Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Die Judenbuche (The Jew's Beech) by von Droste-Hulshoff

I've just read The Jew's Beech (Die Judenbuche), an 1842 novella by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. This story is her only completed prose work. She is known mainly for her poetry. Before Germany adopted the Euro, her image adorned the 20-Deutsche-Mark note, and an asteroid is named after her.

This month, Oneworld Classics is re-issuing the Calder & Boyars 1958 translation by Lionel and Doris Thomas (pictured above in orange), which also appeared in a volume of Continuum's German Library series. I read Michael Fleming's more recent translation. (The on-line translation, by Sir Edwin Nathaniel Bennett, was published by Oxford University Press in 1934 in a collection called German Short Stories [vol. 415 in the World's Classics series].) The above image on the right is of the cover of the new Oneworld edition.

The narrative is loosely based on a true story and is set in the village of B. (believed to be Bellersen, now part of Brakel) in Westphalia shortly before the French Revolution. Droste-Hulshoff characterizes the locals as a rowdy bunch who show little regard for the law -- they frequently poach game and pilfer timber from the surrounding woods.

The central character is Friedrich Mergel. We're told about his rough, lonely upbringing. His father, a wife-abusing alcoholic, dies while Friedrich is a child. The boy is then raised by his mother, Margreth, a bitter woman who shows him little, if any, tenderness. Margreth's malign character is revealed in a brief exchange with her son about Hulsmeyer, a neighbour. When Friedrich says that Hulsmeyer robbed and assaulted a Jewish acquaintance and also steals wood from the forest, Margreth insists that the neighbour is a good and respectable man. She doesn't deny that Hulsmeyer acted in the ways described by Friedrich. Instead, she tells her son that it's okay to take wood from the forest and proceeds to vilify Jewish people as swindlers and 'rogues'. Ironically, these traits are best exemplified by Margreth's younger brother, Simon.

The other villagers' superstitious nature leads them to believe that Friedrich's deceased father is an evil spirit haunting the woods. As a result, they generally don't interact with poor Friedrich.

The worst influence on the boy is his uncle, Simon, for whom Friedrich works in his adolescence. Simon, it seems, is part of a particularly destructive band of timber thieves. It also seems that he has co-opted his nephew into his criminal operation by putting him to work as a lookout. It's in this capacity that Friedrich sends an unwitting forest ranger to his death -- he deliberately gives the ranger inaccurate directions so that Simon can ambush the ranger. At least, that's what appears to happen. The ranger's murder, like the other three deaths in the tale, isn't portrayed in the story. In fact, throughout the story the narrator can convey only an unclear, incomplete presentation of the central facts. So it is possible that Friedrich himself killed the ranger. However, it is suggested in a later conversation between Friedrich and his uncle that Simon committed the murder and the boy merely set the ranger up (probably without realizing that the ranger would be killed rather than -- say -- beaten).

In the face of such corrupting influences, Friedrich reaches adulthood as a vain, nefarious ne'er do well. His debased character is most in evidence when Friedrich (apparently) commits manslaughter. He borrows money from Aaron, the same man who was robbed by Hulsmeyer, but doesn't repay the loan. Aaron locates Friedrich at a rowdy wedding reception and demands payment. Humiliated, Friedrich flees. As he is leaving, pursued by Aaron, others at the reception yell anti-Semitic insults, encouraging Friedrich to hit Aaron. Later, Aaron's lifeless body is found in the woods. Evidently he was beaten to death by Friedrich.

It is noteworthy that in both his crimes, Friedrich extends his mother's values. His complicity in Simon's timber-stealing is not surprising in view of Margreth's earlier defence of Hulsmeyer's activities; also, Margreth expressed virulent bigotry toward Jewish people and even condoned Hulsmeyer's assault, a judgment that found its echo in the taunts yelled by the people at the wedding reception. So, Friedrich may be seen as a conduit for the vicious values of his community. His adult personality has concentrated all that hatred, violence and rapacious greed into an especially toxic mix.

The community's greed is signified by the gradual disappearance of the trees. One tree stands out: the beech tree mentioned in the title. All four deaths in the story occur in its vicinity. After Aaron's death, the Jewish community buys the beech tree as a sort of memorial, engraving in its wood a line that expresses their desire for the killer to be brought to justice. By the end of the story, this happens (apparently). Friedrich, who had fled the authorities after killing Aaron, returns as an old man and, out of remorse and perhaps a desire for atonement, hangs himself in the beech tree. When he does this, the beech tree stands alone, the other trees having perished before the woodsman's axe. The villagers were poor stewards of their patch of creation. In their greed, they have laid waste to their environment.

Among the more interesting features of Droste-Hulshoff's story is the mysterious Johannes Niemand. His name translates into English as John Nobody. He appears to be Simon's son, born out of wedlock. He so resembles Friedrich that Margreth at first mistakes him for her son. But even as she does so, Johannes appears to her as a pared down, more timid version of Friedrich. Her misapprehension falls away when the real Friedrich enters the room. This is the first appearance of Friedrich as a bolder, more adult individual than before. Johannes is generally regarded by critics as Friedrich's double and, perhaps, is a distillation of Friedrich's old, more childish attributes. For more about this uncanny scene, I recommend Wuthering Expectations' post.

Another interesting feature of the tale is that the two people who were killed (Aaron and the forester) perished at the moment when they were trying to enforce obligations on members of Friedrich's bilious little village. Both victims were killed by members of that community but both killings were eventually blamed on distant outsiders (unidentified timber thieves and a criminal from a distant town).

Update added June 8: This novella is remarkable for its use of a blinkered narrator. Narrators are either omniscient, affording a God’s-eye view of events, or have only limited knowledge. In the latter case, the narrator is typically a character in the narrative who provides a fallible, incomplete, blow-by-blow account of events as they transpire. The odd thing about Die Judenbuche is that the narrator is not omniscient but also is not a character in the story. Since the narrator sometimes recounts things that only one or two characters could know about, and since the narrative establishes that neither of those characters is the narrator, it isn’t even possible to regard the narrator as a flesh-and-blood inhabitant of the world about which s/he narrates.

The result is a disembodied but not omniscient perspective, a flawed-God’s-eye-view, of events. This is just one of the things that makes Die Judenbuche such a strange novella.

Update (March 22, 2010): Here's an analysis of this story by Katje.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Excellent summary of a genuine complicated story. For almost every key element of the story, one has to add "probably" or "seemingly".

I'd forgotten that she was on the DM way back when. Maybe I should have kept one, although a 20 was a bit expensive for a souvenir.

praymont said...

Thanks, AR. I can imagine the Europeans must have had many interesting discussions when deciding what images to put on the new Euro notes.

Will said...

Nice, I have multiple translations of this at my fingertips but haven't yet read it. I'll get on it! I love all these somewhat-forgotten 19th-century Germans.

praymont said...

Thanks, Will. I love your Journey Round My Skull blog.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating - and a book I have never encountered before. One to seek out I think.

Thanks for your comment on e-readers - its good to hear from someone who likes them. No doubt when the British Kindle comes out I'll be one of the first to get one

Will said...

I'm surprised but happy that One World is really going to re-publish multiple books from Calder's old German series.

They're bringing out new translations too (I didn't notice new translations from the German, but they're doing a new book of Hedayat stories, damn exciting), so if these old Germans do okay for them maybe they'll invest in more.

How long are we supposed to wait for a stand-alone book by Tieck, anyway?

praymont said...

Yes, Will, I wish there were some more new translations. The publishers that I know of that have been releasing English translations of 19th-Century German novellas, tales, etc. are: Continuum, Oneworld Classics, Overlook/Tusk, Pushkin, Art of the Novella, Archipelago and Mondial. Perhaps some of them should pool their resources in order to issue more new translations.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently rereading this in German - after around 40 years. I can't believe this was a set text in my final year of high school in Scotland. Lord knows how i wrote an exam on this complicated little story! :)