Fun Fact up front: I read this at the lake today, where I cannonballed a few teens to shame and felt very good about myself. Still got it! xD
I pulled this out of one of the free book cases and gave it a try, we had to read Storm in school but for some reason never this early novella, which apparently is one of his most famous and often translated ones. I can see why, it’s pretty representative of late German Romanticism/early Realism in a very easy to teach way, both good and bad.
At its core it’s a simple love story, a story of unfulfilled love to be precise: Reinhard and Elisabeth grow up together, he writes stories for her and it’s clear quite early on that he loves her, yet when he leaves for university, they lose touch and she marries one of his school buddies, Erich. Erich inherits his father’s estate at the eponymous Immen Lake where Reinhard visits him years later. During an evening of songs and poems (Reinhard is working on a collection of folk songs) he realises that Elisabeth loved (loves?) him too, but her mother insisted on her marrying Erich. There are a few moments of awkward and silent longing between them, but in the end, he decides to leave forever. The book ends with him remembering Elisabeth as an old man, who’s fully occupied by his studies.
The poems throughout are gorgeous and the poetry doesn’t end there, the way nature is used in the prose, the metaphors worked in, are poetry themselves and the whole writing is so clever and good at creating the perfect mood with a few words. The love and regret between the two protagonists are palpable, it’s bittersweet and just told so well with so few words too.
That’s for the good. As for the bad: yes, this is Problematic Old White Man literature. Meaning there’s a ton of stuff in there that works in the context of the time, not so much now, but even then, come on! Do we really need another dude pining for a beautiful, timid, girlish (emphasis on that, because there’s an uncomfortable 5-year age difference that is teetering on the edge of very very wrong) pure woman and contrast her with a seductive Romani girl who’s bound to become a “fallen woman”?
In Storm’s defence, Elisabeth is given the opportunity to show that the ideal wifey persona is society made and not all she is, and Reinhard initiates the flirt with the Romani girl, who’s very well aware that he and his fellow students are her meal ticket, but also very bad for her. I wonder if he’d developed it more had the novella been an actual novel.
That icky stuff aside, it’s an interesting read, I can see why it was so popular for a long time (when I googled the English title, I read that it apparently was one of Mao’s favourite books? Who’d a thunk it?) and it fits easily into your bag, if you want to have something to read while on public transport.