Book Group Report – a German classic novella…

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.

10 thoughts on “Book Group Report – a German classic novella…

    • Annabel says:

      I didn’t pick the best bit to compare, but it does show the similarities and differences – and we’d all been fascinated by the horse’s head business!

  1. Col says:

    I’ve always thought one of the best things about blogging is that it takes me out of my reading comfort zone – this book would take me so far out of my zone, I’d be three hundred miles down the road and pitched up in another country! But it sounds intriguing – will add to my list! Alas I must be a bit of a Philistine – my preference was for the dull Thomas translation!!!!

    • Annabel says:

      This little book was a bit Hardy-esque in a way, with added superstitions and lots of trees. When I read it initially I thought it was no more than OK (the translation was a bit boring when you read all of it), but as we analysed it, the book itself grew on me quite a bit.

  2. Alex says:

    We haven’t tried anything in translation since we had problems with ‘Madame Bovary’. The copy I had was so bad I simply couldn’t work out why everyone else was in raptures about the beauty of the language. When I’m reading for myself I find that I now check the translator with as much interest as the author and I have certain translators whom I trust and always go with. Where German is concerned Anthea Bell is always a good bet.

    • Annabel says:

      With the Fred Vargas novel we’re doing next month, I’d heard that she had 2 different translators for different books and one was better than the other, so I made sure we chose a title by the favoured translator!

      When we read The master and margarita, we managed to read three or four different translations between us, but it never really occurred to us to compare them, but we had so much to talk about with that book anyway.

  3. winstonsdad says:

    some great books from the alma classic list as it is now ,I ve black spider next from them and may try this after that as I want to add some older books in translation ,all the best stu

  4. Jonas Paul says:

    Droste-Hülshoff delivered a series of descriptions of landscapes and localities, as well as several historical ballads with a local interest, within a brief period for the volume Das malerische und romantische Westphalen that Schücking had taken on. It was Schücking, too, who arranged the publication of her novella Die Judenbuche. Ein Sittengemälde aus dem gebirgigten Westphalen (1842) in the former literary paper, the Cottasche Morgenblatt. She succeeded in creating a “Portrait of Morals” which reflects a segment of Westphalian life in almost naturalistic sharpness of detail, with the story of Friedrich Mergel who, years after the murder of a Jew, returned to the scene of the deed and hanged himself in the beech. Yet Die Judenbuche is more than a study of low life; it is simultaneously crime story and psychograph, a story which by its ambiguity, in the end, fundamentally calls into question the perception of reality.

  5. Georgina Ferrell says:

    In 1837 she met the twenty-three-year-old Levin Schücking. For the rest of her life she loved this much younger man, but tried to hide her love behind a self-described “maternal” concern about his life. He, in turn, supported her literary ambitions and helped her receive a degree of fame in her own lifetime. In 1841 she arranged for Schücking to work as a private secretary to her brother-in-law in Meersburg and spent the six happiest months of her life there in his company. Many of her best-known poems were written during this interlude. After his marriage to another woman in 1843 her health declined, and she wrote nothing during the last two years of her life.

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