Well, yesterday saw the last part of Eduard Graf von Keyserling’s short story ‘Nachbarn’ (‘Neighbours’) appear on the blog (or, at least, my translation thereof). I’m not sure how many of you out there actually took a look at the four instalments, but if you did, I hope you enjoyed it. Today, then, as is customary, I’ll be taking a closer look at the story, and the translation process, in an attempt to wrap up the whole affair. This will just be a short post, as befits the story, but there are a few things I wanted to discusss before I return to my International Booker Prize longlist reading next week. I will be discussing the plot in some detail, though, so if you haven’t already tried the story, perhaps do that first 😉
‘Nachbarn’ is a nice, simple story, running to fifteen pages (just under 4500 words) in my typed version. There are four major characters, two couples, plus a minor one used to convey information between and about the people staying at the holiday house. The story is set in the mountains and is focused on the growing relationship between two of the characters, and on how, when the inevitable happens, their partners are left to carry on as best they can.
In terms of the translation, this piece was probably a little easier than the others I’ve done, Schwüle Tage (Sultry Days) and Seine Liebeserfahrung (Experiences of Love), which may well be a result of becoming more familiar with Keyserling’s style. As usual, I was working from a copyright-free digital text, and one aspect I focused on was spacing out the dialogue as it was rather bunched up, making it difficult for the reader at times. Of course, I have no idea whether the original book release was written this way, but either way, I decided that for blog consumption it was important to make it far clearer so that the reader could be sure who was speaking.
One perennial issue I have with translating Keyserling is his love of writing about nature, but fortunately things were a little easier this time around. It helped that even though much of the story is set in the open air, the writer went easy on me with all the flower and tree names this time. Instead, he describes the natural environment in far broader strokes, waxing lyrical about lakes, mountains, sunsets, fields and the fresh air. This was definitely of great help as in the past I’ve often found myself going on a digital wild goose chase in search of plants that Keyserling seems to have invented…
When it comes to the story itself, there are a number of familiar elements, and in fact ‘Neighbours’ makes for a nice companion piece to Experiences of Love. Oskar seems like an older, married version of our friend Magnus, or even an exaggerated caricature of the younger man. He’s unabashed and more self-absorbed, and he’s just as convinced that he’s actually a poet. As he wanders through the woods, he grumbles that there’s a masterpiece somewhere inside him if he can just squeeze it out (and if everyone would stop annoying him while he waits for inspiration to strike).
Much of the humour in the story comes from the writer giving his ‘hero’ just enough rope to hang himself. In the scenes with Adine in the woods, as was the case with Magnus in Experiences of Love, Oskar feels a constant need to come out with something impressive and poetic. Of course, in his desperation to seize the moment, he tends to come up with outbursts of rather kitsch emotion, and the reader is tempted to laugh at him rather than with him. The difference between Oskar and Magnus, of course, is that the former is an actor rather than an onlooker, so when the inevitable elopement occurs, he’s in the carriage rather than hearing about it from the hired help.
Another similarity with Experiences of Love is the way what is essentially a fairly light-hearted romantic farce turns darker and more poignant in the last act. In the longer piece, the dreadful scene where Magnus and the cuckolded Baron share stories over a murderously drawn-out dinner is the highlight of the story, and we’re treated to a similar situation here. The news of the betrayal is revealed, and Dina must come to terms with what’s happened, but this is when her strength of character comes to the fore, along with the revelation that this has happened many times before.
This last scene of the story forces the reader to reevaluate her character. In place of an an air-headed companion holding her husband back, we encounter a long-suffering woman putting up patiently with a philanderer whose delusions of poetic grandeur have destroyed any possibility of a happy marriage. Her character shines most brightly when the pathetic Doctor Krammer arrives at her door, hoping to wallow in misery with her. Even in revealing his dark secret, he appears weak and pitiful next to Dina’s haughty acknowledgement of what has happened. It’s through his eyes that we can now see Dina’s strength of character, even if, on his departure, tears will fall.
Overall, then, there’s a lot to like about ‘Neighbours’, and I enjoyed my time working on bringing it into English (and I hope that more of you will take the time to enjoy it too!). Like many of you out there, I have a lot of free time coming up, so I’ll undoubtedly be using some of that to start work on another story at some point. Look out for more translations later this year, possibly for Women in Translation Month – and there may well be more from Keyserling at some point, too 🙂
The image of the author’s painting (1900), by Lovis Corinth, was sourced from the writer’s German-language Wikipedia page.