‘Auf der Universität’ (‘At University’) by Theodor Storm (Review)

While I enjoyed working on my latest translation project over the past month, it did have one unfortunate side-effect, namely that of preventing me from posting on as many other books as I would have liked.  That’s why I’ve decided to sneak in one more review after the deadline to round off German Literature Month, and when you see that it’s by another old favourite, I’m sure everyone will understand.  Yes, we’re off to the north of Germany for another tale of romance and tragedy set near the sea, even if this time around we’ll be keeping our feet dry 😉

Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to stumble across the book in the photo, Theodor Storm – Das große Lesebuch, a collection of the classic German writer’s poetry and stories.  Alas, Immensee (Lake of Bees) isn’t among the eleven tales included in the collection, but classics like Der Schimmelreiter (The Rider on the Pale Horse) and Eine Halligfahrt (Journey to a Hallig) are, and I took great delight in revisiting these stories a few months back.  Today, though, sees me looking at a new piece, a novella running to just over sixty pages, and with its tale of doomed love and a tragic ending, it’s recognisably Storm’s work, even if there are some subtle differences with the stories mentioned above.

Auf der Universität (At University) is told by Philipp, a nobleman looking back at his youth, and in particular at events involving a girl he knew and loved long ago.  The story begins when the young grammar-school boy and his friends need another girl to make up the full complement of eight for their dance classes, and the person that immediately springs to mind is Lenore (or Lore) Beauregard, the beautiful daughter of a French tailor.  Our young hero immediately falls in love with her, and sees that she likes him, too – but she is far more cautious, with good reason:

Ich hatte ihre Hand gefaßt; aber sie entzog sie mir wieder.
»So sprich doch, Lore! – Willst Du nicht sprechen?«
Noch eine Weile stand sie schweigend vor mir; dann schlug sie die Augen auf und sah mich an.  »Ich weiß es wohl«, sagte sie leise, »Du heiratest doch einmal nur eine von den feinen Damen.«
Ich verstummte.  Auf diesen Einwurf war ich nicht gefaßt; an so ungeheure Dinge hatte ich nie gedacht und wußte nichts darauf zu antworten.
p.179 (Fischer, 2017)

I had grasped her hand; but she took it back again.
“Well, say something, Lore!  Won’t you say something?”
She stood silently before me a while longer; then, she opened her eyes and looked at me.
“I know full well,” she said softly, “that you will end up marrying one of those fine ladies.”
I was struck dumb.  This was a comment I simply was not prepared for; I had never even thought about such dreadful things and had no idea how to reply.***
(My translation)

This is the end of Philipp’s attempts at romance, and soon his studies take him far away, leaving Lore behind in their home town.

Of course, the two are destined to meet again, and when Philipp returns to the north to spend a final year of study in the local university town, he catches up with Lore, who is now engaged to Christoph, a carpenter whom Philipp spent many happy hours with in his youth.  The returning student is now placed in the role of an observer, and if he harbours any regrets about losing Lore, he’s more than happy to see her with his friend.  It’s here, however, that fate intervenes once more.  Christoph and Philipp are both forced to leave the town, and when our friend returns, Lore is a very different person indeed.

Hands up if you think there’s going to be a happy ending – if so, you obviously haven’t read anything by Storm before…  This is a writer who specialises in beautiful stories that end badly, and it’s no secret that poor Lore will eventually come to no good.  Other common Storm tropes here include the the setting of his homeland in the north of Germany (when Philipp mentions going abroad, what he actually means is Heidelberg and the Rhine region!) and the longitudinal nature of the text, with the story built around short scenes set years apart, with the whole book probably taking place over around ten years.  This is very similar to the main part of Aquis Submersus, another Storm novella with a very gloomy ending.

Where Auf der Universität is perhaps a little different, however, is in the prominence it gives to class issues.  The relatively poor Lore is pulled into the orbit of the well-to-do, and the attention paid to her in her formative years affects her, giving her the taste for something more.  Christoph isn’t the only one to believe that these happy days weren’t all to her advantage:

Er zog die Stirnfalten zusammen, und ich sah, wie sich eine trübe Wolke über seinen Augen lagerte.
»Ich weiß es nicht«, sagte er leise. – – »Es war nicht gut, daß ihr das Mädchen damals in Eurer lateinischen Tanzschule den Notknecht spielen ließet.«

He screwed up his forehead, and I saw a dark cloud settle across his face.
“I don’t know,” he said softly.  “I don’t think it was a good idea when you all decided to let the poor girl fill in during your dance lessons.” ***

Despite her determination to settle down with her fiancé, her love of dancing becomes a temptation waiting for an excuse.  When one occurs, the scene is set for the tragedy to unfold.

Lore, while at the centre of the novella, is more an ornament than a major protagonist, and is seen far more than she’s heard.  Her beauty means she’s desired by most of the men who meet her, including young Philipp, Christoph and the story’s antagonist, ‘der Raugraf’ (a violent student whose nickname could be rendered as something like the Dukin’ Duke…).  Much is made of her ‘brown’ skin, inherited from her French father, with the occasional blushes only heightening her charms.  This is deliberately emphasised as the writer uses her face’s colour, or lack of it, as a barometer of his heroine’s fortunes – certainly, by the end of the story, she’s a rather pale, wan young woman.

Storm’s work is always a pleasure to read, and the structure of several short episodes showing time passing, and opportunities being lost for good, works well.  The writing is imbued with the usual beautiful, achingly poignant style, and there’s a nice mix of social scenes and lonely rambles across the countryside, as the author pays tribute to his beloved homeland (those who read one of my recent posts will know why I’ve avoided quoting any of the many passages describing flowers…).  In addition, he manages to write scenes full of the joys of youth, even as the older narrator hints at the prospect of a darker future with all the wistful hindsight of an adult.

Auf der Universität is an excellent story, even if there is the merest hint of kitsch and manipulative mawkishness.  However, Storm is a master of playing on the reader’s emotions without going too far, and if anything, the story is restrained for the most part, with hints of Thomas Hardy in the heroine’s secret wish for better things, and the harsh price she pays for hoping beyond her station.  I enjoyed it thoroughly, but before I go, I do have one more piece of sad news to communicate regarding poor Lore’s story.  You see, while some of Storm’s novellas are available in the excellent Angel Classics series in Denis Jackson’s translation, this isn’t one of them.

Sorry 😦

9 thoughts on “‘Auf der Universität’ (‘At University’) by Theodor Storm (Review)

  1. It’s good to know there are still some of Storm’s works to read.

    Didn’t you feel like translating this one for us as well? ☺


  2. The Pale Horse was my first T. Storm, and I agree about the intensity of sense of place. I suppose that also accounts to some extent for the gloomy tone – though Hardy doesn’t have that excuse. From your account it seems there isn’t the supernatural element in this novella that there is in Pale Horse.


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