(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Christoph Meckel’s preoccupations with both graphic art and literature have proven to be mutually beneficial. In preparation for an illustration, for example, Meckel collects moods and events in written form as the basis for his visual art. Conversely, his literature benefits from the images that he has seen or “dreamed,” as he so often expresses it. To the repeated frustration of literary critics and scholars, Meckel’s prose works also elude traditional literary categories. Each is frequently a composite of his complete artistic expression: A prose work may be introduced or illustrated with his own engravings and further enhanced by the inclusion of poems or songs. Especially in his longer fiction, Meckel has insistently avoided the term “novel,” preferring instead the broader category of “narration,” which allows him more auctorial freedom to combine poetry and graphics with his prose.

Meckel and his works are often characterized as clever, witty, and inventive. Perhaps the most concise description of Meckel’s traits comes from his translator and collaborator, Christopher Middleton, who emphasizes Meckel’s exuberance. This term is meant to convey not only Meckel’s enthusiasm for writing but also his inventiveness and the resultant variety of characters, themes, and forms. A common misconception of Meckel’s works centers on precisely this exuberance, this playful aspect of much of his prose. Here several critics have noted that this abundance of imagination often results in no more than interesting tableaux, devoid of a cohesive plot and sustained tension. Others have complained about the aspect of “play,” finding no redeeming value in these fanciful creations. In Meckel’s defense, this imaginative world is created spontaneously, and, when successful, encourages a similar spontaneity of thought and action on the part of the reader. The world of routine and boredom suddenly is infused with new life; much in the traditional Romantic sense, each reader can create his or her own world through imagination and active participation. It is in this vein that a reader can begin to appreciate Meckel’s unique contribution to modern literature.

Meckel’s short prose includes both the realistic and the tragic, as well as the fantastic and fanciful. The latter clearly are fictive; with the former, however, the temptation to consider them autobiographical is irresistible: Indeed, they deal with writers or storytellers and are set in locations where Meckel himself has resided. This is the nature of his art: The stories are sensitive, seemingly based on personal experience, thus convincing, yet they must be recognized as fiction.

Im Land der Umbramauten

Meckel’s first significant piece of short fiction, Im Land der Umbramauten, contains three short stories and twenty-one anecdotal prose pieces centering on the thoughts and deeds of Herr Ucht, a confessed magician. Ucht invents objects and scenarios, purportedly the title story of this volume. Here, in the land of the Umbramauts, the reader learns the geography, topography, characteristics, traditions, and myths—in short, everything one would wish to know in this imaginative travelogue, so reminiscent of Tacitus’s De origine et situ Germanorum (c. 98; also known as Germania; The Description of Germanie, 1598). Unusual features of this country include wandering mountains and lakes amid the generally barren landscape of a perpetual twilight, fierce winds and giant dogs that threaten the inhabitants. The pivotal chapter, placed exactly in the middle of the narration, concerns Sambai-Sambai, the wandering storyteller. His yarns captivate and entertain the Umbramauts yet also activate and engage their imaginations, much as Meckel himself attempts to do with this slim volume. Though these stories are the result of a clever and active fantasy, they are not, finally, memorable. They concern the magician’s creations—wisps of fancy—not individual characters or events that might capture the reader’s sympathy or interest, with which he or she might identify.

Still, noteworthy in this prose work are the descriptions of the artists, Ucht and Sambai-Sambai, and their function. They are storytellers, creators, and magicians who make life more interesting and thoughtful. Yet their responsibility does not end with the creation of their characters (as is repeated later in the story “Tullipan”). In short, authors must be completely aware of their characters’ capabilities before they set them into the world, for otherwise they might inadvertently harm themselves or others.

“The Crow”

Following this first major prose publication, Meckel wrote “Die Krähe” (“The Crow”), arguably the most popular and frequently anthologized of Meckel’s short pieces. One fine summer day, the narrator happens upon a hunter in the forest, who is seeking to capture a tiger. Agreeing to help, the narrator soon learns that the...

(The entire section is 2046 words.)