Hermann Sudermann

AT the commencement of the decade 1890-1900, Germany apparently was possessed of an eminent poet and literary leader for each of its three great political movements. The writings of Ernst von Wildenbruch appeared to voice nothing so much as the peculiar sentiments and passions of tory patriots, the novels and dramas of Hermann Sudermann embodied the ideas of social democrats, while Gerhardt Hauptmann’s tragedies seemed inspired by the despairing experiences of anarchists. Yet time has shown that this early rough-and-ready classification of the three authors named, as conservative, democratic, anarchistic, is poor and quite inadequate : although it cannot be pronounced, even to-day, wholly misleading. It is true that Herr von Wildenbruch continues to put the flamboyant prose of the historian Von Treitschke into verse ; but Hermann Sudermann and Gerhardt Hauptmann have both made marked advance not merely in the quality of their matter, but also in workmanship. There is still a reminiscence in most of their works of the social misery peculiar to the proletarian classes, and Hannele, by Gerhardt Hauptmann, is even more than a reminiscence : it is a brand-new inspiration, quite unlike anything else in German literature. But partisan tendency is conspicuous no longer either in Hauptmann’s productions or in Sudermann’s. The same sympathy for the poor is disclosed, but the conception as to who are the truly miserable in the world has broadened in the minds of both authors so as to include individuals of all the various classes of society, not the poor in means only. Sudermann, especially, has come into the true artist’s heritage of sereneness of soul and universal sympathy. The socialist in him is merged in the larger life of the humanist, and the partisan in that of the poet. Still, as we cannot help being reminded on taking up his latest romance,1 radicalism remains one of the distinguishing traits of his works. He cannot create a hero who is not vivified by revolutionary blood, whose spring of action is not moved by a personal ideal different from the common, and whose life is not spent, at least during the period held up to our view, in maintaining this ideal in the face of the venerable dogmas of conventionalism and of his own defection ; and most of his heroes, besides being radical, are moral opportunists.

Leo, the hero of the novel Es War, is a gentleman by birth, a landed proprietor. He had exiled himself for a while, after the manner of his class, as a kind of expiation for having killed a neighbor in a duel (the result of a quarrel over a woman who is now the Baroness Felicitas Kletzingk), and is returning to his old home. At the railway station he is met by Baron Ulrich Kletzingk, and the two sit down to dinner at the restaurant. Leo laughs heartily at his friend’s remark at his robustness. Yes ; he has been living ! Cowboy life in South America is not namby-pambyism. A man’s faculties there must come into use, and his senses too. A man adds muscle to his heart as well as to his bones. His home affairs are in a ruinous state, are they? Well, it is to get them into some sort of order that he has come back : otherwise he would have stayed in South America.

“ Ulrich, old boy,” he exclaims suddenly, laying his big hand on his friend’s thin arm with a puzzled look, “ why did you marry Felicitas ? ”

Ulrich stares in grave and fond surprise, and asks if he did not give Leo his promise to do all he could for her. And all was not done until he had taken her for his wife, and so made it clear to the world that it was not she who had been the cause of the duel.

“ But, old fellow, your marriage has separated us, don’t you see that ? ” cries Leo.

Ulrich’s lips quiver for a moment. Then he replies quietly, yes ; he did not think of it at the time, but he sees now that Felicitas cannot well be expected to receive into her house the man who killed her child’s father, nor be reconciled to seeing her husband maintain friendship with this man. They part, therefore, for good, though the separation that ensues is most hard for both. But while Ulrich bears it with resignation, to Leo the pain is like that of an open wound. For the fact is, the one lie that he has ever told in his life to Ulrich, whom he has loved as long as he can remember, with the protective tenderness that a rugged Newfoundland may be supposed to feel for a spaniel, is the stupendous denial that Felicitas was his mistress.

“ That’s done for, however! ” he repeats to himself, — the past and all its pack. What ’s wanted is hard work, study of crops and fertilizers ; and upon fertilizers and crops he stoutly concentrates all his thoughts. The old kinsman whom he had put at the head of his affairs when he left the country is a dissipated rogue, who has as good as ruined him, and his first business is to get rid of the ribald rascal; and this is done with a promptness which the author sets forth with an Homeric plainness of language. What a telling bit, for instance, is the mere catalogue of the books that compose the “ library ” of this Falstaff in the country !

But Ulysses had not so hard a task in coming into his own as Leo has in retaining possession of his. For among the modern hero’s dearest properties is his peace of mind, and this is attacked relentlessly, long after the summary process of ousting his steward has been effected. There is, to begin with, his piously fanatic sister, Johanna, half insane from mental suffering. She gets at the secret of his former liaison with Felicitas, slowly but surely, by drawing it out of Felicitas herself through some occult force of intuition, and the irresistible, uncanny penetration of the mad. Johanna, in her turn, deposits the criminal secret upon the conscience of Pastor Breckenridge. This man, a Luther in coarseness as well as in the energy of his mingled divine and earthly ardor, knows no better way to reach Leo than by preaching a sermon at him, and this he does. Leo, in retaliation, forces Johanna to quit his house, and turns the dominie out into the cold of his baronial displeasure. But the morbidness of the widowed Johanna only increases after her separation from Leo, and she works upon the superstitious nature of the pastor with insane persistency. They take Felicitas into their confidence, and the three urge Leo to show his repentance by kneeling at the holy communion with the woman he has wronged.

Now, all Leo’s healthy instinct has warned him against dwelling on the subject of his past sin in any shape or manner, and his desperate defense against these people has been at the prompting of this instinct. But in the long run their united, constant activity drains his resolution; a kind of moral miasma weakens him, and one day, sure enough, he consents to go to the communion with Baroness Felicitas. And what happens ? Why, precisely what his common sense has foreseen : the close proximity of the woman he has loved, the recalling, in her company, of the incidents that led to their common sin, set on foot a procession of thoughts that continue to journey toward her from that day on. And just as in a procession the groups of marchers are not all of one quality, so are his thoughts not all holy ; those that bring up the rear are as abandoned and unruly as were ever the bacchanalian rabble that closed the priestly lines of old. The desires of Felicitas likewise begin to travel the invisible highway of space between her heart and Leo.

Ulrich, meanwhile, who is the only man of position in the neighborhood at once rich and intelligent enough to devote himself to parliamentary affairs, goes to Berlin to take his seat in the Reichstag, content and happy in mind over the reconciliation of his wife and Leo. The temptation to which his absence exposes both is great, and is battled against by his friend with all that remains of his moral power. Since Charlotte Brontë wrote Jane Eyre, there has hardly been in fiction a portrayal of the exercise of will-power against temptation so convincing as this. Leo’s love is commonplace enough, but it takes on a certain tragic pathos by reason of its passion, and the might of the resistance which is savagely set up against it.

There comes a scene, which is most wonderfully painted, when the pair cower for heat, in the dusk of a winter’s day, at the mouth of the lighted furnace in the heating-room of the Kletzingks’ greenhouse, and Leo sinks in a heap on the steps and sobs aloud. Felicitas thinks him subdued by passion at last, and with blissful repose of affection she strokes his head. But Leo’s emotion is not demoralization ; it is wild despair. He dreads the giving way of his good intentions towards Ulrich, and he urges Felicitas to end all and die with him. She consents, and so tumultuous is his state of mind that he does not perceive she does so in a mood of indulgent sympathy, not out of a fatal conviction like his own. Leo thereupon goes home in an overwrought state, and in the interval carouses like a man possessed. Felicitas, on her part, spends the day in devising coquettish schemes for completing his fond enthrallment. Her husband returns home from the deathbed of their little Paul, and attempts to tell her of the last hours of the boy. She becomes too hysterical to listen. Every new emotion merges, at this conjuncture, into her dizzy passion and adds to its intensity, just as an inflowing stream, instead of diverting a rapid, only accelerates its force. When at last the hour of her hopes approaches she is completely ready, — so thoroughly prepared, indeed, that she does not run to meet “ her lion ; ” he must be worked upon first, she thinks, by old and dear associations. So she leaves him to wait awhile in her boudoir, where, amidst cosy and intimate warmth, persuasive perfume, and rosy glowing light, everything shall whisper of their sweet and delirious past.

And in truth Leo does no sooner enter the room, so insinuating in its privacy, than this past starts up out of his memory like a suppressed heart-throb. But the memories of a strong man are, fortunately, not all of one kind, and so among the objects which can touch the electric bells of his remembrance in this critical hour is a letter in the dead little Paul’s handwriting. It lies open where it has been left neglected on his mother’s desk. Leo pulls it towards him, and groans aloud, - as does also the reader of the book, if he be a parent, — so pitiful in its stiff awkwardness is the child’s plea to be allowed to come home for the holidays, and so altogether insufficient in proper eloquence, hut so all the more touching beyond compare in its betrayal of boyish homesickness. Felicitas had refused the request out of regard for Leo. It was her neglect, also, in her preoccupation, to send Paul a Christmas-box that had started the child out to seek for the post-office, on the stormy night in which he had caught his death of cold. She had confessed it all; and Leo, at the time, had known she was lost past salvation, and he with her. This sinister reflection is overcoming him afresh, when Felicitas glides in from the adjoining room. She has dressed herself with seductive art, and smiles at him with the abandonment of passion. For some moments Leo is incapable of grasping her intention. On apprehending it, the recoil of his feeling expresses itself with the disappointment of revolt. Felicitas is mortally piqued. She stares at him for a moment, then steps to her husband’s door and calls on him frantically. When Ulrich rushes in, she explains the situation by coolly repeating against Leo the charge of Potiphar’s wife.

The spell over Leo is at once broken. The heartless untruth of the woman’s words, their vulgar flippancy, the coarse boldness of the impromptu intrigue, is a shock that does for him what an icy wind does for a landscape when it whirls away a fog and shows the limbo therein to be but a common gulch. He can manage a mere lust of the eye : he knows that sort of thing, and can cope with it. The hysterical pleading of his sister, the religious admonitions of Breckenridge, and all the rest had made him mistake their passion for authority. The more fool he for having let his own instinctive judgment be knocked on the head, as it were, and carried off stunned in the company of superstitious ideas. Now he is once more himself. And with this feeling he strides back home to await the dawn of day, when Ulrich, as he is firmly determined, shall not be the one to suffer in the duel which they have been forced into by Felicitas.

But the novel and Leo’s life are not to close tragically. He goes to the place of rendezvous at the appointed hour, but only to find Ulrich an unconscious heap in the snow, distinguishable by its dark color alone from the rest of the desolate winter scene. The tale continues with an account of Leo nursing his sick friend to life and convalescence, while Felicitas betakes herself upon a journey, during which she obtains a writ of divorce.

The real finale lies further back than the ostensible end of the romance, — in the midnight conflict within the chamber of Felicitas. To this culmination it is well, we think, for the reader who is unacquainted with the author’s works to look attentively, for it displays several of Sudermann’s most striking peculiarities. First of all, his overbalanced tendency toward the dramatic. He is like the very greatest of epic writers in crowding his pages, as human homes are crowded, with inanimate objects, with children, with accessories ; but, unlike novelists of the first class, he is incapable of enduing all personages with life according to their individual natures, or of carrying forward two or more actions in parallel lines. Instead, one action or one set of his numerous characters gets a start and runs quite away with his pen ; all the rest are left behind, to be fetched up at intervals or at the end of the book, with evident want of spontaneousness ; his fire and strength having been expended in guiding the main runners to their final goal. His novels are neither of the trim French style, in which a few grown-up individuals, sharply delineated, are presented against backgrounds as unobtrusive as old tapestry in their faint coloring, nor, on the other hand, are they like the English romances of Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot, swarming with personages to the last page, almost shutting out all background; they resemble English workmanship in their beginnings and endings, and French in their main, middle portion. There are scenes in Es War of incomparable merit, either by reason of their verisimilitude, as the opening scene in the railway station, or because of their rugged naturalism, or for their passionate power; but these scenes, like the coulisses of a stage, are limited in number, and, without exception they are illustrative of the one main plot of the criminal passion of Leo and Felicitas. The growth of the affection of Leo for the girl Ethel, the secondary action in the story, is utterly incapable, on the other hand, of suggesting one real bit of life ; the hundred pages devoted to this subject leave not a single vivid picture in the reader’s mind. In other words, Sudermann’s talent is shown, by the very faults of his novels, to be theatrical; it discloses itself in the rapid development of single plots that unroll with increasing force. It is as if a play, Leo’s Reënchantment and Coming-To, were imbedded in a shapeless, flabby romance.

The situation in the culminating scene in the chamber is characteristic of Sudermann, since it shows him taking a very hackneyed theme and lifting it into novelty by making the motive of the lover’s coming one of dead earnestness. The voluptuous details of the early part of the scene are also common in fiction, but these Sudermann does not vary by a single line; he might have copied them in gross from a hundred French novels, or from some of his own earlier works; they are so totally without any individuality, in fact, both in Es War and in his earlier works, that it may be asserted confidently that the erotic romanticism of this author is merely a reminiscence of the schools, and not a product of his own nature. The exaggerated sensuality, the pessimism, and the gross virility which he feels obliged to display in imitation of the French masters whom he has studied compose a slag in his compositions which he would do well to throw off and out. It has no real innate affinity with the rest of his matter, and his best inspirations, his most individual creations, are without it. The sensuality of Magda in the drama Heimat, of the hero of Frau Sorge, and of Count Trust in the drama Ehre is not that of French romances; it is that of ordinary life. If the instinct of sex in them had free play, it would be but one manifestation of the universal energy which distinguishes them ; and there is in this a virility as different from the superficial one which disgusts us in mere erotic fiction as exuberant health is from delirium.

If Sudermann is thus inferior to the latest school of novelists in this matter of describing lust and grossness, he is above it in greater respects. He diverges from the beaten paths and journeys independently towards truth. The majority of pessimistic realists let their characters succumb to temptations of the flesh and the devil; he shows his as fighting successfully against adverse obstacles of every kind. If his characters have human weaknesses, they possess at the same time firm and healthy fibres of will. And from the optimistic realists, like Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, he is equally distinguishable. For these realists incline to point to the future for adjustment of wrongs and faults, whereas Sudermann never takes his eyes from the present and its moral contrasts. In Ehre, Count Trast says to Mother Heinicke, “You have tolled so hard and suffered so much, you must be right.” Evidently a vital point of the creed of the author lies condensed within the homely phrase. So far as he has fathomed, every character in individual life and every phenomenon in social life are the result of doleful experience. Each one is, consequently, sublimely justified in its own peculiar existence. His faith seems to conclude, furthermore, that every human being acts in the main according to the best of his ability ; and to show that the best ability of a single soul is pathetically at odds in the struggle with the battalioned enemy, — the corps of bodily wants, the regiments of social requirements, the mobs of temptation, the ambushes of hereditary and ingrained perversities, — and that, notwithstanding, it does effect something through loyalty to its inner sense, is the great mission of his enheartening art. Nothing can be more like the actual world than his books, if taken as a whole ; their pages teem with descriptions of sins and small miseries ; yet just as mankind, in spite of the Fall in Eden, has perceptibly advanced in civilization, so, in spite of small miseries and faults, the characters of his creation make progress, if not in material wealth, then in the possession of character, insight, will, charity.

It is not easy entirely to love the heroes and heroines of Sudermann. There is something hard about them. They remind one of the bronze figures of Donatello. They want the graciousness and the repose that win the affections while captivating the soul. Magda fills the heart with appreciation, without, however, warming it to love. So likewise with Count Trust and the young hero of Frau Sorge. The iron of care stiffens their backs; they have left off kneeling, and their attitude of unbending fortitude electrifies us by flashing across our minds a sense of the tragedy of their spiritual isolation. But we have no longing to take part with them therein ; while they, on their side, have passed beyond the weakness of drawing near to us.

The dramas of Sudermann are models of plain, colloquial German, as forcible by reason of their clear and unadorned expression as Sheridan’s. They afford no “ immortal sentences,” but delight through their mastery of what Thackeray calls the dialect of the individual. Each personage speaks according to his individual nature, so that his every phrase is a revelation of character. The conversations in the author’s later novels display a good deal of the same naturalness ; but in all the novels, save in the sketches entitled At Twilight, which are of genuine Gallic lightness, there is still so much superfluous rhetoric in the descriptive parts that his style must be pronounced inferior, as a whole, in point of polish and brilliancy. On the other hand, he is not only a versatile writer ; he is a strong one, and can be charmingly fresh.

  1. 2EsWar. Roman. Von HERMANN SUDERMANN. Stuttgart : Cotta. 1894.