‘Wellen’ (‘Waves’) by Eduard von Keyserling (Review)

Today, we’re looking at a German classic, but I have some sad news for you before I begin.  You see, I’ve had a good look around the net, and I haven’t been able to find any translations of this writer’s work into English.  I’m afraid most of you will just have to read the review and take my word on its merits…

At the end of the first German Literature Month, Caroline chose Eduard von Keyserling’s Wellen (Waves) as her gift to Lizzy, and I decided to follow her recommendation and get a copy for myself.  The blurb claims that Keyserling is “the Baltic (Theodor) Fontane“, and anyone who has read any of Ted’s work will see the comparisons very quickly.

Wellen takes place on the Baltic coast, part of Germany’s former East Prussian territories.  A noble family is going to spend the summer at their traditional family home, and the Baroness’ mother is preparing for their imminent arrival.  The visiting party consists of the Baron and Baroness, their three children, and their elder daughter Lolo’s fiancé, Hilmar, and the extended family settles down for an enjoyable, relaxing summer.

However, there is a cloud in the sky of their contentment.  Down on the beach, in a little fisherman’s cottage, Doralice, a beautiful young woman, is spending her honeymoon with her new husband Hans, a painter.  All well and good, but Doralice is actually well known to her noble neighbours as she used to be one of them – until she left her elderly husband for the painter…

While the Baroness is appalled at the prospect of spending time in the presence of the fallen woman, the rest of her family get over the surprise a little more easily.  The children are entranced by her beauty and follow her around, spying on her whenever possible.  However, it is the interest other members of the party show in Doralice which complicates matters.

Wellen is a beautifully-written (short) novel, and (as mentioned earlier) the comparisons with Fontane are fully justified.  Like Fontane, von Keyserling takes well-off Germans and their trivial woes as his centrepiece, and he develops his characters far more than the many nineteenth-century novella writers did.  There’s always a sense of proportion and humour to the writing too, just to balance out the melodrama and romanticism:

“Du sprachst da vorhin wegwerfend von Kartoffelsuppe, ich möchte sagen, kein Leben, auch das idealste, ist möglich, in dem es nicht einige Stunden am Tage nach Kartoffelsuppe riecht.”
p.25 (dtv, 2011)

“You were talking dismissively before about potato soup, I have to say that no life, even the most perfect, is possible in which, for a few hours a day, it doesn’t smell of potato soup.” (my translation)

Hans’ half-joking remark to Doralice is a little too close to home though – the former Countess is not one to resign herself to a life lacking in romance.

The tragedy of the book (and it is giving little away to indicate that there are problems ahead) is that Doralice’s beauty, which shines so brightly that all around her are attracted like moths to the flame, is coupled with a character that needs stimulation, adoration and romance.  The adventure of running off with her painter is fading into history, and she finds it difficult to accept the quiet domesticity that seems to be her lot.  Struggling to settle down (for the second time!) into married life, she shows traces of regret at the comfortable life she left behind.

Matters aren’t helped though by the way in which Hans repeats the mistake Doralice’s first husband made.  Like the elderly Count, Hans wishes to possess Doralice, form her, mould her into his creation.  Hilmar’s comment to Lolo sums up the prevailing sentiment towards wives:

“Willst du mich überraschen?  Wozu?  Nein, unsere Bräute sollen nicht Überraschungen sein, sondern hübsche Notwendigkeiten.” (p.67)

“Do you want to surprise me?  What for?  No, our brides shouldn’t be surprises but pretty necessities.”

The attentive reader can see trouble coming a mile off – which is not to say that this is how matters will play out…

The writing in Wellen is beautiful, even if the description is laid on a little thickly in some places, and the centrepiece of the book, as you may have guessed from the title, is the Baltic Sea itself, the glittering, shimmering backdrop for the story.  In fact, at one point, it is pointed out that the shore is a stage, one on which the many characters parade and act out their drama.  For the most part, the sea is content to remain passive, calm and serene in the background, but there is the occasional reminder that this won’t always be the case.  On a walk with another holidaymaker, Doralice comes across an old cemetery and is shown bones poking out of the sand.  The corpses are slowly being claimed by the sea during storms, piece by piece – now if that’s not a subtle foreshadowing of events… 😉

I greatly enjoyed Wellen, and I’m happy to have found another classic German author who wrote more than novellas.  Short works are all well and good, but it’s nice to have something with a bit more depth, and nineteenth-century German literature can be a bit short(!) on longer novels.  Sadly, as I pointed out at the beginning of the post, if your German’s not that hot, you’re out of luck.  On the other hand, if you can read in German (and have a Kindle), I have some good news for you – most of von Keyserling’s work is available free in electronic form.  You’re welcome 😉

10 thoughts on “‘Wellen’ (‘Waves’) by Eduard von Keyserling (Review)

  1. Tony,
    This is a stirring, comprehensive, beautifully written review. I very much want to read it, though my German reading is pitifully–no, pathetically slow and halting, with much reference to a dictionary. I'm going to record the title in my “WannaRead” file, and I'll check in again and again to see if any publisher decides to publish an English translation. I will suggest it to them as well.
    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)


  2. I'm so very pleased that you liked it. It's not understandable that he has not been translated. I'll review another of his books tomorrow and will share some of my thoughts on why maybe he wasn't translated. You have to wait and see (now I'm applying your method. 🙂 ). It only occurred to me after reading other books.


  3. Judith – Thanks 🙂 I am very lucky to be able to source and read all these books in the original – I guess my uni years weren't as much of a waste as it might have seemed to some people at the time 😉


  4. I found that there were several works by Germain authors that were either unavailable or hard to find in English translation.

    I usually like it when natural features take a major place in a work of fiction. Rivers, caves, oceans, etc. can add so much dramatically, aesthetically and symbolically. Reading your commentary here Dickens' s”Our Mutual Friend” comes to mind in which the author used the River Thames in a similar way.


  5. Brian – Yes, it's a shame that more isn't available (I have a review by another little-translated writer coming up soon).

    The setting is very important, and it plays a large role in the novel. Another English-language book I think of when we talk about the landscape is Hardy's 'The Return of the Native', where the heath is the centre of all activity.


  6. “The tragedy of the book (and it is giving little away to indicate that there are problems ahead) is that Doralice's beauty, which shines so brightly that all around her are attracted like moths to the flame, is coupled with a character that needs stimulation, adoration and romance. “
    I liked that comment, Tony. Too bad for me I can't read German. Two years of German and I came out with just a couple of words …


  7. Splendid review, couldn’t say less. The only setback is that you leave little room for a fertile imagination to infer what comes at the end. This is one of my favorite books of all time, the only one I’ve been able to read all over again many times and never got tired of it. It’s like watching a nineteenth century painting in aquarelle, dim colors splashed over a warm atmosphere of strong feelings mixed with decadence; a vivid tale on decision making and unreversing social condemnation. Thanks for allowing the oportunity to leave a review


    1. Scipivs – No worries 🙂 I was probably more thorough in my plot description than usual as there’s no translation out there for English-language readers to try, anyway… I will be looking at another Keyserling book for German Literature Month in November, though, so please keep an eye out for that 🙂


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