Dirda Book Review: 'The Rider on the White Horse,' by Theodor Storm

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, March 5, 2009


And Selected Stories

By Theodor Storm

Translated from the German by James Wright

New York Review. 284 pp. Paperback, $15.95

"German short fiction of the 19th century" may sound like the title for a college course, and probably a rather dull and earnest one at that. In fact, the stories of Ludwig Tieck (for example, "The Elves"), E.T.A. Hoffmann (such as that unsettling masterpiece, "The Sand Man," famously explicated by Freud) and Heinrich von Kleist (in particular, his classic of revenge, "Michael Kohlhaas") are among the glories of world literature, being at once suspenseful, eerie and sometimes humorous, albeit usually in a macabre way. Many of these 19th-century Novellen, as they are called, are clearly related to fairy tale and legend. Arguably the greatest of them all is "The Rider on the White Horse," by Theodor Storm (1817-1888).

It opens like a classic ghost story. On a stormy night, a traveler is making his way along a dike as the desolate North Sea thrashes and the wind howls. The night is black and cold, and the traveler hunches inside his coat, when suddenly "something came toward me on the dike. I heard nothing, but ever more clearly as the light of the half-moon grew sharper, I thought I could make out a dark shape, and soon, as it came nearer, I saw it. It sat on a horse, a high-boned, haggard white horse. A dark mantle fluttered across the figure's shoulders, and as he flew past, two burning eyes stared at me out of a pale face." This is unnerving enough. But then, our narrator continues, "I suddenly realized that I had heard no hoofbeats, no panting of the horse." Even as he wonders at this, horse and rider reappear coming from the opposite direction, "and the apparition, as before, pushed by without making a sound. I saw them, farther and farther away; then it suddenly seemed as though I could see their shadows riding along the inner side of the dike, facing the land." The ghostly figures then vanish into a nearby marsh.

When our traveler reaches an inn, he meets a group of locals, worried about the storm's effect on the dike. After mentioning his recent adventure, he detects a shiver of fear passing through the men. "The Rider on the White Horse!" one exclaims. At which point, an elderly schoolteacher begins to tell the ancient story of Hauke Haien. But I won't -- except to say that it is as bleak and poignant a tale as any by Thomas Hardy. A portrait of village life and prejudice, a love story and a study of loneliness and obsession, Storm's novella is all these, but most of all it is a disturbing prose-poem about the dark power of the sea and the huge earthen dikes that protect the land.

Of the eight stories in this paperback selection (from the 50 that Storm wrote), nearly all of them are marked by a nostalgic wistfulness. In several, such as "Veronika" and "In St. Jurgen," young couples -- obviously intended for each other -- fail to marry or marry the wrong people. In "Immensee," Reinhard and Elizabeth grow up together, assume they will wed, and then something happens. Years later, her husband -- without informing his wife -- invites their old childhood friend to visit for a few days. The subsequent romantic tension between Reinhard and Elizabeth recalls that of Arnold Schoenberg's masterpiece of erotic yearning, "Transfigured Night." That doesn't mean Storm's lyrical masterpiece ends quite so happily as Schoenberg's music.

Throughout his fiction Storm repeatedly evokes the beauty of nature, "the sharp odor of the golden tansy blossoms," the "grieving voices" of sea birds, the "secret music of the summer night." But he also celebrates the simple pleasures of long ago: "We had jokes and riddles and rhymes at the table; and when they served dessert, we sang all the lovely songs that are now forgotten." Somehow, he makes this nostalgia avoid the taint of mawkishness. Sometimes, this is through a sudden harsh truth: "For the first time she was facing life directly, in all its barren poverty: it was a path that seemed endless, dry; until, suddenly, it did end: you died." At other times, he sets down a brilliant piece of observation:

"The old man had put on his spectacles; with the tip of his knife he lifted a tiny night insect out of his milk and placed it carefully on the table. 'It'll fly again,' he said. 'One should stand by the creatures when they have troubles.' " Above all, though, Storm possesses the born storyteller's flair for hooking the reader with a mystery, such as the meaning of the initials CPAS written in red ink in the corner of an enigmatic portrait of a drowned boy. That story, "Aquis Submersus," opens like a Victorian tale of mystery and the uncanny:

"In our Schlossgarten, which belonged to the old ducal castle and had been neglected longer than anyone could remember, there were ghostly avenues still growing when I was a boy, avenues that had once been laid out in order to trim the coarse, thick hedges into the old French style. Even now when they still bear a few leaves, we who live in this part of the world know how to cherish them in this form, for we are not used to having trees."

While "The Rider on the White Horse" represents Theodor Storm as a writer of prose, he is equally revered as one of Germany's finest lyric poets. So it seems right that the material in this handsome reissue -- the collection first appeared in 1964 -- should have been translated by the poet James Wright, who also contributes a superb introduction. As Wright emphatically reminds us, these stories tell us "that there is no such thing as success, that even the failures are forgotten, that the influential persons whom one seeks in his youth to impress themselves grow old and die, and that the main thing is not to get on in the world but to get home."

Dirda's reviews appear each Thursday in Style. His e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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