings, whether peasants or kings, and with a plain delineation of their joys and sufferings. Since those who read for amusement are quite as desirous of novelty as of anything else, a great many people feel an intolerant spirit rising within them whenever they hear Auerbach’s name mentioned; and there would be more who would be weary of him, were it not that we are all more patient with the peculiarities of a foreign literature than with those we happen to notice in our own. Auerbach’s extreme simplicity, for instance, is of service in enhancing the value of his pathos, but it sometimes leads him into thinking that because a thing is simple it is therefore of interest. The first of these tales is an example of this : it is but the vaguest sketch of almost nothing at all, yet without doubt the author looks upon it as full of subtle meaning. The next one, about an officer in love with an actress, is better, but it is slight enough. The fact is that Auerbach has great faith in himself, and he demands similar admiration from the reader, who must not be disposed to question the importance of the fare this novelist puts before him. A man who was inclined to self-criticism would not have been likely to give this volume to the world.
Besides these tales, the book contains three little comedies. The first has for what the author’s fellow - countrymen would call its psychological motive the reaction in the mind of a girl who, having just refused a lover, comes round to reconsidering her action. A good actress, if young and pretty, might carry this play through, in a small parlor, before some very sympathetic friends. The next one is better and may be commended to those who are casting about for a German play for private theatricals. It is not likely that any one of these comedies will ever be given on the regular stage, but there is no need of insisting upon good plays from a man who has already done so much good work in pleasing the world with novels.
And Auerbach’s latest novel, which has come out since the book just mentioned, shows that he has not yet got to the end of his power. This story, Der Forstmeister,2 is one of the good old kind, dealing with simple country people and their loves and hates. The foresters, who are the principal people in the book, are well described, and of course all that could be asked is made out of their love of trees and nature. To be sure, a cold generation that have been brought up to think more about their own feelings than about the landscape will turn with more interest to the love-making and mental struggles of the various people. Indeed, to a foreigner there is something amusing in the way the people talk, or rather converse and declaim. Here, for instance, is an extract from the young vicar’s letter to a friend, the day after his first sermon : “ Early Monday morning ! I follow in my mind the men and women who are carrying their working tools in their hard hands, to their houses, to the fields and woods, and into the dark ravines. The institution of the Sabbath is a God-given victory of the mind over matter; man stands above nature by the Sabbath, and separate from it by means of speech ; they distinguish him from all merely natural beings. Materialism could neither establish the Sabbath nor frame a language.” Yet this man’s talk is far less pedantic than his letters. To be sure, he offends the girl he is in love with by urging her to give up her favorite amusement, the carrying of a rifle, with which she has won a prize, and he falls a ready victim to the dangerous charms of the bad heroine but he is a living being. The real hero, a forester who, on losing his wife, comes to this country and interests himself in saving our rapidly disappearing woods, is somewhat less distinct. Opposed to them both is a merry jail-bird, who is a sort of incarnation of all the vices of the century, for he is a communist, a socialist, and a nihilist, and of course an old-fashioned atheist. He is the disturbing element in the peaceful scene, and he manages to do a good deal of mischief. Indeed, his evil doings and the complications they give rise to form the main interest of this very readable novel. One reason that the book is entertaining is this : that Auerbach has been contented with telling his story without loading it down with instruction for the world at large. He is really a good narrator, but too often in his novels he halts, and while taking breath, like people who get tired going up mountains, he devotes himself to admiring this thing and that, instead of pushing on. Here he seems to have no ulterior motive, unless it be to condemn the habit of writing anonymous letters, a matter concerning which mankind is tolerably harmonious, and he gives his whole attention to the work in hand. The result is good, and readers will find here a story that is worth their attention.
Frau von Hillern’s Und sie kommt doch !3 is a tale of a certain passion that is well known to laugh at locksmiths, and in this case it is a much more serious part of humanity that is made an object of derision. An infant is born on a wild, stormy night, in the middle of the thirteenth century, upon the snow-covered moor. He and his mother are carried into a monastery ; the mother dies, and the child is taken in charge by some monks, after a discussion about the wisdom of their choice. The good monks are forced to intrust him to a wet-nurse, who is, however, forbidden to caress him, in view of the future sanctity of his life. He is unjustly cursed by his father, who, without reason, distrusts the child’s mother, and there is no end to the mischief the young monk unconsciously accomplishes. It would be too much to enumerate all of his sufferings and actions ; the upshot of the story is simply this, — that, in spite of his own intentions and efforts, he learns to know what love is. The story is impressive ; it is as life-like as one’s impressions of the thirteenth century are apt to be, and the reader who has once begun it will be averse to laying it down. All of these things count in favor of a novel; but when the reader has finished it, he will be likely to ask himself whether there is not something overwrought in the story, able as it is. A hero who tears out his eyes to avoid the temptations of a young and beautiful woman is not easy to manage. It is like reading about that one of the incarnations of Buddha in which he established his claim to being the most generous man in India by offering himself to be eaten by a famished tiger; in either case the reader feels as if he were taken out of his depth into unknown water. Still, this novel is unmistakably powerful, and it only improves with the second reading. The first time one takes it up, one notices nothing but the horrors and truculence, but afterwards one is able to enjoy the delicacy of much of the writing. Yet the final impression that is enforced on the reader is one of almost physical pain. This may be in part because we are so accustomed to the tepid sufferings of more or less unreal heroes that a thorough-going accumulation of physical horrors, and even mere acute mental anguish, finds us unprepared for what would have disturbed our ancestors as little as the report of the pistol would alarm a Texan rough. Frau von Hillern has a powerful imagination, and she writes with grace as well as power. Her style is really noticeable, and the many people who are always hunting for a good German novel cannot do better than read this one. The warning about the terribleness of the story will prepare them for what they will have to meet in its pages. At any rate, no one will question its power.
- Unterwegs. Kleine Geschichten und Lustspiele. VON BERTHOLD AUERBACH. Berlin: Gebrüder Paetel. Boston: C. Schönhof. 1879.↩
- Der Forstmeister. Roman. Von BERTHOLD AUERBACH. Berlin: Gebrüder Paetel. Boston: C. Schönhof. 1879.↩
- Und sie kommt doch! Erzählung aus einem Alpenkloster des dreizehnten Jahrhunderts. Von WILHELMINE VON HILLERN. Berlin: Paetel. Boston: Schönhof. 1879.↩