Wilhelm Raabe Essay - Critical Essays


The conflict, most broadly stated, which Wilhelm Raabe saw as inherent in Wilhelminian Germany was that between individual idealism and collective materialism. In the prevailing order of things, individual aspirations came face-to-face with a system of external realities that were, in their essence, vulgar, insensitive, and apathetic. How decent human beings were to preserve their integrity in the face of such entrenched insensitivity became the vital question: whether it was possible to conquer life on one’s own terms rather than to accommodate oneself to life at the expense of one’s dignity. Raabe developed and tested his responses to the question from early in his career, but he engaged it with growing urgency and sophistication in the works of the Braunschweig period. It was in those years that Germany’s new political and economic vigor nourished the vulgar self-satisfaction he found so offensive. Closer examination of several of his novels may help to chart the successive statements of the conflict and his replies to it.

Raabe installs a variety of “outsiders” in the role of exemplar, mentor, guardian, or benefactor to take up the challenge of the oppressive external world. It is important to understand these characters—for example, the schoolmaster Werner Eckerbusch in Horacker or Heinrich Schaumann in Tubby Schaumann—from both the common and the initiated perspectives. In the public view they are misfits, castoffs, or nonachievers, but in their ability to wrest small victories from the established order and its agents, they occupy a place above, rather than outside, the ordinary.

Life, in Raabe’s view and in his writings, is complex, and its realities can be adequately grasped only through multiple perspectives of narration; by leaving intact the interdependent groupings of characters as life presents them to him; and, in fact, by allowing the stories to tell themselves, each one determining the form and techniques appropriate to itself. It is perhaps the mark both of Raabe’s realism and of his affinity with the twentieth century that he eschewed the traditional, comfortable form of narration through successive events in favor of a sometimes “confusing” simultaneity or “structureless” disorder. Barker Fairley has thus likened Raabe’s formal patterns to paintings by Rembrandt: “The elements of his tale do not deploy themselves in linear succession, as in a [Gottfried] Keller or [Theodor] Fontane novel, but come through from behind one another out of a twilight.”

Die Chronik der Sperlingsgasse

Writing about his first novel, Die Chronik der Sperlingsgasse, in 1861, Raabe said, “Before that I composed (and consigned to the flames) neither tragedies nor verses, and thus I spared myself many of the sins which other young poets commit with pen and ink.” Die Chronik der Sperlingsgasse was an out-and-out beginning, and it has remained a source of astonishment to literary critics that the young university student’s leap into a writing career was so confident, successful, and, above all, skillful in its handling of the techniques that would distinguish his mature writings.

Not the least of this novel’s surprising qualities is that its twenty-three-year-old author so convincingly assumes the perspective and disposition of an old man, Johannes Wachholder, the story’s chronicler-narrator. Wachholder, once a student in Berlin, lives in an apartment clearly identifiable as the one Raabe occupied during his Berlin student years, and the chronology of the book’s events shows that Wachholder records his story during virtually the same time, 1854 and 1855. His first entry in the book bears the date November 15, the date on which Raabe himself began to write. That, however, is the extent of verifiable autobiographical connections.

On one level, Wachholder’s story is a recollection of events and relationships, beginning with the childhood he enjoyed with two companions in a provincial town, their separate changes of residence to Sparrow Lane in the capital, the marriage of the other two, Marie and Franz, and Wachholder’s acceptance of his role as close friend to the young couple. A daughter, Elise, is born to Marie and Franz, but both parents die before the child’s coming-of-age, and she is adopted by Wachholder. Devotedly he follows Elise’s growing up, sees her happily married, and finally rejoices in the letters he receives from her and her husband.

The story told through Wachholder’s reminiscences is accompanied, broken through, and reconnected by episodes in the present. Wachholder goes about his daily routines, observes life on the street below and across the way, and is visited by others who themselves take an occasional hand in the task of remembering and telling—the artist Strobel, the journalist Wimmer, and the schoolteacher Roder. There are digressions as well into the retold experiences of these “assistant chroniclers” (for storytelling is contagious) and into the implications of historical events such as the billeting of French troops in Sparrow Lane during the 1813-1814 Wars of Liberation or the massive German emigration to America in the post-1848 years.

Die Chronik der Sperlingsgasse is Raabe’s first, but by no means his least convincing, example of a story that tells itself. Its prominent use of reminiscence as a narrative device might be considered a reversion to Romantic yearnings for an earlier, innocent age, be it in the historical sense or in the desire to recover one’s childhood. The past to which Wachholder returns, however, is an unromantic one of only partial validity. His reminiscences are constantly subject to interruption and interpretation by what transpires on the present narrative level and must be seen in relation to this narrative present. The remembered world is meaningful for not only itself but also and especially the narrator’s ability to remember it.

This novel was for some twenty years the victim of public indifference and neglect, and later of misplaced admiration—even into the twentieth century—as a “heartwarming tale” reflecting banal middle-class ideals and a kind of vague “Germanness” of spirit. The figure of Johannes Wachholder might serve as a focus of these difficulties in the book’s reception. By nature and by his narrative method, he is garrulous and disorganized, and one of the putative faults of Wachholder-Raabe’s book was its prolixity and lack of coherent formal organization. Then again, he is an endearing character, the selfless, undeclared suitor of Marie Volkmann, the devoted surrogate father to Elise, the convivial old gentleman, the child at heart. It would be easy, therefore, to attribute much of the book’s later sentimental appeal to Wachholder himself. One needs only to acknowledge his central function as the reminiscing narrator of the novel, however, and his other roles and attributes fall into place. Die Chronik der Sperlingsgasse is, above all, the story of its own writing. That story is its cohesive structural member, and it is the only story in the book that need not compete for attention as the narrated past and the narrative present must, because the story of Wachholder the chronicler unfolds on its own, preeminent level.

Stuttgart trilogy

In early November, 1862, Raabe began work on The Hunger-Pastor, and in June, 1869, he finished the writing of Der Schüdderump. A middle work, Abu Telfan, was composed over a two-year span, from 1865 to 1867. These three works thus fit neatly into the eight Stuttgart years generally regarded as Raabe’s second creative period.

Raabe’s colleague, Wilhelm Jensen, was the first (in 1870) to refer to the three novels as Raabe’s Stuttgart trilogy, and for better or worse, the name has stood. Jensen’s apparent reason for this grouping was his idea that all three illustrate the vanity of human happiness. Raabe seems more to have tolerated than welcomed the trilogy idea, but in 1891, he obliged its adherents with the explanation that the three books could be thought of as representing the three stages of human life—youth, middle years, and old age. Raabe specialists have also suggested the author’s social criticism as the connecting principle, based on similarities in narrative attitude and in thematic substructure, or upon three complementary class perspectives: those of the proletariat (in The Hunger-Pastor), the middle class (in Abu Telfan), and the feudal nobility (in Der Schüdderump).

In the narrow definition of the word, the three do not form a trilogy, since there are not common elements in their respective plots (characters, places, or events that reappear or experiences and developments that are followed from one work to the next). It is possible, however, to link the three novels by means of their intellectual and ethical import. They can be seen as “novels of education” or “development” (bildungsromans), even though imperfect ones. This function is at least better fulfilled by the three in combination than by each work singly, for when taken together they account both for Raabe’s “three ages of human life” and for the three perspectives of the major social classes. Moreover, a combined reading reveals the full range of forces, differently emphasized in the individual books, which affect human development: the nurturing security of one’s home and family; the civilizing and socializing forces; and what Raabe called the “forces of darkness”—the foreign, the rabble, death, and fate.

The Hunger-Pastor

The Hunger-Pastor appears initially to stand at the point of new beginnings for Raabe. It is the first work of ambitious proportions from the Stuttgart years, and it signals a departure from the historical themes that typified the minor narratives of the Berlin and Wolfenbüttel period following Die Chronik der Sperlingsgasse. On the other hand, there is still a certain artistic naïveté about it that Raabe seems to have gained a better mastery of in Abu Telfan. He himself counted The Hunger-Pastor among his youthful efforts, at least from the distance of four decades and with another...

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