German Literature Month IX
The first story in Three Obscurities from the Borderlands is The Hornung Homesickness (Das Hornunger Heimweh by Werner Bergengruen. The title is intriguing but considering I paid 2.99 for the kindle version of these three stories, I wasn’t expecting much. I’d never heard of Bergengruen, and wanted to try a new author. The Hornung Homesickness is a contemplative, philosophical take on the issue, and price of, moral cowardice.
The story is narrated by Georg, the son of a “mid-level civil servant.” Ill health forced the father to retire early and with a small pension he settled at Hornung by the Lake. The narrator’s father died; his mother died and the lad’s uncle serving as guardian, permits him to conclude his education in Hornung before beginning a career at a bank.
Georg notes that: I felt within myself two equally strong drives at odds with each other, one toward separation from my peers and the other toward inclusion, and with time I began to see that it would be my task to find balance between these two.
I reject here the teachings of some that the experiences of a man, even in the smallest details, have been predetermined from all eternity, and that he has but to live them out. Yet I must admit at the same time, how insufficient his intentions often are at having any recognizable influence on his experiences. So it seems to me that between the determined and the chosen a relationship of opposing pressure and potentiality exists, in consideration of which I am of the opinion that it is not given to us to distinguish with any certainty between the two, the more, though, that we are convinced that both are given us from the one hand, the less then that we need to distinguish between the two. And so, in the long run, even this conflict may be seen as resolved.
I was hooked by this segment of the story, and reread that passage several time. Georg argues against fate, and then seems to back off from that statement. The full implication of Georg’s thoughts are realised by the time the story concludes, and what a terrific story this is.
So back to our narrator, who as an impoverished child meets and befriends Elisabeth Williger, a girl who is growing up in a secluded state behind the walls of a “fortress-like brick villa above the old part of the city,” under the care of her grandmother. At first, it appears that these two children, who form a fast friendship, are both orphans, but Elisabeth has a dark secret in her past which scars her future.
The tale would seem to take a predictable turn when the narrator falls in love with Elisabeth, but then another young man, the very clever, witty, confident Alphonse Kürtzell enters the scene and suddenly three’s a crowd. Elisabeth laughs at Alphonse’s jokes and merry ways, and that leaves Georg simmering with jealousy. One night the three young people go to a tavern, and after Elisabeth leaves, Alphonse and Georg cross the lake in a boat. Only one man arrives on the shore. ….
That’s as much of this fantastic story as I intend to reveal, but there are many twists and turns, with fate playing a large part. But is it fate or is it human nature? Can we tell the difference? At the core of the story festers moral cowardice. The main character slips into that mode more than one time and it always produces disastrous results. But Georg is not the sole moral coward here. Alphonse is guilty too, and poor Elisabeth pays a heavy price.
I cannot emphasize how much I loved this story which I stumbled across by accident (fate?). Unhappily it seems that not much else exists in English from this author. More’s the pity. I like how he thinks.
It may be that every longing which we feel in our heart, leaving it unsettled and restless, is indeed wrapped in a place that is but a succession of representations, and that every longing for home, is in truth but the promise of a higher homecoming.
Three Obscurities from the Borderlands includes: The Hornung Homesickness, Adalbert Stifter’s The High Forest, and Maria von Ebner-Eschenbach’s The Barons von Gemperlein. My edition came with a pertinent intro and a post-story note section. This is obviously a labour of love for the translator. And if you ever read this… please translate more. Since I bought this, I discovered that there’s also Four Obscurities from the Borderlands. which includes a story by Joseph Roth–The Bust of the Kaiser. (Both are available in print and kindle versions.)
Translated by Edwin K. Tucker, Dr Sheryl F. Nadler, Editor.