‘Fra Celeste’ by Ricarda Huch (Introduction)

In a year that has seemed, at times, as if it would never end, we’ve managed to drag our way to November, and our reward for making it this far is the annual celebration of Teutonic writing that is German Literature Month.  Created back in 2011 by Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat), the event is this year marking a major milestone with its tenth running, so congratulations are due all round!

As always, I’ll be devoting the entire month to the cause, and this year I’ve chosen to try some books by female writers, so watch out for several reviews over the coming weeks.  To begin with, I’ll be introducing you all to a short work by a familiar name.  However, today’s brief review is just a taster – you see, there’s more to come a little later in the month…

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Ricarda Huch is a major German writer from the turn of the twentieth century, best known in English for her legal thriller The Deruga Case and the epistolary novel The Last Summer – perhaps less so for my translation of her story ‘The End of the World’…  However, it’s this story that is most closely connected with today’s choice, a novella called Fra Celeste, which was published back in 1899 along with ‘The End of the World’ and a couple of other pieces.  It’s a clever work of historical fiction that tells of religion, love and political dealings in the figure of one imposing man of God, and those walking in his shadow.

The novella consists of a lengthy first-person account told by a young scholar who one day happened to wander into a church to hear a sermon by a renowned preacher.  Expecting to be bored by the same old dreary platitudes on heaven and earth, instead his life is transformed by the energy and charisma of the monk at the pulpit.  Learning that this Fra (Brother) Celeste is in need of a private secretary to deal with troublesome correspondence, the young man seeks an audience, and after dashing off a few letters to the monk’s satisfaction, the job is his.

However, the new position is to prove far more demanding than he could have expected.  For one thing, Fra Celeste is involved in a dispute with his Abbot, who believes the monk is getting ideas beyond his station.  Then there’s the small matter of the good brother’s past, which catches up with him in the form of his old flame Aglaia, a beautiful (married) noblewoman who has come to regret her life choices.  When she, too, happens to hear Fra Celeste preach, the scene is set for an emotional reunion, one that not everyone is happy with.

In this entertaining tale of earthly and terrestrial love, it falls to the narrator to keep the wolves that circle his master at bay.  While the monk preaches, his secretary does his best to defend his master against the attacks of the abbot, the complaints levelled by Aglaia’s husband and, eventually, enquiries from the Pope himself.  And that’s when matters take a *really* serious turn for the worse…

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Fra Celeste is a fascinating little story, but there is (as is often the case) both bad and good news here.  The bad news is that, as far as I’m aware, there’s no English-language translation out there, at least not readily available.  The good news, as many of you will have already guessed, is that there soon will be as Huch’s novella is the work I’ve chosen for my latest translation!

As was the case with my earlier efforts, I’ll be serialising my version of the story here at the blog.  The whole story is of a comparable length with the two Eduard von Keyserling novellas (Sultry Days and Experiences of Love) I translated over the past couple of years, so I expect the format to be rather similar.  I’ll be dividing the text into around twelve to fourteen sections, with one published every day, followed by a brief translator’s afterword in which I’ll go into the story in a little more depth, as well as discussing some of the difficulties involved in the translation process.

That will be kicking off in a couple of weeks (I’m still in the revision stage at the moment), so if this sounds like a story for you, I’m afraid you’ll have to bear with me (UPDATE – 15/11/20: click here to go to Part One!).  Unless, that is, you’re able to read the German yourself; in which case you can simply go to the Projekt Gutenberg page and get in first.  If that’s not an option, then please come back in a couple of weeks for the first instalment…

…oh – and in the meantime, never fear.  I have a few reviews of other great German-language books coming up to help you pass the time 😉

11 thoughts on “‘Fra Celeste’ by Ricarda Huch (Introduction)

  1. Tony, I am delighted that you will be posting the translation of Fra Celeste. Looking forward! My reading German is coming along, so I might give the original a go.

    Completely off-topic, and I should have commented when you posted your excellent review of Les Miserables, but about fifteen years ago I read Les Mis in French. Hugo’s French is easier going for me than Flaubert’s or Proust’s. I do remember that the Battle of Waterloo section was a slog.

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    1. Nanosecond – Please do give it a go (or at least compare a few passages!). As for Hugo v Proust, well, I think Marcel was more consistent in his impenetrability, whereas Vic swings between easy reading and… not-so-easy reading!

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  2. So that’s why there are several posts on this title. Wonderful.
    I have yet to read her but you certainly piqued my curiosity. I don’t think you’d translate something if you didn’t think it should b3 more widely read.

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    1. Caroline – Well, I’m not saying it’s a lost classic, but it’s certainly worth a look, as is Huch’s work in general. It was after enjoying ‘Der letzte Sommer’ that I decided to read, and translate, some of her shorter works, including the story I worked on last year, ‘Weltuntergang’ 🙂

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