Indian Summer is a leisurely paced novel whose chief attribute is its serenity. The plot, deliberately lacking in dramatic incidents, tensions, and struggles, charts the almost imperceptible growth of a young man toward the humanistic ideal of a harmoniously shaped individual who is able to master life and live it in a model environment. His union with a young girl, similarly reared, in the end establishes a potentially perfect family, founded within a circle of like-minded relatives and friends in an idealized, Edenic landscape.
The first of the novel’s three books introduces the reader to the young narrator, Heinrich Drendorf. He presents his model family: the father, a respectably affluent merchant, a self-made man of humble origin who, by sheer dedication and industriousness, has accumulated an extensive collection of art and antiques; the mother, noble and pious, a woman who is totally absorbed in her family duties; Heinrich himself, a docile and obedient son; and his young sister, Klotilde, who is strongly attached to her brother. Surrounded by love and understanding, the young man is initially molded by the patriarchal high moral standards of the family. From his maternal granduncle, Heinrich receives an independent income, which he prudently manages. As an ambitious and industrious student, he takes seriously his studies of mathematics and then natural sciences, geology in particular. In order to study these subjects, he makes various excursions into the different parts of his country, especially the Alps.
On one of his outings, seeking shelter from a storm which he believes is rapidly approaching, Heinrich reaches an estate of a noble-looking older gentleman. The man contradicts Heinrich’s prediction of a thunderstorm but hospitably invites him to his home. Encountering this man, Baron Gustav von Risach, the owner of the Asper estate, proves to be crucial to the narrator’s character and education. The exemplary order with which the estate is governed and the aesthetic principles by which the buildings, antique furnishings, paintings, and a classical Greek marble sculpture are arranged have a great effect on the young man. A wall of stunningly beautiful roses together with the gardens, orchards, and fields presents an ideal and harmonious realm under the guidance of the wise, Prospero-like Baron von Risach. In spite of the cordiality between the young man and his host, names are not exchanged or immediately learned. After several days spent admiring the estate and having every detail explained to him, inspecting workshops where artists are restoring old masterpieces and creating new ones, and looking at cacti lovingly cultivated by the chief gardener, Heinrich meets a young boy, Gustav, who is tutored by the old gentleman.
Upon his departure from the Rose House, as he now prefers to call the estate, Heinrich encounters a carriage with two ladies and is so impressed by the younger one’s face that he decides that from now on he should sketch human faces in addition to stones and minerals. The stay at the Asper estate and the enlightening discourses by its owner on subjects varying from husbandry to science and art have lasting consequences for young Heinrich. Invited to return, he makes frequent visits which are attuned to the seasons of the year; he spends winters in the city with his family, but when spring arrives, he breaks out on his exploratory journeys which regularly bring him back to the Rose House.
While in the city, he continues to further his systematic education. Now, wiser from his aesthetic and ethical experiences at the Baron von Risach’s estate, he becomes more sensitive to things that he previously overlooked or ignored. During a performance of King Lear, for example, he is so moved by William Shakespeare’s discernment of what Heinrich calls “ultimate reality” that he instinctively looks around for a kindred soul in the theater and sees the sympathetic eyes of a young girl who shares his deep emotion.
While on his second visit to Baron von Risach’s estate, he encounters Gustav’s mother and sister, who have arrived to witness the...
(The entire section is 1696 words.)