The Jew’s Beech by Annette Von Droste-Hülshoff
Translated by Doris and Lionel Thomas
Being a German novella from 1842, this book was an unusual choice for our Book Group. It came about in conversation because one of our group’s sons was studying it at uni, and another who teaches German, owned a copy in German which she’d never read. Luckily, translations are available from Oneworld Classics and online at Project Gutenberg.
Annette von Droste-Hülshoff was born into Westphalian aristocracy and given an excellent education. She became an esteemed poet and musician, however, this novella was her only work of fiction. The central story is based on a real murder. It’s often been viewed as a prototype of the crime thriller and also has Gothic elements – you could say ‘Grimm’.
For a novel of a scant one hundred widely-spaced pages, upon reflection and after lots of discussion, we realised that a lot actually happens in this story.
It follows the life of Friedrich Mergel from birth to his death. The first half tells the story of his drunken wife-beater of a father, and how his uncle Simon adopts him after his father died, putting him over his ignored pig boy Johannes Niemand who might be his illegitimate son.
They live in a village in the middle of a heavily forested area of Germany and the first half of the story concentrates on village life, including all the gossip and tittle-tattle that thrives therein, under the eye of the local barony. It’s a hard life for these peasants and their living relies on forestry. It’s not until a band of tree-poachers starts chopping into their livelihood that things take on a more sinister turn, when one of the village foresters is found in the wood with an axe through his skull. Did the ‘blue-cloaks’ as the poachers are called do it? No-one is sure.
Cut to later on, and a wedding in the village. Friedrich, who’s grown up to be a bit of a dandy for a forester makes a bit of a fool of himself, especially in front of Aaron, the Jew, who demands to be paid for the silver watch bought on tick that Friedrich is showing off. Aaron will later be found murdered in the forest, near a big beech tree, and suspicion falls on Friedrich, who promptly runs away, shadowed by Johannes…
Many of the big problems of the age, seen under the lens of village life are observed – poverty, poor Johannes steals a pound of butter at the wedding feast, and then stands in front of the fire; also bigotry and anti-Semitism. But there are also nods towards Gothic fantasy – the blue-cloaks seem to spirit themselves into and out of the woods, leaving no tracks; the dark forests themselves are foreboding and the stuff of fairy tales, Grimm’s having first been published in 1812. The villagers are quite superstitious, and there is (to us) a bizarre episode where someone went to dig up a horse’s head that had been buried years before as a talisman against sorcery.
Here it might be appropriate to compare the two translations we read between us:
Next morning the fountain in the garden would not work, and it was discovered that somebody had moved a pipe, apparently to look for the head of a horse which had been buried there many years before – this was reckoned to be a guaranteed protection against witches and apparitions. (trans Lionel and Doris Thomas, 1958)
The next morning the fountain in the garden would not play, and it was discovered that some one had removed a pipe, apparently to look for the head of a horse’s skeleton which had the reputation of being an attested instrument against any wiles of witches or ghosts. (trans Lillie Winter, Proj Gutenberg)
The feeling was that the Thomas’s translation was a little uninteresting, and that the Winter one had more charm despite being more directly word for word. Our German teacher commented that at least the author wrote in sentences of reasonable length unlike her contemporary Heinrich Von Kleist.
So, to recapitulate, this odd little story generated a great discussion in our book group.
Next month, we’re reading another crime novel in translation – but this time contemporary and French – Fred Vargas’ first novel The Three Evangelists.
Source: Own copy. The Jew’s Beech by Annette Von Droste-Hülshoff, Oneworld classics paperback. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.