Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Black Spider - Jeremias Gotthelf

When my sister and I were 7, my father brought home The Wrath of Khan for movie night one night and I was forever scarred. Here's what I remember: a guy makes Khan mad, so Khan, or one of his minions, puts a grub-like thing into the space suit helmet of the guy and then steps back and watches as the grub-like thing crawls all over his face and then into his brain where it takes over his willpower and holds the guy hostage to its varyingly grotesque whims and desires. To this day when feeling overly stressed I have to sleep with a hat on just in case spiders, grubs, worms, etc. or their henchmen decide to invade my brain. 

Lets just say that The Black Spider makes The Wrath of Khan look like a children's story. I was hoping that "Black Spider" was used metaphorically...but no, this book genuinely will give substance to my nightmares, or rather insomnia, for the rest of my life. (Also the picture on the cover, which showed part of a face being eaten by a spider was way too intense for nighttime reading and I had to cover it with a nice soothing picture of a watch in order to even hold the book without getting nightmares simply through osmosis.)

This makes me sound a little on the neurotic side, hey I really don't like spiders and I especially do not like narratives that involve anything burrowing into people's faces and then hatching their spiderlings in torrents out of ones cheeks...but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The narrative of "the black spider" is bookended by the hustle and bustle of a baptismal celebration. The story opens with the godmother arriving and being fed enormous quantities of food and then hustled off to the church, where in the rush and chaos she forgets to ask what the child's name is and spends a few moments of dread hoping the priest doesn't ask her. Thankfully the priest knows the name already and as she breaths a sigh of relief she tells the others of her near calamity and they all walk back to the house laughing and in a generally jovial mood. More food is consumed and then the grandfather begins to tell his story, which is the kind of story that would keep delinquents on the straight and narrow for the rest of their lives and prompt the apathetic into a life of intense bible memorization.

The basic take-away is that no one can make a pact with the devil with the assumption that either a) one could outsmart Satan or b) maybe Satan would forget his required remunerations. There are no winners when one engages with the devil, only incredible pain and heartache; the unfortunate lot of mankind is to never fully comprehend this lesson.

One day a knight comes to the land and demands his laborers to build him a castle. When the castle is just barely finished he comes up with new demands; he wants one hundred full grown beech trees moved from one side of a mountain to another in the span of one month. While the laborers beg the knight to be reasonable, he threatens them with dire consequences if they fail to comply with his demands. The work proves to be nearly impossible though, and as the laborers debate about what to do, a strange little woodsman with a red feather in his cap appears and says that for a small price he would be willing to transport the trees. The men are terrified and instead of engaging the strange man run away and try once again to move heaven and earth with merely their limited brawn.

Enter Christine, the perfect antihero for a xenophobic insular culture. She is a fearless Bavarian, too clever and daring for her own good.  When she realizes the men are moping about without a solution she decides to take matters into her own hands and when the little green man materializes again she strikes up a bargain...which is really less of a bargain and more of her just agreeing to the terms that are offered, ie. an unbaptized child to be delivered to the woodsman upon completion of the new forest. As a sign of agreement, the devil kisses Christine on the cheek, planting a seed in her cheek that will quietly sit and wait for its moment of germination.

The trees are planted and the devil waits for the birth of child for his payment. Christine thinks as long as all children are baptized at birth, there will be no way for the devil to claim his prize and so with bated breath the townspeople wait and watch as the first baby is born and then quickly baptized, snatched from the gates of hell and redeemed. Christine, momentarily breaths a sigh of relief but almost instantaneously notices a pain in her cheek, a prickling sensation that begins to grow and burn on the very spot the woodsman had kissed her.

As another woman prepares to give birth, Christine is in agony. "The closer the day of the birth approached, the more terrible the burning in her cheek became, and the more the black spot swelled, stretching distinct legs out from its center and sprouting little hairs; shiny points and stripes appeared on its back, the bump became a head, and from it flashed glinting, venomous glances, as if from two eyes."

With the second baby rescued from damnation, Christine's face ruptures and an infinite cadre of spiders make their way out of her face and into the valley, killing all the livestock and lying in wait for unsuspecting living things to cross their paths.

At this point the laborers have turned on Christine. Although she has initially saved them from their inability to plant the one hundred trees and the subsequent consequences, and although they were supportive of her plan, now all they want is a scape goat to placate the devil and remove the plague of spiders. Christine, at this point consumed in a fiery web of spidery tendrils, has no hope of survival, but it is not her death that was the bargain but the life of an unbaptized infant. And so again the laborers look around for a baby to deliver to the devil.

Lets just say the rest of the story disintegrates into Christine being sprinkled with holy water and melting into a little ball that takes on the life of the spider. Her anger is now not only directed at an unbaptized child but at all the townspeople that failed to respect her..and eventually everyone that happens to be alive within a certain radius. No one is spared, until at last Christine's mother, an old pious woman, gives her life for the safety of others and in exchange earns a respite of two hundred years from the dreaded spider.

At this point, the grandfather's narrative pauses, and all the guests are offered more food. Reluctantly they make their way to the table to have lunch and pretend that they are not traumatized by this horrific story.

But after lunch, there's more! After two hundred years the townspeople became apathetic; they began to forget God and to taunt the devil. So the spider makes a reappearance to devour everything in its wake yet again, leaving only the righteous and small orphaned children with upright hearts. Eventually, again someone must come forward and take responsibility. This time it is an heir of Christine's family, Christen.

"Now everyone saw clearly that Christen should never have left the old house, should never have left the servant to their own devices. Everyone saw that a master was more or less responsible for his men, that it was his duty to oversee their prayers and meals and shield them from impious ways and godless speech, prevent their desecrating the gifts of god."

Christen offers himself and again the spider is placated. This time seemingly for good, and the spider is no longer feared, because the fear of God buttressed the people with hope.

"Soon everything was quiet outside the house... it sheltered the good people in their sweet slumber - the sort of slumber enjoyed by those who carry the fear of God and a good conscience in their breasts, and who will never be awoken from this slumber by the black spider, but only by friendly sunshine. For where belief dwells, the spider may not stir, neither by day nor by night. But what strength it can attain when beliefs and temperaments change is known only to the One who knows all things and who gives to each his powers: both to spiders and to men."

Thank God this book is over. I'm now going to go drink a bottle of port and memorize the book of psalms in case I need to ward off any man eating spiders.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Immensee - Theodore Storm

My initial reading of this book was that there was a dark, mercurial, almost subversive strain beneath what is otherwise an almost boringly idyllic narrative of spring love and a childhood crush. On further consideration and after scouring many reviews and critical discussions...it seems like there is nothing dark and subversive and what I had taken for palpable angst is really just the pain and heartache of missed opportunities and a lifetime of regret.


We're introduced to our protagonist, Reinhard,  as an old man shuffling down the street in late autumn.  He, like the weather is in a season of debilitation. As the leaves swirl around him, his own poor clothes are outdated and covered in dust, destined for a purgatory of regret without hope of spring revitalization. After what we assume is his ritualistic evening walk, in which he meets no one, a stranger to the world that surrounds him, he makes his way home to the quiet retreat of his study where he begins part two of his evening ritual: waiting for the sun to slowly walk its fingers pryingly across the room, illuminating one object after another until finally it lands on a single photograph where it pauses; our hero, forced to acknowledge the suns intimations, whispers "Elisabeth." At once Reinhard is transformed into the youth he once was so many years ago, and we are swept along into the narrative of his regret.

The basic storyline goes something like this: Reinhard is 11, Elisabeth 5 and they are playing house together in the fields in a little sod dwelling they have been slowly building together. There is a brief exchange about lions, angels and India and somewhere along the lines Reinhard extracts a pledge of marriage and fidelity from our little heroine. Having interacted with 11 year old boys and 5 year old girls somewhat regularly I find this narrative so far to be suspect.

Next we are shown vignettes of Reinhard defending little Elisabeth in school, of the two being lost in the woods as they wander in search of Strawberries, their hunger assuaged only by Reinhard's incessant poetry recitations. With each story the two age, until at last our protagonist is away at school, flirting somewhat coarsely with a barmaid. A friend or roommate mentions that a package has come for him while he was out philandering and Reinhard races home to find cakes, delicately decorated with his initials, and cuff links. He is ashamed of his behavior and devotes himself to hours of story writing for his dear 12 year old intended.

When he finally makes his way home for a visit, he is shocked to find Elisabeth, no longer a girl but a blossoming maiden. There is an awkwardness, a tension of sorts, that has never existed before. Slowly he realizes in his absence he has not been the only suitor. His good friend (or ex-good friend) has replaced Reinhard's linnet with a gold-finch of his own. Somehow this is not conclusive enough for Reinhard and once again he demands and successfully extracts a pledge of sorts from Elisabeth, this time the pledge is to wait for two years for him to tell her a secret.

Elisabeth, who apparently needs more than zero communication and empty promises of ardour, much to our hero's shock and chagrin decides after two years and not a single letter from her good friend Reinhard to accept a proposal from Eric, after his constant wooing and two previous proposals have been denied. As she and her mother and their little gold-finch embark on their adventure to their new home, Reinhard is left to pick up the pieces of his broken heart and write more poetry.

Eventually, Reinhard is invited to the estate of Eric and Elisabeth, Immensee, and upon arrival is gently simmering in jealousy. He interprets Elisabeth's affection for Eric as sisterly, unable to believe     that it could be anything else. He goes for long walks with the hope of coming upon Elisabeth alone in the forest, but his prey always alludes him.

At last, unable to refrain any longer, he plays his best and last card: family poetry recitation time and taking a cunning offensive he begins:

"By my mother's hard decree, Another's wife I needs must be;
Him on whom my heart was set, Him alas! I must forget;
My heart was protesting, but not free.

Bitterly did I complain, that my mother brought me pain.
What mine honor might have been, that is turned to deadly sin.
Can I ever hope again?

For my pride what can I show, And my joy, save grief and woe?
Oh! could I undo what's done, O'er the moor scorched by the sun
Beggarwise I'd gladly go."

Reinhard has gone too far, his references were far from oblique and have made everyone somewhat uncomfortable. Elisabeth quickly gets up and runs into the garden, while her mother obsequiously makes excuses for her. After a brief pause, for proprieties sake, Reinhard jumps up and goes off in search of his beloved. As he races through the forest, the woods stand impenetrable, silent and thick foliage, the underbrush holding the secrets of infinite trysts.

Eventually Reinhard finds himself alone and dejected, walking along a shoreline. As his eyes dart back and forth searching for hope, he sees a perfectly white lily floating a stones throw away. All at once he is seized with the desire to see it up close and strips off his clothing and jumps into the dark encompassing depths. As far and has hard as he swims he can never quite reach the lily. It is always just beyond his grasp, pulled by a demanding, insatiable undercurrent. Always out of reach. As he circles the lily ineffectually, he eventually gives up and swims back to the shore only to be confronted with the floating lily among the large gleaming leaves.

When he finally makes it home he meets Eric and the mother preparing themselves for a journey, when Eric asks where he's been he tells him he has attempted to pay a call on a water-lily, but failed. Eric, always jovial and in good spirits, tells his friend that to pay a call on a water-lily is beyond the comprehension of any man. Reinhard replies: "I used to be friends with the lily once, but that was long ago."

 Reinhard is getting close to admitting defeat. His beloved has apparently not been pining away for him. As he sits down to write one last poem, he hears a footstep in the hall. Has Elisabeth finally come back to him? As he rushes into the hall anticipating finally their reunion, he is met only by a demure Elisabeth who finally extracts a promise from Reinhard, that he will never come back. In an instant he realizes he will grant her this one request. He packs his bags immediately and leaves, defeated and rejected. How could he have misread the quickening of his soul so fundamentally. How could he have let this lily escape his grasp.

Again, he is an old man, having only his solitude as a constant companion, destined to spend the rest of his life ruminating over his regrets, as he examines his life over and over again before the ever dwindling fire.

The Eunuch - Terence

CHAEREA: ‘I’m going out to dinner’, said Thais, and off she went with her maids, leaving a few new young ones to wait on the girl. They b...