One of the joys of German Literature Month is making time to return to some old friends, revisiting writers who have been ignored since a previous November. Today’s post, then, is a short trip in the company of one of my favourite classic German-language writers, and we won’t even be taking the bus. I do hope that none of you get sea-sick…
Theodor Storm’s Eine Halligfahrt (Journey to a Hallig) is a novella (possibly just a longish short story) describing a pleasant, short journey across the sea from the North Friesland region of Germany to one of its many ‘Halligs’, small islands unprotected by dykes and hence at the mercy of the sea. A party of three – the narrator, a young lady and the young lady’s mother – are ferried across the water to meet a relative who long ago decided to spent the rest of his days away from the mainland.
Of course, being a Storm tale, there’s a little more to the story than this. The trip, naturally, revolves around a love interest, and (just as naturally) it’s one which isn’t fated to provide a happily ever after. Amidst the beauty of the sea and the tiny piece of land buffeted by the waves, we are treated to memories of a might-have-been love and a relationship doomed never to get off the ground…
The start is typical of Storm’s modus operandi, with a frame narrative looking back to older times:
“Einst waren große Eichenwälder an unserer Küste, und so dicht standen in ihnen die Bäume, daß ein Eichhörnchen meilenweit von Ast zu Ast springen konnte, ohne den Boden zu Berühren.”
“Once, there were great oak forests along our coast, and the trees stood so thickly together that a squirrel could jump for miles, from branch to branch, without once touching the ground.” *** (My translation)
This is just the start of the theme of looking back (if not in anger), and while the main action takes place at a later time than that of the energetic squirrels, the whole story occurs in the distant past.
There are actually two tentative relationships outlined here. The first involves the narrator and the beautiful Susanne, his companion on the visit to the hallig. The other, a slightly more mysterious one, has to do with the old relation who has withdrawn from society. A jovial type, he nevertheless reacts strongly when a sore point is touched accidentally, such as when he is asked to play his old violin:
“Siehst du denn nicht, daß das ein Särglein ist? Mann soll die Toten ruhen lassen.”
“Can’t you see that this is a coffin? The dead should be left in peace.” ***
This is a man with secrets loves of his own, hinted at, but never quite revealed…
Eine Halligfahrt is a short tale, but there’s a whole lot going on. In addition to the slow, unsuccessful flirting between the narrator and the beautiful Susanne, we are treated to a personal tour of the hallig (with Storm as our own travel guide). On the trip to the little island, there’s even a glimpse of local mythology, as a sailor tells the story of Rungholt, a mysterious North-Sea Atlantis.
While the content is interesting, though, it’s the writing we’re really there for. I always seem to forget about this between reads, brushing Storm off as a mere scribbler of short stories, but whenever I return to his work, I’m always captivated by his achingly poignant passages and lyrical descriptions:
“Und siehe! – während das Wasser weich, fast lautlos zu meinen Füßen anspülte, plötzlich mit leichten unhörbaren Schritten ging die Erinnerung neben mir. Sie kam weit her aus der Vergangenheit; aber ihr Haar, das sie kurz in freien Locken trug, war noch so blond wie einst. – Es war deine Gestalt, Susanne, in der sie mir erschien; ich sah wieder dein junges, festumrissenes gesichtchen, die kleine Hand, die lebhaft in die Ferne zeigte – wie deutlich sah ich es!”
“And lo! As the water washed gently, almost silently up to my feet, suddenly, with light inaudible steps, the memory was walking beside me. It came from the depths of the past; but the hair, worn in short, loose curls, was as blonde as ever. – It was your figure, Susanne, in which it appeared to me; once again, I saw your young, clearly-defined little face, your little hand, pointing vibrantly into the distance – how clearly I saw it!” ***
Storm treads a very fine line between poignancy and the over-wrought emotion of the Sturm and Drang works (e.g. Young Werther…), but he usually pulls it off. This is one of his better descriptive pieces, full of beautiful, moving passages.
Luckily for all of you out there, this is one which has been translated into English. It’s available in a collection of three tales (along with Immensee and Hans and Heinz Kirch) in the Angel Classics version, translated by Denis Jackson and Anja Nauck. Having read it in German, I have no idea about the translation, but someone who will know a little more about that is a certain Amateur Reader residing at the Wuthering Expectations blog, who posted on this one a while back. All I can say is that it’s certainly one I’d recommend – and I’ll definitely be downloading more of Storm’s stories for future perusal 🙂