Friday, 29 September 2017

Book Review: The Door in the Grimming by Paula Grogger the industrial revolution small communities in the mountains lived quite isolated from the rest of the world, but in the past two hundred years modern technology, most recently the internet, has constantly brought them closer to the big centres of civilisation. Today they have real time access to all kinds of news and services. In the early nineteenth century the inhabitants of Öblarn portrayed in The Door in the Grimming by Paula Grogger knew that Napoleon was at war with Austria, they had no way of finding out, though, where the French troops actually stood. When fate has it that they come to the remote town in the mountains, wild and rebellious Matthew, the seventeen-year-old eldest son of Constantia, wants to drive them out and gathers like-minded around him. Of course, the fighters are defeated and Matthew flees leaving behind his grieving mother, his younger brothers and fourteen-year-old Regina who has a crush on him.

Paula Grogger was born in Öblarn, Austro-Hungaria, in July 1892. After graduation from a teachers’ training school in Salzburg in 1912, she returned to her native place in the mountains and taught needlework in different schools of the surroundings. In 1926 she made her debut as a novelist with much-acclaimed and best-selling The Door in the Grimming (Das Grimmingtor) that established her as a writer. Due to a hereditary lung disease she retired from teaching already in 1929, but continued to write rural and religious novels, plays, short stories, essays and poetry for more than five decades. However, none of her published works ever came up with her initial success. Although she was secret member of a Nazi writers association before the annexation of Austria in 1938 and she welcomed the Hitler regime at least in the beginning, she received several important awards in the decades following the war. Paula Grogger died in Öblarn, Austria, in January 1984.

Ancient legends of Upper Styria tell of The Door in the Grimming, that always on Corpus Christi Day gives access to unspeakable riches, but nobody who went after them ever returned alive. In the late 1700s, a poor hunter courts Constantia for six years knowing that she loves wealthy brewer and farmer Andreas. Even after their wedding he ever again waylays her at John of Nepomuk’s shrine near her home. In the night before Corpus Christi, he announces that soon he’ll return as a rich man to fetch her and that her first child will be his. In the morning his crushed body is found on the Grimming just below the precipice where its legendary door is said to be. The following spring Constantia gives birth to Matthew and fears that the hunter’s spell might come true after all. She raises her firstborn and his younger brothers Mark and Luke best she can, but Matthew is wild and indomitable from the start. When dispersed Napoleonic troops reach even remote Öblarn, seventeen-year-old Matthew organises armed resistance. While her sons fight in vain and her husband is out, Constantia goes into labour for the fourth time and prematurely. Foster-daughter Regina finds mother and newborn on the verge of death and sees to it that John is baptised without delay although the soldiers in town make it a dangerous errand for a fourteen-year-old. After the skirmish around the church, Matthew flees and joins the rebels around Andreas Hofer in the Tyrol for a while. Upon his return, he hears – and believes – the rumours of his being the son of the wretched hunter whose ghost haunts the churchyard and he stubbornly swears to never again set foot into his home despite his secret love for Regina...

Apart from a family saga and a love story set in the Napoleonic era, The Door in the Grimming paints the portrait of a long past rural world in the Austrian mountains where daily life was characterised by hard work, the force of nature, faith in God as well as in the Catholic Church (although also the strong Protestant community of neighbouring districts is present) and all kinds of superstition, if not witchcraft. Consequently, the novel abounds in powerful, often poetical images and symbols from nature and religious tradition which definitely is one of its strengths. Thanks to following the rhythm of mountain life and to the psychological depth of its characters the plot feels entirely authentic. Of course, I read the original version that I hardly dare to call German because the author made ample use of expressions from her native dialect and in several passages she imitated the written, uncommonly spelled German of a quite wealthy, though not particularly well-educated Upper Styrian farmer. Even I had to consult the annexed glossary regularly. I wonder if the English (or other foreign language) edition, which has long gone out of print, manages to reproduce this special, a bit antiquated tone.

Although I often heard of The Door in the Grimming by Paula Grogger because until her death on New Year’s Day 1984 the author was quite a celebrity in the province of Styria and as such living female counterpart to writer and Nobel Prize nominee Peter Rosegger (1843-1918), I never bothered to read this novel until now. On account of its impressive scenery around Benedictine Admont Abbey with its famous library, the historical settings, the rural milieu and an engaging plot, the read is interesting without doubt. Still, it’s not entirely my cup of tea because all things considered the story surrounds a cast of rather pathetic characters, especially the hunter and Regina in love, who hardly inspired my sympathies… or maybe it’s just that I’m not the person to truly appreciate them. Moreover, the unusual German made it difficult for me to enjoy the book as much as it deserves.

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