Category Archives: Weiss Ernst

German Stories and Tales: Robert Pick Ed. (part II)

Following on from the first post about German Stories and Tales ed. by Robert Pick, I’m going to cover a few more of my favourite selections from this stellar collection. The three stories described here (I’m not counting Krambambuli by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach) explore various scenarios regarding tragic love.

An Episode in the Life of the Marshall de Bassompierre by Hugo von Hofmannsthal is a story told in retrospect by a man who’s attracted to a beautiful French shopkeeper. She has formed the habit of standing outside of her shop and greeting the narrator as he passes by on his horse. The woman’s interest is so noticeable, that the Marshall de Bassompierre sends a servant to secure an assignation with this beauty.

The assignation is a bit tawdry with the meeting taking place at a procuress’s grubby establishment. Since there’s plague in the city, the Marshall takes along (by his servant’s advice) his own mattress and sheets. Bassompierre’s new mistress, it turns out is married, and the assignation, while enjoyed by Bassompierre, clearly means a great deal more to the woman who has given herself freely but may suffer consequences. The couple make another assignation. …

There’s a gothic feel along with an accompanying sense of dread to An Episode in the Life of the Marshall de Bassompierre. What means so much to the young woman is clearly less meaningful to Bassompierre, yet the incident haunts him for years to come. (Translated by Mary Hottinger)

Lukardis by Jakob Wasserman has a similar theme of a woman who sacrifices a great deal for a man. This story is set in Russia and concerns a young dragoon named Evgen who, when he hears that his sister has been deported to Siberia for subversive activity, revolts when he’s ordered to suppress a protest in the streets. In the skirmish that follows, Evgen joins the protestors and is shot by his fellow dragoons. Subsequently, Evgen is smuggled into a network of sympathetic people, but with the police on the hunt for Evgen, hiding this badly wounded man is a liability that most households won’t risk. Enter Anastasia Karlovna, an influential woman who agrees to hide Evgen, but finds that she soon runs out of options until she comes up with a brilliant plan. But she needs a respectable young woman who is willing to make a sacrifice.  … (Translated by Lewis Galantière)

For animal lovers, I’d recommend passing on Krambambuli by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach. It’s a short story that shows that we humans mostly don’t deserve, or understand, the animals in our lives, and it has scenes of  animal cruelty.

Cardiac Suture from Ernst Weiss is an unusual story for its depiction of an operation. The story begins in an auditorium where students attend lectures, but the auditorium converts into an operating room when, mid-lecture, a young woman who stabbed herself through the heart, is rushed into the room. The lecture turns into demo, and as fate would have it, one of the students is the love interest of the dying girl.  It’s a strange story which leaves the reasons for the suicide attempt vague, but instead focuses on the doctor who lectures and then operates on the girl in front of his students. While the doctor (he’s known as the General) who operates dehumanises his patient, he’s nonetheless efficient–all business while the girl’s lover, who assists, is patently disturbed.

Upon reflection, the story is terrifying as the silent, anguished emotional drama between the student and the girl is subsumed by the efficient process of the operation. We know that the operation, in full view of a class full of students, will conclude, but what will happen afterwards? (Translated by E.B. Ashton)

Operating time: seven minutes and a half. A hundred years ago Napoleon’s personal physician could amputate a leg in that time, including everything, blood-stilling, et cetera. But those were other masters than we are. Well, pick the patient up carefully and lift her into the bed-or rather, let me do it. That’s it-that’s the way. Hot-water bottles ready? Cover her. Cover her! Everything all right. Everything else we’ll leave to luck. Good morning, gentleman, good morning. 

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Jarmila by Ernst Weiss

“It’s a bitter-sweet thing being the slave of a woman.”

Jarmila by German author Ernst Weiss was recommended to me by Pechorin’s Journal . Doubtful I would have found the book without Max’s recommendation. Anyway, the book is from Pushkin Press and that means it’s a gorgeous little edition  that’s a pleasure to own and to hold. I don’t know how Pushkin Press is faring in these difficult economic times, but they certainly publish some interesting titles and produce unique, quality books.

So now to the novella: My edition runs to 96 pages, 85 of which are the story itself, and if you are familiar with Pushkin Press editions you will know that these are not full size pages. So let’s call this a novella.

Jarmila is a rather strange story. It’s one of those tales within a tale, and after finishing the novella, at first I spent more time thinking about the narrative structure than thinking about the story itself. Perhaps this is because I recently finished Les Diaboliques, 6 short stories by Barbery d’Aurevilly, and five of the six stories had the same narrative style.

Anyway, back to Jarmila: a love story from Bohemia and more about its narrative style later.

Jarmila is set in the 1930s and the story begins with the narrator embarking on a journey from Paris to Prague in order to  “purchase thirty tons of average grade Bohemian apples” in the hope that this transaction will clear some pressing debts. Discovering that he’s left his watch behind, the narrator purchases a replacement–a seemingly trivial yet significant event as it turns out. The watch proves to be less than accurate–a fact that frustrates the narrator. Is it pure chance or fate that he meets a toymaker who offers to mend the watch?

The two men sit in an inn while the toymaker mends the watch for the narrator, and as they sit and drink, the toymaker tells a strange tale of adultery & murder involving Jarmila, the rapacious, luscious wife of a much older, well-to-do feather merchant. 

Jarmila‘s clever structure–the tale within the tale–allows the author, Ernst Weiss to create a complex tale in a comparatively small space. The toymaker’s torrid, tragic tale is effectively telescoped, and yet its very brevity makes its style and the vivid use of motifs that much more powerful.  The excellent afterword written by Peter Engel states that Jarmila’s central motif is the watch, and since the story begins and ends with the watch, there’s no argument on that score. I was fascinated by the motif of feathers; illicit sex in the feathers (incredible imagery here), the toymaker plucking all the feathers from his wooden birds, and then Jarmila, with a fat goose between her thighs as she plucks it clean. This last image somehow reminds me of the fate of the doomed toymaker. Just like a goose, he’s squeezed between Jarmila’s thighs and consequently plucked of every single thing in life he values. Here’s a quote:

Bohemia, surely, boasts the most beautiful geese of any country. Here they are not fed, as in France, on fish waste. In the summer they are set free on the grassy meadows, later on the fields of stubble, and come autumn they’re fattened indoors in a manner both refined and cruel. Alongside the beautiful, powerful, now-white creatures,  I noticed others apparently ailing, stripped of all but their large wing feathers. Their breasts, their underbellies, were naked, unkempt, reddish-grey, and they didn’t march with the same cockiness and confidence as their healthy comrades; they waddled slowly, timid and fearful, and steered clear of humans, flapping their wings and starting up a furious cackling whenever they glimpsed one. I asked a fellow passenger what lay behind their strange behaviour. He didn’t understand me at first, but then he smiled and replied:  “You try being flayed alive, having every single hair pulled out one by one, being throttled and squeezed all the while between a pair of knees! I’d like to see you then! And the same procedure ever year!”   I then learned  in detail how in most parts of Bohemia geese are plucked alive each year thereby producing the heavenly, light, downy feather which made sleeping amongst the plump, snowy-white pillows of my Prague hotel such a pleasurable experience. Yet the goose not only provides feathers, but also skin, fat, meat, stomach, heart, liver and blood! Virtually every part of it is eaten.

If you think about it, even the toymaker’s semen is put to use.

Jarmila is an amazingly visual story, and again that’s due to credit of skill of the author who manages to create an incredible tale, very visual, full of motifs in about 85 pint-sized pages. I’m a fan of noir, and so as odd as it sounds, this tale with its emphasis on the inescapability of fate hit some disquieting chords for me. The story got under my skin, and now I can’t get it out of my head.

The afterword includes details about the author, Ernst Weiss, and friend of Stefan Zweig. Weiss, who was jewish, left Berlin after the burning of the Reichstag, and committed suicide in Paris in 1940 as the Wehrmacht entered Paris. The death of Weiss reinforces the idea that it seems impossible to definitively quantify the destruction wreaked by Hitler.

Translated by Rebecca Morrison and Petra Howard-Wuerz.

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