Der Schimmelreiter* is one of the great classics of German literature, which, of course, means that in Britain it is underappreciated. It’s a tale of rather awesome power and authorial intelligence, gripping from start to finish, and liable to haunt one’s dreams; it was the final work of one of the most celebrated German writers of the 19th century. There is no Penguin or Oxford World’s Classics volume devoted to Theodor Storm, which gives you some idea of his literary fame in Anglophone countries. Translator Denis Jackson has been tireless in making Storm’s work available to English-language readers; those interested are advised to take a look at his informative website.
In my reading about Storm, comparisons with Thomas Hardy have often cropped up, and with good reason, for both were ‘regional’ writers who repeatedly set their stories in fictionalized versions of locales with which they had been familiar since childhood. Both wrote poetry as well as prose; both wrote with an acute sensitivity to the natural world. There are, however, ways in which Der Schimmelreiter is very different from the Hardy I know. First, there is the intricacy and sophistication of the narrative structure (see below). There is also the concentration of the storytelling and the sharpness of the prose; absent here are the intrusive allusions, windy authorial commentary and passages of sheer bad writing that can mar Hardy’s work. Hardy’s characters perhaps have more depth, but depth of characterization is not a necessity in a brief tale such as this. What impressed me most upon finishing it is how fully achieved the Novelle is; Storm’s mastery of his craft never falters.
The narrative is like a set of Russian dolls, with three narrators each delving further back into the past. The first is an unnamed old man looking back to a day when he, as a young man (or perhaps older boy) read a story in a magazine during a visit to his great-grandmother. The old woman shares a surname―Feddersen―with Storm’s own great-grandmother, so one is tempted to connect this first narrator with Storm himself. But there’s a snag: the narrator came upon the story ‘a good fifty years ago’, whereas the real Elsabe Feddersen died in 1829, almost sixty years before the composition of the Novelle (1886-1888). The difference between a good fifty and sixty is of course small, but significant enough to warn against a simple identification between narrator and author. Furthermore, the magazine writer (who is also the second narrator) opens his story by stating that his audience with the third narrator, an elderly schoolmaster, took place in ‘the third decade of the present century’ (i.e. the 1820s); this implies that he is writing about the meeting later than that, which would mean publication in the 1830s at the earliest, and so after Elsabe Feddersen’s death (the actual magazine story that inspired Storm appeared in 1838). The distance Storm places between himself and his fictional stand-in is merely the subtlest of the distancing effects that complicate the relationship of narrator to narrative. The first narrator looks back some fifty years to a magazine story he once read; the magazine writer looks back to the previous decade to his meeting with the schoolmaster; the schoolmaster looks back to the mid-eighteenth century, to events he has reconstructed over forty years from the recollections and retellings of other people. Each narrative layer comes with its own ambiguities and uncertainties. The schoolmaster, who is described as a rationalist, tells an eerie tragic tale with strong hints of the supernatural; before beginning his narrative, he offers to leave out the superstitious elements, but is persuaded to include them by the magazine writer, who prefers to ‘sift the wheat from the chaff’ himself (which nicely enables us to try to do the same). Sifting the wheat from the chaff is exactly what the schoolmaster has been attempting to do in all his years of seeking the truth about the story’s central character, Hauke Haien (the titular dykemaster and horse rider). The process of stripping away the accumulated embellishments and exaggerations to arrive at unadorned historical fact is hampered by the schoolmaster’s reliance on the first-, second- and third-hand accounts of others, many of whom would not have shared his rationalist outlook. The schoolmaster is not the only person equipped to tell the story; the magazine writer might have heard a rather different version, one that revelled in its supernatural elements, from the mouth of an aged housekeeper, whom the schoolmaster dismisses as a ‘stupid old crone’―but, as another character observes, perhaps old crones are the best for preserving stories. Indeed, the main narrative does include an old crone who tells a spooky story of uncertain provenance she nevertheless insists really happened, and who is rebuked for this very act by the rationally disposed Hauke Haien.
The magazine writer is himself apparently ready to believe in the existence of the supernatural, for he describes an encounter with a ghostly rider on a grey horse, but perhaps his reliability as narrator is suspect. He is, after all, writing for a popular readership; might he not be guilty of deliberately sensationalizing his account? If so, is his relation of the schoolmaster’s story to be trusted? Could the supernatural elements be the result of his own interventions rather than the distortions of the schoolmaster’s sources? Can we trust even his account of the schoolmaster, who might after all be no more than a device to lend a tall tale an air of authority? The trustworthiness of the first narrator is similarly called into question, for if we take him as a stand-in for Storm, then we must remember that an author’s job is to spin a fine yarn. What is so cunning about Storm’s first narrative frame is that it simultaneously avers and undermines its own authenticity and reliability. Storm’s real great-grandmother is invoked, as are the names of two genuine literary magazines of the early nineteenth century. The narrator cannot remember which one contained the story he remembers, and cannot vouchsafe the accuracy of his memory, but that only makes him more credible, because, of course, the passage of time is liable to have these effects. In an ingenious touch, the first narrator remembers reading the story while sitting beneath his great-grandmother as she stroked his hair; much later, in the main narrative, Hauke Haien’s young daughter sits beneath Trin’ Jans, the same old woman the girl’s father upbraids for telling fairy tales, and Trin’ strokes the girl’s hair. Each narrative level contains an old woman linked with storytelling: Frau Feddersen, who doesn’t tell a story, but is present when the first narrator reads one; the old housekeeper Antje Vollmers, rubbished by the schoolmaster; and Trin’ Jans, who, like Antje Vollmers, is a superstitious teller of tales, and who, like Frau Feddersen, strokes the hair of a younger person sitting beneath her. To return to the Russian doll comparison, it’s like a small detail repeated on the surface of each doll, slightly different each time.
Storm isn’t indulging in tricksiness for its own sake; these convolutions are essential to his purposes. The plot concerns the attempts of the hero to construct a new dyke according to scientific principles, a construction that will protect his community on the Schleswig-Holstein coast from the ravages of the North Sea. His stance as a man of reason sets him at odds with the very community he is seeking to protect: the modern, dynamic hero versus widespread complacency and recalcitrant superstition. Rumour turns Hauke’s initially malnourished horse into a devilish creature, an example of the ease with which distortions of the truth are disseminated, often abetted by those with vested interests (such as Hauke’s chief antagonist). As Jackson writes in his afterword, a long-standing concern of Storm’s was the ‘question of the transmission of historical knowledge, of the creation of myths and their socio-political function’; the narrative complexity is part of his exploration of this question.
I don’t want to give the impression that Der Schimmelreiter is a dry, academic exercise; on the contrary, it is thrilling. Storm is tremendously effective at conveying the raw power of the sea and the bleakness of the landscape:
Clouds sped across the sky like a wild chase; below lay the immense marsh like an unrecognisable wilderness filled with restless shadows; from the water behind the dyke, more and more terribly, came a dull roar as if it were intent on devouring all before it.
And from the second narrator:
but now I saw nothing but the yellow-grey waves beating continuously against the dyke as though bellowing with rage, from time to time spraying dirty spume over my horse and me, and further out, a bleak half-light in which it was impossible to tell earth from sky, for even the half-moon, now at its height, was more often than not hidden behind swirling dark clouds.
Storm’s feeling for nature is one of the book’s strongest assets; it is striking how many different creatures make an appearance. As well as pets and farm animals such as dogs, cats, horses, cows, sheep, ducks and hens, there are also rats, otters, mice and weasels. Most striking of all are the wild birds: seagulls, crows, herons, storks, sandpipers, kingfishers, lapwings, larks, avocets, geese, variously shrieking, screeching, cawing, cackling, honking and singing. The young Hauke kills a kingfisher―an ominous deed, as they were believed to be lucky birds and calmers of storms. The killing of the kingfisher then leads to the killing of Trin’ Jans’ cat, which takes place at her cottage atop a dyke, on the border between land and sea. Storm’s respect for the rationalism of Hauke Haien and the schoolmaster does not preclude symbolical devices or a sense of the otherworldly. The clash of sea against dyke is itself heavily symbolic, and sometimes flirts with obviousness―one effect of the complicated narrative structure is to defuse some of this potential obviousness. By the end, I was left full of admiration for Storm’s skill and artfulness; I shall be seeking out more of Jackson’s translations.
*Der Schimmelreiter means, literally, The White Horse Rider (although schimmel can also mean grey, and this is how Jackson translates it in the text), and this was the title used by Michael Fleming in his collection Eight German Novellas, published by Oxford World’s Classics. The American poet James Wright entitled his 1964 translation, more recently reissued by New York Review Books, The Rider on the White Horse. Denis Jackson, rejecting the literal rendering as clumsy, opted for the snappier The Dykemaster.