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.

29 thoughts on “On Eduard von Keyserling’s – Schwüle Tage (Sultry Days) – (1916)

  1. Beautiful review, Caroline! I liked very much your comparison of von Keyserling to Schnitzler. I have read just one short story by Schnitzler, but based on just that, I know that I will like most of his works that I get to read. So, I want to read von Keyserling’s book now. I liked the fact that though people in the estate lead a regular, predictable life during the day, everyone leads a secret, exciting life at night. The ending of the novel – when the young man discovers that the girl he loves belongs to someone else and that someone else is his father – made me remember Ivan Turgenev’s ‘First Love’. Have you read that book? It has a similar love story and a similar ending. It is sad that von Keyserling hasn’t been translated into English. I hope he gets translated soon. I would love to read this book.

    • Thanks, Vishy.
      It’s too bad you can’t read this. I know, unlike rain, you’d really like it.
      I started to listen to First Love that’s how I discovered that audio books are not for me. 🙂 I should pick up the book some day and read it.

  2. He sounds like another great author that I’d never heard of before. From your description the book reminds me of Zola and Chekhov, two of my favourite authors. I agree it’s a shame there are no English translations.

  3. I didn’t know Fontane but I knew von Keyserling. This one is available in paperback, it goes on the TBR. Thanks.
    It’s always interesting to see which book makes it into English but doesn’t find a French publisher or vice versa.

    • I’m pretty sure you’ll like him. I don’t understand why they didn’t translate him. Nobody discovered him so far. Or is it the format? He doesn’t write long novels. His novels are mostly novella-length. Could be a reason.

  4. Thanks for rediscovering von Keyserling, I don’t remember hearing about him before. I see that Manesse Verlag have him in their catalog, which is usually a sign of quality too. This one goes on my TBR list. It is very odd that he hasn’t been translated into English, or was he earlier and is now out of print?
    A reader on Amazon also said they preferred him over Fontane, so you aren’t alone in that.

    Btw, it appears many of von Keyserling’s works, including this one, are available free on Kindle or at the source Projekt Gutenberg DE hosted by Spiegel Online, here: http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/buch/2110/1

    • Thanks for the link, Marcus. He’s an author I like to have in book form and luckily most of his work is still in print in Germany.
      I read a very interesting article in which the critic stated that the comparison to Fontane was not good as he’s one of those authors people associate with sruffy as they had to read him in school. So did I. I like him now but Keyserling is much more modern.
      I actually thought he’s never been in print in English but I could be wrong.
      The Manesse edition is very beautiful.
      Tell me waht you think if you should read him.

    • I think we should keep on writing about them and maybe we will get the attention of a publisher.
      Zweig is a success in the US/UK, so are others that have been rediscovered and Keyserling, in my opinion, is by far the most appealing.

  5. It’s at times like this that I am disappointed I cannot read another language–pity this has not been translated–it sounds very good. (Have you ever thought of doing translations?…..). Maybe it would be a book for Peirene Press–even though it is an older book. I was looking over my list of books read this year and thinking how my earlier reads have been much more satisfying than the later books–the Soderberg is one of them. I guess I will have to content myself with getting around to reading Schnitzler–which of his works would you recommend starting with (though will at this point just have to put it on my wishlist/tbr pile).

    • Keyserling’s works are now in the public domain, according to the “authors death plus 70 years” copyright rule. Certainly in Europe and North America.

      Imagine this: A community of literary fans found an online book club. Then get together with a translator, and print the book “on demand” via Amazon’s Createspace. Initial costs could be crowdfunded. Profits would go part to the translator as royalties and part to funding the translation of other works.

      What do you think? Might be a way to get small numbers of classics translated and printed for fans. Know any translators?

    • I have been thinking of literaray trasnlations recently and maybe teaming up with an English speaking native who’d go over what I did as L2 translations are not the preferred option. I’m not so keen to translated into German for some reason.
      Have you read Schnitzler’s Dream Novella? That’s a perfect starting point and so is Leutnant Gustl. I’m sure you’d like him.

  6. I loved the Schnitzler that I read last year, and this sounds like something I would enjoy very much. How frustrating that it hasn’t been translated! My German’s nowhere near good enough now to read it and that’s a shame. I do hope some passing publisher takes note of your review and does something about it (where’s the Hesperus Press??).

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