“She felt like a traveler stranded in some God-forsaken little wayside station, who sits in the dismal waiting-room and finds himself steeped for a while in the melancholy of a life that does not belong to him.”
In Count Edouard von Keyserling’s novel Tides (Wellen), a handful of German aristocrats visit a resort on the Baltic Sea, and a simple holiday becomes the battle ground for the preservation of societal standards. It’s the early 1900s and disaster lies ahead, but there’s also the sense that this elite society is fading into oblivion.
The widow of General von Palikow “Generalin” is at the resort with her companion, Fraülein Malwine Bork. They are to be joined by the Generalin’s daughter, the Baroness von Buttlär and her three children: Lolo, Nini and Wedig. Also to join the party are the males in the family: the mustache-twirling Baron and Lolo’s dapper fiancé, Hilmar von dem Hamm, a Lieutenant in the Brunswick Hussars. It’s clear that the domineering Generalin is at the top of the totem pole when it comes to rank, and several sentimental, “tender” observations made by Fraülein Malwine Bork are patronizingly suppressed.
The family’s holiday will be the last before Lolo’s marriage to Hilmar von dem Hamm. It’s a love match; well Lolo is madly in love with her fiancé, and since it’s a very suitable match between social equals, everyone is happy.
Other visitors to the area are the retired government official, witty, entertaining bachelor Privy Councillor Knospelius (we are told he has a “deformity”) and Doralice Köhne-Jasky, a beautiful young married Countess who fell in love with Hans Grill, a lowly artist hired to paint her portrait. She scandalized society by running away from her elderly husband who then subsequently suffered a stroke.
Doralice’s presence shocks, threatens and excites various members of the Generalin’s party. The Baroness, who seems to take the news particularly hard, practically faints away when she hears that Doralice is nearby, but then given her husband’s philandering ways, she has every reason to be worried. The middle-aged Baroness “worn out by motherhood and housewifely duties” is a bit on the neurotic side and lacks her mother’s serene detachment. Even Lolo notes that her mother’s temperament seems “strangely out of harmony with the sea.”
“Of course, I knew it would come out. You were already jealous of Madame Grill. But, my dear Bella, your husband is after all not a man of that sort. Oh well, yes, there was that little affair with the housekeeper–it’s time you forgot that. Now and then in the springtime the Cuirassier officer in him wakes up, it’s like a sort of hay-fever; but it’s you women with your jealousies that drive the men to wrong ideas. No, my dear Bella, why are we what we are, why have we our social position and our ancient name, if we are to be afraid of every runaway little wife? You are the Baroness von Buttlär and I am the widow of General von Palikow. Well, doesn’t that mean that we are two fortresses to which people who don’t belong to us have no entrée? And now let us go to bed and sleep quietly as though there were no Madame Grill. We simply issue a decree–and Madame Grill ceases to exist.”
Fraülein Malwine Bork as a bridge between the Generalin’s high society and the lower echelons, has notions, that occasionally are quietly voiced and quickly squashed, as she questions the rigid nature of society:
But Countess Doralice herself was once just such a poor little fortress.
The younger generation are swept up in the romantic tale of Doralice’s flight and long to meet her. Pretending that Doralice doesn’t exist is great in theory but poor in practice–especially since the Generalin’s three grandchildren are determined to fabricate excuses to run into her, and then events take place that bring all the characters together.
Tides is an examination of elite Prussian society. Doralice, married off to an elderly husband, threatens the foundations of that secure society when she rebels and runs off. She must be ostracized as she is seen as a dangerous, contaminating influence. Doralice is a tragic figure; she escaped the suffocation of her controlling husband, thirty years her senior, only to find that she’s married to Hans and living in a dingy little cottage. A beautiful bird in the Count’s gilded cage, she seems to have exchanged one cage for another. Hans is just as displeased with Doralice as the Count was. The Baron and the lieutenant make no attempts to hide their desire for Doralice, who is, after all, seen as a woman who’s ready to abandon all for love, and Hans, jealous and insecure, becomes obsessed with painting the sea. He begins leaving Doraclice on her own. She finds she’s just as bored and lonely now, with her supposed ‘freedom’ as she was when married to the stuffy Count–a man who trained her daily. No wonder she ran off.
But it was his method of training to act as if she were what he wanted her to be. He was constantly praising her for the ideas that he wished to instill into her: he was, as it were, imposing upon her his ideal Doralice by acting as if she were already there. If, for example, she was too obviously amused in the company of a young man at a party, then he would say: “We are perhaps somewhat exacting, perhaps too sensitive, we cannot always get the society of our own choosing; but you are quite right about that young man, his manners are objectionable and we will do our best to keep him at a distance.” Or at the theatre she may have laughed gaily outright at a piece which displeased the count and on the way home he would say: “We are perhaps too censorious in these matters, but we found the play disagreeable, not to say shocking; however, it doesn’t matter, you are quite right, it was a mistake on my part to bring you to see it. I ought to have known ma petite Comtesse better: forgive me for this once.” And it was the same on every occasion: this ideal Doralice. that was imposed upon her, intimidated her, tyrannized over her, constrained her like a dress that was not made for her.
The male wandering eye is ever present in the tale–even 15-year-old Wedig is eyeing the servant girls, and as the tale continues the formidable Generalin becomes a more sympathetic figure. Finally the magnificent ocean, beautifully described here is the force of nature so destructive, so uncontrollable, that its hunger and strength levels all else.
Also translated as Waves. Edouard is also spelt elsewhere as Eduard.
Translated by Arthur J. Ashton. The picture above is Waves, the Dedalus edition. Translated by Gary Miller.