This time of the year…

November 16, 2011

It is this time of the year again where Vienna’s ice-cream parlours have put their shutters down for their customary winter break…

… while, early in the morning, the leaves on the trees and bushes are already covered by the icy dabs of frost…

… and it seems as if the morning mist was swallowing the upper parts of the city’s higher buildings.

In Vienna’s largest park, the Prater, water, trees and mist are doing a fine job at turning the world into the kind of melancholy autumn wonderland so dear to poets like Georg Trakl (1887-1914) or Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926):

Speaking of Rilke: As some of you will know, Kate Davies of needled posted one of his autumn-y poems, Herbsttag, on her blog a couple of months ago inducing a discussion on the respective merits of its various translations into English. Among the problematic points there was the question how to render the German word “Allee” which, technically, means “a road lined with trees on either side”. The problem here is that – as long as it’s lined with trees – an “Allee” can be any kind of road and even for Rilke’s original German-speaking audience the word may conjure up a wide range of images, from a small, deserted country lane to a bustling city boulevard (think the Champs-Élysées in Paris or Unter den Linden in Berlin). The first that came to my mind when reading the poem, was this…

… Vienna’s Prater Haupt-Allee, the main road across the Prater. Granted, with its broad band of asphalt and the COMECON-aesthetics* of its street lighting, it’s not a very pretty sight. But once you step into one of the narrower lanes that run alongside the central carriageway on either side…

… you’ll find that things start looking decidedly more, well, Rilkean:

 

Frankly, though, I always felt that when visiting the Prater, the further you venture away from the Haupt-Allee, the better. After all, before it became a park the Prater was the Habsburgs’ hunting ground created in the woodlands along the backwaters of the Danube. And even today there are still plenty of forest lanes and waterside paths to discover…

 

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* Remember the COMECON? Ok, I probably wouldn’t if it didn’t get mentioned so often in Ian Banks’ Espedair Street

Believe it or not, I finally wrote a post in our Lit Knit series which is NOT about Terry Pratchett! So, here goes…

The author: Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857) was one of the most important writers of German Romanticism. Having been born only 1788, however, meant that he wrote his earliest works at a time when the Romantic era was already drawing to an end, and he more or less spent the rest of his career hearkening back to a style of writing that was already out of date. Still, he produced a work of great renown, including prose and plays but also a history of German literature from the beginnings to the Romantic era, and translations from the Spanish (e.g. El Conde Lucanor or the works of Calderón de la Barca). What he’s really famous for, though, is his poetry. Indeed, his name has almost become synonymous with German Romantic verse, and many of his highly lyrical poems have been set to music by great composers such as Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn or Hugo Wolf.

Franz Kugler: Portrait of Joseph von Eichendorff, 1832 (Image © Wikimedia Commons)


The book
: First published in 1833, Dichter und ihre Gesellen [Poets and their Companions*] was Eichendorff’s second (and last) major novel and in many respects the sum of his previous prose work: On the whole, it almost seems like a more optimistic remake of first novel, 1815’s Ahnung und Gegenwart [Premonition and Presence**], but it also takes up elements of the author’s most famous novellas, Das Marmorbild [The Marble Statue, 1819] and Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts [The Life of a Good-For-Nothing, 1826]. According to Eichendorff himself, Dichter und ihre Gesellen is supposed “to depict the different directions in the lives of poets”***, and that is, perhaps, the best possible summary of the book. Considering the novel’s about half a dozen main characters and at least a dozen almost equally important “minor” characters, it’s practically impossible to give an outline of the plot in less than five pages, so I’m not even going to try… What you may need to know about the plot in order to better understand the following is, however, that the events described in the novel take place in Eichendorff’s own time, i.e. around 1830, in different parts of Germany, Austria and Italy.

The knitting: Among the novel’s supporting cast, there’s a troupe of traveling actors. One of them is a pretty young girl called Kordelchen [a diminutive of Cordelia]. Now Kordelchen is lovely and charming but also the prototype of what you’d call a flirt, a butterfly flittering from flower to flower, leaving many a broken heart along the way. To put it less favourably, she’s a girl of easy virtue, ruthlessly crushing the hopes of those foolish enough to seriously fall in love with her. Then again, despite all her playfulness, Kordelchen herself is something of a broken character: She harbours an unrequited love for the mysterious Lothario, and she’s aware that – being a traveling actress from the lower stratas of society – her youth and beauty are her only capital and that she’s facing a dire future once these are spent.

Considering Kordelchen’s low status in society, it comes as no surprise that more than once the author shows her doing basic household work like darning underwear (p. 127).**** And, as you’ll have guessed by now, at one point of the story we find her knitting. One afternoon, she’s sitting together with her latest beau, a painter called Guido who’s so in love with her that he believes he’ll be able to “save” the “fallen girl” and lead her back to the path of virtue. So, one afternoon they’re sitting together and, Eichendorff goes on to say: “She was knitting a stocking, he was reading to her from Goethe’s Tasso” (p. 95). But Kordelchen soon grows tired of his edifying reading and gets distracted by the butterflies flittering around some nearby flower beds. Guido, on the other hand, is so immersed in his recital that he isn’t even aware of the girl’s lack of attention. Only when he looks up from the book does he realise that, in the meantime, Kordelchen has put away her knitting and has her lap full of flowers instead, plucking their petals and mumbling to herself “She loves him – she loves him not” (p. 96).

This passage, of course, leaves little to interpret. After all, this is the 19th century where moral standards – especially as regards female behaviour – are strict and unambiguous and where good girls are expected to keep to their needlework; a girl who puts aside her knitting, though, is considered to be doomed, and from this detail alone readers in Eichendorff’s own time would have known that Guido’s attempts at “saving” Kordelchen were inevitably bound to fail.

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* For all I know, the novel has never been translated into English, so there’s no established English version of the title. The problem with translating the title is that, in German, “Gesellen” means not only “companions” but also “journeymen”, and it’s very likely that Eichendorff intended the title to be deliberately ambiguous. I opted for “companions” simply because, in my opinion, it sounds better.

** Hey, in English that almost sounds like a title by Jane Austen ;-)

*** Joseph von Eichendorff in a letter to Theodor von Schön, April 12, 1833.

**** All page references are to the following edition: Joseph von Eichendorff, Dichter und ihre Gesellen, ed. Wolfgang Nehring, Stuttgart (Reclam) 1987. As usual, the English translations are mine.