FIVE GERMAN SHORT STORIES

By Heinrich von Kleist, E T A Hoffman, Arthur Schnitzler, Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka
Translated and edited by Stanley Appelbaum
New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1993
ISBN # 0-486-27619-8 (paper)
316 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
September 2016

The full title of this work is FIVE GERMAN SHORT STORIES /FUNF DEUTSCHE MEISTER-ERZAHLUNGEN. A Dual-Language Book. However, I read the five stories in English, so I didnít include the German part of the title above.

Heinrich von Kleist: THE EARTHQUAKE IN CHILI

In 1647 Santiago, Chili is struck by an earthquake. Jeronimo Rugers falls in love with the daughter of a rich man and she is going to have his child. The child is born is secret. However, later Jeronimo is accused of a crime and is scheduled to be hung, however the huge earthquake interferes with the hanging and he escapes. His wife is about to die, but he rescues her and their child and they seem out of danger. They pledge to go away to Conception where he has a friend. p

However, because of the many deaths in the earthquake some of the survivors blame Jeronimoís behavior for the earthquake, which was seen by them as a punishment from God and he is arrested. However, by some near miracle he and his wife and child escape and Jeronimo survives with his family.

E.T.A. Hoffmann: THE SANDMAN

Nathanel grew up with two cousins whom he loved and lived with, Clara and Nathanel. However, he is currently away at a university in Italy when the story opens and he writes to his cousins about his fatherís death. He is convinced that his father was killed by the lawyer, Coppelius, and that he had involved his father in some sort of black magic.

The cousins are convinced he is imagining this since he was a small boy, and tends to be subject to these sorts of dark thoughts. Their letters go back and forth, but the cousins, especially Clara whom he loves, donít put any belief at all in Nathanelís conspiracy theories. But Nathanel is convinced his father was killed by the lawyer. Clara is convinced of something much more innocent. Coppelius and his father was, on her view, involved in some experiements in alchemy, but Nathanelís fatherís death was of natural causes.

Much of the story rests in this dispute and the authorís revealing the troubled mind of Nathanel.

While away in Italy, Nathanel becomes infatuated with a professorís daughter who lives in the next building and into whose apartment he can see. Eventually a fellow sells him a telescope and he can then spy on the girl and he falls in love with her, eventually meeting her at an open-house party which her professor father has for all.

At this party Nathanel falls madly in love with the woman, even though she is quite silent, but does seem to like him. The love affair grows, but eventually all explodes when it turns out the girl is no human at all, but a machine that her father and a local character have created to see if they can actually fool people into believing her to be a real human. Only Nathanel becomes convinced.

The outcome of this event seems to prove the mental instability of Nathanelís person.

The story isnít as much about the EVENTS of the story, but of the authorís ability to reach into the mind of the troubled Nathanel and reveal to the reader how it is that he is able to be so blind and so easily misled, which ends up in a terrible tragedy.

The storyís plot line is sort of silly, but the manner that E.T.A. Hoffman writes the story and fairly much convinces the reader of Nathanelís sincerity, is quite fascinating.

Arthur Schnitzler: LIEUTENANT GUSTL

This brilliant tiny novella well-deserves its place in Austrian letters as one of the important pieces of early Modernism. The story is an interior monologue of Lt. Gustl, a mid-20s office-in-training in the Austrio-Hungarian Empire's army. Gustl has gone to the concert to see the sister of a friend. He's bored and out of sorts and when leaving the concert he is rude to a butcher in the cloakroom. The butcher frequents the same coffee house as Gustl and doesn't accept Gustl's rudeness. They have words and then the butcher reaches out and takes hold of the hilt of Gustl's sword. He quietly whisper's to Gustl that he is a "fathead," a most apt description, and that if he says another word the butcher will take out the sword and break it in half, thus shaming Gustl. Gustl has no idea what to do and backs off.

This begins his agony. There is no out for his shame and he must commit suicide. He has three main worries: someone may have overheard, even though the butcher was very quiet. Even Gustl doesn't really believe that. His second worry is that the butcher will tell the story, though he has said he won't. Perhaps what troubles him most is that he himself cannot live with this shame of allowing himself to be so insulted.

Gustl wanders Vienna, sleeping a bit in the Prater, contemplating just how he will kill himself, rejecting every argument against so doing. The entire farce is complicated by the fact that Gustl is already supposed to fight a duel at dawn the following morning. The only really curious piece of the story is that this is duel, and all the honor associated with it simply drops out of the story. This inconsistency bothered me and disrupted an otherwise flawless piece.

During the night of internal dialogue with himself Gustl presents a catalogue of his class and sort and lets us in on Schnitzler's criticisms of the flagging empire. Gustl is indeed the fathead he's been called by the butcher. Additionally he suffers from this absurd sense of honor for which he will kill himself over such a trifling incident. He shows so much of the petty side of his lifestyle: the womanizing, anti-Semitism, rampant militarism, class biases, sense of privilege and on and on.

I guess I couldn't help wonder, however, how many of Schnitzler's contemporary Viennese of 1905 would have been quite sympathetic to Gustl and almost have to have seen him as a tragic figure! Certainly not the audience Schnitzler was writing for, but the question does fascinate me.

James Joyce is said to have said that this taleís stream of consciousness and interior dialogue were extremely influential in his writing Ulysses.

Thomas Mann: TRISTAN

The action of this story takes place at the sanatorium Einfried. Dr. Leander is the key physician and person in charge. A new patient guest arrives, Mrs. Kloterjahn. Many of the other patients come to love and admire her and one older woman, Mrs. Spatz, one of the older residents, becomes her close and almost inseparable friend. However, a very strange writer, Mr. Spinell, develops an almost compulsive desire to be around Mrs. Kloterjahn.

Eventually he draws her out of her own belief that she is so sick she can do almost nothing, and she does exert herself greatly, at his behest, in playing the piano. She does have some sort of spasm that causes her death, however, it is really never fully clear that it was her piano playing that caused the death.

After this attack, but before her death, writer Spinell sends a letter to Mrs. Kloterjahnís husband denouncing him for his treatment to his wife. Mr. Kloterjahn rushes to the sanatorium and confronts Spinell, however tragedy strikes at this very moment.

The basic story line could be fairly quickly explained, however, Mannís detailed story is powerful and creates a mood and feeling of great power, much more significant that the simple line of the story itself. The entire tale is woven in a manner that harks back to Wagnerís Tristan and Islode and is a gripping and sad tale, very well written.

Franz Kafka: THE JUDGMENT

The editor suggests that ďThe SentenceĒ is actually a more accurate translation of the German title ďDas Urteil,Ē but he left the text in its already published English version with the title as ďThe Judgment.Ē

This is a very strange story of a man who is driven to suicide by his fatherís venon. The essence of the story isnít in the plot, but in the intense feelings that the fatherís reaction to the sonís life and attitudes is able to create in the son.

It is a rather strange story and not very convincing to this reader.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu