Friday, 6 July 2018

Book Review: The Earth and the Fullness Thereof by Peter Rosegger
From the perspective of someone like me who has always lived in a bustling, though not too big city, country life seems enviably quiet, simple and stress-free. But put to the test of reality, the rural idyll like any other soon turns out to be just a utopia, a creation of the (ignorant) mind longing for the perfect life. The novel The Earth and the Fullness Thereof by Peter Rosegger, a much lauded, but today rather forgotten Austrian master of rural fiction and three-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature, evokes daily life on a remote mountain farm through the Sunday letters of a journalist from the city turned farmhand for the entire year of 1897 to win a bet. Sharing the joys and sorrows of the mountain farmers, he comes to love not just the family, notably the daughter, but also the old magic of cultivating the land.

Peter Rosegger was born Peter Roßegger in Alpl, Austria-Hungary, in July 1843. In his native mountain village the farmer’s son received hardly two years of formal education from a wandering teacher until he was seventeen and apprenticed to a wandering tailor. A poem offered to a daily in Graz impressed the editor who, having seen others of his literary attempts, invited him to the city to study and write which he did supported by mentors and grants. In 1869, Peter Rosegger published his first book, a best-selling volume of poetry in dialect titled Zither und Hackbrett (tr. Zither and Dulcime), which was followed by more poetry and the first of his highly successful short-story collections, Geschichten aus Steiermark (1871; tr. Tales from Styria). A prolific writer, he also produced eleven novels, many best-selling and translated into several languages like The Forest Schoolmaster (Die Schriften des Waldschulmeisters: 1878), The God Seeker (Der Gottsucher: 1883), Jacob the Last (Jakob, der Letzte: 1888), The Light Eternal (Das ewige Licht: 1897), and The Earth and the Fullness Thereof (Erdsegen: 1900). Until 1913 he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature three times without being awarded it. Peter Rosegger died in Krieglach, Austria-Hungary, in June 1918.

It’s for a bet made under the influence of wine with his editor-in-chief that journalist Hans Trauttendorffer finds himself at the back of beyond in January 1897 with the firm resolution to work as a farmhand for an entire year. Only after three weeks, however, he gets his chance at last to discover The Earth and the Fullness Thereof on a remote mountain farm generally known in the neighbourhood as Adamshaus. Every Sunday he writes a letter to his school friend in town to keep him up to date about the adventure and above all to pour out his heart.
“[…] During the week I shall have my work as a sturdy comrade; but I dread the Sundays, when my foolish heart will long for a congenial soul with which to commune and sympathise, and there will be no one far or near but a poor, simple household, who have all they can do to exist; and there is naught else to console me but the cold winter and the frozen mountains. In such hours, let me flee to thee, thou dear fellow, with thy heart of gold, that —on paper at least— I may gossip, curse, laugh, and perhaps also —no, I will not weep; I am determined on that point. […]”
The Adamshauser runs his miserable farm only with wife, daughter Barbel, and sons Rochel and Franzel, while his eldest son Valentl is away doing his obligatory military service. Farmhands are hard to find, so when Hans “Hansel” Trauttendorffer arrives, he is most welcome however ignorant and clumsy he may be, not least because the housefather is sick with asthma, Rochel suffers from a bullet wound in his right hand, Franzel is still as schoolboy and, as turns out towards summer, Barbel is pregnant with the school teacher’s child. And despite the hard work and other adversities, they are quite contented.
“[…] Is it not rather the highest culture when a man enjoys what he has instead of missing what he has not? And when he knows how so to systemise his wants that they may be met naturally and without an undue expenditure of strength and independence of spirit? He who creates artificial needs, as is the result of a great part of our industry and trade, creates discontent. A man who allows himself to be led aside from the simple native joys of life into the superfluous luxuries of a modern existence soon becomes sated and dissatisfied at the same time. […]”
There are more misfortunes to come as the year advances. Just when it’s time for the harvest, a terrible hail shower destroys all crops and hopes for money. When Hans finds the schoolteacher reluctant to marry Barbel, he urges him to do the right thing because he secretly loves the girl and wants her happy. However, the proposal is a mortal shock for the asthmatic housefather and plunges the family into even deeper sorrow. Barbel loses her child, Valentl rushes to the funeral without leave, hot-headed Rochel runs off with a rifle to avenge sister and father, but Hansel stays…

The original German title of the epistolary novel The Earth and the Fullness Thereof is Erdsegen meaning “earth blessing”, an expression that the narrating protagonist uses to refer to his rather too romantic discovery that all human force comes from the earth and therefore is a blessing however hard the work it requires. I reckon that the translator gave the 52 Confidential Sunday Letters of a Farmhand the new subtitle A Romance of Modern Styria because the love story that it includes provides the happy ending and is more likely to attract readers (and buyers). In reality, the author’s focus is on the often cruel reality of mountain farm life that he juxtaposes with the progressive – but academic and quite useless – ideas of townspeople like the journalist about running a farm. The novel also contains a good dash of social criticism and shows impressively the importance of local Catholic traditions around the year. The author’s German feels rather antiquated today and occasionally I stumbled across now obsolete words that not even I am familiar with. In addition, the novel is interspersed with expressions from the local dialect. As far as I can tell, the English translation imitates the old-fashioned style.

Until reading The Earth and the Fullness Thereof by Peter Rosegger, I knew only some of the author’s partly autobiographical short-stories, two or three of his most famous poems, and different Austrian TV adaptations of his work that were rather popular in my childhood. Otherwise, his was just a prominent name for me linked to my city, Graz, because Peter Rosegger passed the greater part of his adult life here and many places are named after him. Thanks to the Nazis who – decades after his death – glorified him as their paragon of a patriotic writer, he ceased to be widely-read. On the occasion of the double anniversary of his birth and death, I thought I’d read and review one of his most famous novels and, to my relief, I found that it was a much greater pleasure than expected. I fairly enjoyed the novel and therefore I gladly recommend it.

Nota bene:
This year is the hundredth anniversary of Peter Rosegger’s death, i.e. all original German editions of his work have long entered into the public domain and several of them have been made available by Project Gutenberg, mostly on its German site, in parts also on the US site. An English edition titled The Earth and the Fullness Thereof (which might or might not be in the public domain in Europe, too, depending on whether the translator died more than 70 years ago or not) can be found at the Internet Archive.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Dear anonymous spammers: Don't waste your time here! Your comments will be deleted at once without being read.