On Eduard von Keyserling’s – Schwüle Tage (Sultry Days) – (1916)

Schwüle Tage

Today we had the first snow. I woke to a fine layer of white in the morning. I don’t think it will stay, it’s already raining. Nonetheless it is strange to write about a book set during a sultry, sweltering summer.

Occasionally critics wonder why Eduard von Keyserling is not as widely read in Germany as Theodor Fontane. I often wonder why he isn’t translated into English. After having read the novella Schwüle Tage (Sultry Days) I think I can say with great certainty that being compared to Fontane may be the reason for both. Not because he isn’t as good and the comparison would be unfavorable, no, just because it’s wrong or, at least, not entirely correct. There is another important author whose work is far closer to Keyserling and that is Arthur Schnitzler. The subconscious plays a far greater role in Keyserling than in Fontane. Suppressed emotions and sensuality are more important than class and the rules of society. This particluar novella put me also in mind of an author I have discovered earlier this year: Hjalmar Söderberg.

None of his works illustrates this better than Schwüle Tage a short novella set during one hot summer. It is told from the point of view of an 18 year-old student who, failing his exams, can’t join his mother and siblings and spend his summer holiday  on the sea-side but has to stay with his patriarchical and domineering father on his estate. The young man is bored to death and quite afraid of his stern and pedantic father. Battling boredom and budding sexuality, he spends his days studying or yearning for fulfilment.

While the estate is busy during the day and servants and maids go about their tasks, mysterious things happen at night. Everyone seessm to lead a secret life during the night. One of the maids sings languorous songs in the park, his father goes for long walks, servants sneak around. Some of the servants tell the young man, that the night is the time during which everyone tries to satisfy their needs. The boy wants to participate and manages to seduce one of the maids.

Secretly the young man is in love with one of his cousins. The two girls are the only young people from the same social background he will see during this summer. He’s sad to know that the older and more seductive will get married and appalled when he finds out that she has a lover. Not only is he disappointed that she belongs to someone else but horrified to find out it is his father.

The end of the novella is unexpectedly tragic and will stay in my mind for a long time.

I loved how this tragic story was rendered, in impressionistic touches, and focussing on the hidden desires and yearnings of these people. They were all trapped in this rigid society and many a stern face was hiding great pain.

When I read this story I was reminded of many of Schnitzler’s tales and found it odd that a German writer, notably one from the Baltic sea, wrote like an Austrian. Only after finishing Schwüle Tage did I discover that von Keyserling studied and lived in Vienna for a long time and later moved to Münich where he stayed until his death. I felt that the influence was palpable. As much as I like Fontane, I love von Keyserling more because he adds a more interior, intimate layer to his writing.

I really hope that editors discover this amazing author and start to translate his work.