Two for #GermanLitMonth #NovNov23 – von Chamisso & Dürrenmatt

Just squeaking in at the end of the month, here are two shorter reviews of novellas (hence qualifying for Novellas in November also) originally published in German, however, neither are by German-born authors. Adelbert von Chamisso was French, becoming naturalised German, Friederic Dürrenmatt was Swiss.

Peter Schlemihl by Adelbert von Chamisso

Translated by Leopold von Loewenstein-Wertheim (1957)

Adelbert von Chamisso was born Louis Charles Adelaide de Chamisso de Boncourt was born in the Champagne region of France in 1781. A few years later his family had to flee the French Revolution, finally settling in Berlin in 1796, where Chamisso studied at the Lycee there. He then became a page to the Queen, and later an officer in the Prussian army. He shuttled between France and Germany thereafter for a while, depending on the political situation at the time before returning to Berlin and setting up a literary circle. He was known for his Romantic poetry and supernatural stories, of which Peter Schlemihl is one, written as a cautionary tale for the children of his patron, Hitzig. “Schlemihl” is a Jewish word, meaning an unlucky person, one who doesn’t fit in, and Chamisso did see himself as one at the time he wrote the tale.

Peter Schlemihl is on his way to visit the man who could help him advance in life. He’s rather taken with Mr John’s daughter Fanny, who is being supplied with endless requests by a strange thin man in grey, who has a bottomless bag (as does Mary Poppins). Recognising he will never have the means to court Fanny, Peter talks to him, being surprised to hear that the man in grey has a solution to this problem.

“Forgive this truly daring imposition but would you not perhaps consider disposing of your shadow?” […]

“In return, and as ake of my profound gratitude to the gentleman, I will leave him to make his choice among all the treasures which I carry in my pocket.”

No sooner had the man in grey mentioned Fortunatus’ lucky purse, which never empties, than Peter’s eyes go ‘ker-ching!’ and the deal is done. The man in grey rolls up Peter’s shadow and pockets it, tipping his hat and withdrawing.

And with this Faustian pact with the devil, Peter’s fate is sealed. It goes well at first and now, accoutered with all the trappings of a rich young man, Peter makes the acquaintance of Mina, who outshines Fanny, and asks her father for permission to marry. Her father is concerned about his lack of a shadow, and lets him know he has a rival. If Peter can recover his shadow, Mina will be his, but no shadow, no bride. This is the beginning of his persecution and being ridiculed for being different; only his trusted manservant Bendel is on his side as his master gradually loses his mind.

The 110 pages or so of this tale are narrated by an older and wiser Peter, telling his story directly to Chamisso whom he entrusts to share this cautionary tale. It’s slight compared with other similarly themed tales, but suitably dark in parts without being too nasty for its original younger audience, and of course there’s a moral.

Source: Own copy. Alma Classics paperback, 120 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

Suspicion by Friederic Dürrenmatt

Translated by Joel Agee

Last year for these two November themes I the preceding novel to this one by Swiss author Dürrenmatt. Published in 1950, The Judge & His Hangman featured the Bern-based Inspector Barlach, who in the best tradition of old detectives uses untraditional methods. At the end of this novella, it’s clear that Barlach, who has been getting more and more ill throughout the novel, has a problem.

Suspicion, first published fully in 1953, begins with Barlach in hospital, after having suffered two heart attacks before they could operate on his cancer. He is sitting up in bed reading an old copy of a magazine which has a photo, the only one ever published, of an infamous Nazi surgeon, whose trademark was operating without anaesthetic in the concentration camps. Barlach’s physician, Dr Hungertobel, shudders when he sees the photo. It reminds him of someone, and Barlach, wheedles it out of him that the man in the photo resembles a doctor whom Hungertobel had to work with before, a Dr Emmenberger, who had some strange habits. The Nazi doctor Nehle committed suicide some time ago, but Dr Hungertobel is truly shaken. The suspicion is planted. Barlach, who has received notice that he is to be pensioned off from the police, has something he can work on from his hospital bed, and then he discovers that Dr Emmenberger runs a clinic for the terminally ill rich in Zurich… maybe he could transfer there.

I can’t say any more, other than Dürrenmatt has Barlach break all the rules to get an answer, putting his life in danger – but as he doesn’t have years to live – why not?

It’s a tense 157 pages. Very enjoyable though, because you can’t help but cheer on Barlach. Dürrenmatt was a subversive crime writer – I still have The Pledge on my shelves but I wish he’d written more of it.

Source: Own copy. Pushkin Vertigo paperback, 157 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

7 thoughts on “Two for #GermanLitMonth #NovNov23 – von Chamisso & Dürrenmatt

  1. Marina Sofia says:

    I do like the Inspector Barlach novels – although he wrote them as potboilers (to make money), they are quite different and unique, postmodern I suppose.

  2. JacquiWine says:

    Suspicion is remarkably sinister, isn’t it? I read it (along with The Judge and His Hangman) in a different edition, but it’s great to see that Pushkin Press have reissued them as part of their Vertigo imprint.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The way he goes about things in the second part! (I shall say no more). A very enjoyable pair of novellas indeed.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I think I prefer this edition’s title, it’s not quite so direct! Have you read the other story that came before?

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