Theodor Storm – Bulemanns Haus -The House of Bulemann

I often return to Storm’s short stories and novellas in autumn and winter. Not many know how to create an atmosphere like he does. His stories are either set in one or the other Northern town with their narrow, winding little alleyways, flanked by high houses with pointy gabled roofs and small, dark gardens or near the marshes and the dykes along the coast. His stories are realistic and eerie at the same time. Stories of unhappy love can be found as well as fairy tales or ghost stories. Many of his characters have become odd, whimsical and embittered through misfortune and loneliness. Two days ago, rummaging in my book shelves, I found a collection of short stories entitled “Katzen – Texte aus der Weltliteratur“, classic stories with a cat theme. When I looked through the contents I discovered a story by Storm called Bulemanns Haus. Should you like to read it in German here is the link Bulemanns Haus. I couldn’t find an English translation but it’s a very typical Storm story and can give you an impression whether you’d like to read him.

Bulemanns Haus is a story that reminded me a lot of A Christmas Carol only it is more sinister. In a German town, somewhere in the North, stands an abandoned old and dilapidated house. People pretend that they often see a face behind the dirty windows and at night they hear a scurrying sound as if huge colonies of mice were running through the house. The house used to belong to Bulemann, a bachelor who inherited the house from his father, a pawnbroker. He inherited the house, including all the objects people had left. Bulemann had been on a ship for many years and was said to have sold his black wife and their children and chosen to come back, accompanied by two cats only.

The first thing he did upon his return was selling all the objects in the house and making a fortune. The money was hidden everywhere. He was rich and avaricious and treated people in a mean and nasty way. Even his cats were frequently abused. When his impoverished sister turned up with his sickly nephew to ask for charity, he turned them down promptly and didn’t even care, some time later, when it looked as if the child was going to die. His sister who asked for help once more, was turned down again.  Before she left the house, she cursed her brother and soon afer her departure something weird was going on with Bulemann’s cats. It looked as if those two animals were growing. They got bigger and bigger daily and were finally capable not only of fighting back their master but of keeping him in check and finally imprison him.

The years went by, the cats were hunting mice at night and Bulemann was shrinking until he wasn’t much more than a helpless gnome, condemned to spend all eternity in an empty house with two giant cats.

Storm wrote a poem with a similar title In Bulemanns Haus which you can read here in German.

I thought this story was quite eerie, reminiscent of some of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tales. My favourite Storm story so far was Immensee. But The Dykemaster aka The Rider on the White Horse is equally good. Vishy reviewed them recently here and here and Lizzy has written a review of a lesser known collection Carsten the Trustee.

When it comes to 19th century German writers I would say that from a language point of view Fontane and Storm are two of the most accomplished writers, only surpassed by The Brothers Grimm who have written the most beautiful German you can find. Should you never have read anything by The Brothers Grimm, Mel U found a great online resource for 19th Century German stories which he shares here.

Do you have a favourite story by Storm?

Bulemanns Haus und andere Geschichten   Theodor Storm 32825 Blomberg Bild 1

German Literature Month – Effi Briest Group Read Week III

The picture is taken from the latest film version Effi Briest (2009) starring Julia Jentsch and Sebastian Koch as Effi and Instetten. Here is more about the movie including trailers and pictures.

This is the final week of our Effi Briest Group Read. The questions have been provided by Lizzy. Please, if you haven’t read the book, don’t read the answers. They are not spoiler free.

Why do you think Effi kept Crampas’s letters?

I was wondering exactly this the whole time. Why did she keep those letters? On the other hand it is understandable. They were probably full of flatteries and compliments that she enjoyed re-reading. Knowing Instetten it was very unlikely he would search her things. It was a pure accident that he found them. I think it clearly shows that she thought he really wasn’t too interested in her or she wouldn’t have been so careless. If she’d been married to a man who seemed to have been in love with her and very jealous, I doubt, she would have kept them.

Did Innstetten have a choice?

Yes, I really think he did have a choice. The man he called, who would be his second, advised against it as well. Hee could just have pretended he never found those letters. In the end, I believe, he doubts his own choice. If he had found out while it happened, I think one could debate, whether or not, he had a choice, but six years later…

Are there any events in this final section that make you feel outraged?  Is that how Fontane wants you to feel?

I was not outraged, it made me very sad. My feeling for Effi was stronger than a feeling of outrage. I thought it was utterly pointless. Wasted lives, for nothing else but pride.

Is there a villain in this piece?

The mother is the worst character, closely followed by Instetten. I could imagine that her decision to be so hard on Effi was because she wondered how Effi could have cheated on a husband she would have loved to have. But precisely this history between her and Instetten might have been part of the source why Instetten never really opened up to Effi. I think that a lot of social injustice could have been stopped earlier if the members of a given society didn’t tacitly endure the rules – or even reinforce them – and I find it especially horrible when mothers think their daughters or sons should go through the same experiences they had to go through, no matter how bad they were. It’s as if the mother was thinking “If I was able to endure it, you should be able too.”     

The lot of the real-life Effi, Elizabeth von Plotho, was a much happier one. Why do you think Fontane made the outcome for Effi much harder?

To prove a point, I guess. He clearly condemns the ways of Prussian society, the regulations and rules. To make it crystal clear the ending had to be more drastic.

Were you surprised by the ending?

The first time I read it I was shocked. I don’t know how I thought it would end but not the way it did. Not after such a long time. I’m outraged to think what consequences adultery had for women in these days.

Where would you place Effi in the pantheon of C19th fictional adulteresses?

I found Mme Bovary very annoying and never really had any feeling for her. In the case of Anna Karenina I thought the book was so much more about Vronsky and Lewin than about her but to a certain degree she is more tragic as she loves Vronsky. Effi doesn’t love Crampas. The tragedy in Effi is very different. I think what makes it so harrowing is that it seems so pointless. More than 6 years have passed since the affair and if Instetten hadn’t found the letters accidentally, nothing would have happened.

Do you think you would ever reread Effi Briest?

Yes, I think so. In a few years, I can see myself re-read it.

German Literature Month – Effi Briest Group Read Week II

This is the second week of our Effi Briest Group Read. This week the questions have been sent out by me.

What strikes you most in this novel,  what do you like or dislike the most?

What strikes me personally most is that I don’t dislike anything. I find no superfluous words, no false tones in this novel. I think it’s an incredibly accomplished book that is as moving the second time as it was the first time I read it.

I really love everything about the book but I do have pretty strong reactions towards some of the characters. Instetten is for me, this time, a pompous insufferable git. I truly hate people who think they are superior. He patronizes Effi wherever he can. He is very rigid and follows rules and orders.

Do you think Fontane likes Effi? Whose side is he on?

I was wondering very often and think, he must like her a great deal or I wouldn’t feel for her. As a person she is quite opposite to myself or people I’m usually interested in, now as well as when I was 17. She isn’t introspective but fun-seeking. I think if Fontane didn’t like her, I wouldn’t feel the way I feel about her. She is a bit like a little animal that needs protection.

What do you make of the story of the Chinese and the haunted house. How would you interpret it? And what about Crampas’ interpretation?

I’m surprised how important this story is as this is something I had completely forgotten although I love a good ghost story. I think Effi is extremely isolated and all sorts of things play tricks on her mind. I also think it’s foreshadowing things to come but for fear of spoilers I’m not going to elaborate on this.

Crampas interpretation strikes me as spot on and it does enforce my negative feelings for Instetten. Wanting to educate or drilling Effi is so like him.

Descriptions are an important part in Effi Briest. How do you like them and how important do you think they are for the novel?

This question is tied to the next one. I had a feeling that the novel moves back and forth from outdoor to indoor scenes and in the outdoor scenes the descriptions are very important.

The region in which Kessin is located bears a lot of dangers for humans. There are the marshes that can swallow you, the snow can cut you off from the outside, the storms make ships sink. This seems very symbolic and full of foreboding.

The contrast between the loveliness of Effi’s family’s garden compared to the bleak landscape around Kessin emphasizes her loneliness. She would need a welcoming home but the house she lives in scares her as well.

The descriptions of the outside world also seem to point to things to come and the night in which Effi and Crampas sit together in the carriage and almost sink into the “Schloon” (that’s the German expression and I have no clue what the corresponding English word is, I guess marsh) seems full of foreboding.

It struck me while I was reading this novel how Fontane pairs descriptions of cozy and scary. Did you notice this as well and if so, what did you make of this?

For a tormented soul like Effi’s the idea that feet are running over her head and that she is all alone in the dark unwelcoming house in Kessin is very scary. I found the whole novel much more “gothic” this time around than when I first read it. The contrast to her family home, in which everything was cozy is very striking.

Another scene where I saw this pairing was when she walks in the wood with Crampas and it begins to snow. It might be a scary idea usually to be snowed in but Effi mentions a poem set druing the war, in which an old woman was snowed in and the snow-covered her up so the soldiers couldn’t find her. The idea warms Effi, she feels that being snowed in means being sheltered from the outside world.

What do you think of Crampas?

I didn’t think Crampas was such an unlikable character but he is a very irresponsible man. He should have thought of Effi and not start something with her. Of course he is trapped in a loveless marriage as well but he doesn’t seem to love Effi either. He is clearly a player. He likes to break rules and says so early on. I think it’s maybe as much about having an affair for him as about doing something forbidden. Still in the scenes in which we see them together he is far nicer to Effi than her husband and she seems a more mature person in his presence, not a little child that fears to be criticized at any moment.

Fontane chose to describe more than one Christmas in this novel, what do you think Christmas signifies?

Christmas is traditionally a family holiday. There is more than one Christmas in the novel and they are all slightly different. They do mark the passing of time but also show what it means for Effi to have left Hohen-Cremmen. Her first Christmas is a very lonely one. The second is slightly better but she misses her family. What struck me is that there was no attempt at spending Christmas together. I found that unrealistic. I can’t imagine a reason why they didn’t visit Effi’s parents. It felt like a punishment when I read it, as if she was an outcast.

What kind of mother is Effi?

I think she is quite a devoted mother. The child turns her into a grown up but, as it was usual then, someone else, in this case Roswitha, spends much more time with the child.

Where will the novel go from here? What do you think will happen next?

As I have read it before I’ll skip the question of course.

Please leave a link to your post in the comments section or in the Mr. Linky. (To see the participants, you have to click on Mr Linky).

German Literature Month – Effi Briest Group Read Week I

This is the first week of our Effi Briest Group Read. The questions have been provided by Lizzy (here is her post).

I’ve read Effi Briest before and liked it a lot. I was eager to find out what I would think of it this time. Out of the three tragic heroines – Mme Bovary – Anna Karenina and Effi Briest – she was always my favourite. I’m glad to discover a book that I like even more than the first time I read it and a heroine that touches me even more deeply. This is strange as I have nothing in common with Effi. And it is also interesting as once more it shows that there is no such thing as a spoiler in literature. On the very contrary, to know the outcome gives you a chance to pay more attention to other things than plot.

1: Welcome to the 1st German Literature Month Readalong!  Had you heard of Theodor Fontane and Effi Briest before now?  What enticed you to readalong with us?

I think I will skip this question.

2:  Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading?

I’m reading a German paperback edition. It has an appendix of 100 pages but I didn’t read them this time around.

3:  Is the novel living up to your expectations?

As I wrote in the intro, I read this before and liked it a lot. For me to re-read a book it needs some very specific elements. Liking isn’t one of them. I didn’t “like” Mme Bovary but I read it three times. I did however like Effi Briest but it’s also a very subtle novel, a novel from a mature author, one of the best of German literature, it offers a lot, still, re-reading is the ultimate test. And it passed the test. It’s as wonderful as the first time or even better. I was much more attentive than when I read it 6 or 7 years ago.

4:  What do you make of Effi Briest and Baron von Innstetten.   What motivates them?  What do you make of their match?

It has been said that Effi was very much the product of her upbringing. I tought this is obvious in the way she speaks about this marriage. I think she is very estranged from herself and doesn’t really know what she wants for herself, although, she has an idea. She isn’t an intellectual, she knows as much. Effi isn’t a contemplative heroine who likes to read and brood, this is a lively young girl who likes entertainment and fun, yet society and her family want her to be successful and successful means attract a successful husband. As she says “Anyone is the right one as long as he is aristocratic, has a high position and is looking good”. I wasn’t sure what to think of Instetten at first. I thought for a while that he wasn’t so bad but he is very condescending. There are these little remarks about Effi’s intellect that are extremely hurtful. He belittles her constantly, even when he pays her a compliment it’s a trapdoor.

5:  How are you reacting to Effi’s parents?

“Das ist ein zu weites Feld” or “This is a vast field” (I don’t know how it is translated) is the pet sentence of Effi’s father. He uses this sentence constantly all through the novel and I think a person like this in real life would drive me up the wall. He avoids every conversation of problematic topics but the sentence also shows that he is well aware that things are not as they seem. Of the two (mother and father), he is the more likable and also the much more understanding. It’s the mother I  have a real problem with. It’s this attitude of having your own child experience what you went through, for the sake of society, that I find revolting. She infuriates me. She knows very well that poor Effi is far too young for Instetten.

6:  Are there any secondary characters to whom you are particularly drawn?  Any to whom you are adverse?

I love Frau Kruse and the black chicken and Gieshübler is an interesting person. He is the antithesis for me to all the other characters, someone who stayed good despite adversity and doesn’t pass on the bad things he may have experienced.

7: Effi Briest was originally serialised in 6 parts.  I’m assuming that its 36 chapters were published in 6 monthly parts of 6 chapters each and the novel so far seems to bear this out.  How does the mood of the first part (chapters 1-6) contrast with that of the second (chapters 7-12)?

The first chapters are playful and light. We meet an exuberant Effi, one who does only know good things, is sheltered and child-like. She loves the idea of getting married and climbing the social ladder. She is a bit wary of Kessin, as there might not be a lot of entertainment but she is still looking forward to it. Once she is there that changes rapidly and she feels like an animal in a cage.

8:  We finished our first reading at the end of chapter 15 or the middle of part 3.  Where is Effi in terms of her psychological development and how does this bode for the future?

I think that she has to a certain extent realized that she made a mistake but she hopes for a change through her child.

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