Friday, 1 March 2019

Book Review: The Golden Hills by Clara Viebig

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We all know moments when we feel like Job from the Holy Bible because nothing goes right and the whole universe seems to be against us. The longer such a spell of bad luck lasts, the more likely it is that we give way to despair although already the wise men of Ancient Greece coined the expression πάντα ῥεῖ – everything flows – knowing that nothing ever stays the same without end (and without hope). In the classical regional novel The Golden Hills by Clara Viebig the vineyards along the Moselle in Western Germany a few years after World War I are the stunning scene of growing misery and desperation. Economic crisis and caprices of weather bring ever more winegrowers in the region on the brink of ruin and even the old Bremm family of Porten is already hard up, when the eldest daughter Maria enters service as a maid in town.

Clara Viebig was born in Trier, Germany, in July 1860 and grew up in Düsseldorf and Posen. In 1880, she moved to Berlin with her mother intending to study music, but embarked on a literary career instead. The year after her wedding to a Jewish publisher, she made her successful debut as a novelist with Dilettanten des Lebens (1897; tr. Dilettants of Life). From then on she brought out a new novel, many of them best-selling, at short intervals until 1936 when she was forbidden to publish for having a Jewish husband. The author’s most important novels are Die Wacht am Rhein (1902; tr. The Guard-House on the Rhine), The Sleeping Army (Das schlafende Heer: 1904), Daughters of Hecuba (Töchter der Hekuba: 1917), The Golden Hills (Die goldenen Berge: 1927), and The Woman With a Thousand Children (Die mit den tausend Kindern: 1929). Although a relative of Hermann Göhring and therefore quite safe, she immigrated to Brazil in 1937 to return the following year and arrange herself with the Nazi regime. Her books went back into print as epitomes of the nationalistic German novel that corresponded perfectly with Nazi ideology. Clara Viebig died in West Berlin, Germany, in July 1952.

In 1924, Maria is a carefree seventeen-year-old who loves The Golden Hills where she is living. Her family are winegrowers of long standing in the small village of Porten on the Moselle where her father owns four thousand vines on the well-situated Warmenberg. Although they are considered relatively wealthy, they are hard up like everybody else in the region because the aftermaths of World War I and two poor harvests haven’t left them much to live on. After a promising summer seemingly endless rain sets in ruining all hopes for the good harvest that everybody in the Moselle valley needs so badly. Moreover, sales are poorer than ever due to the general crisis as well as to high wine taxes and cheap imported wines from Southern Europe. Desperation and penury grow everywhere around, but Maria’s father still has a whole tun of wine from his excellent 1921 vintage in the cellars and keeps waiting for a better moment to sell despite his wife’s increasingly urgent calls for ready money. In spring, Maria moves to the district town to work as a maid for an old retired friend of her father. Every once and again the young winegrower Kaspar from another Moselle village visits her there because he is in love, while Maria just laughs at him and at the mere idea of having a sweetheart at her young age. When her employer’s son Heinrich arrives to open his doctor’s practice in town before getting married, Maria falls for him at once without even realising it and one night she yields to him driven by emotions strange to her. By the time of Heinrich’s wedding Maria knows that she is pregnant and that she must return in shame to her family in Porten although things are getting worse there every day…

Despite its picturesque title, the novel The Golden Hills paints a gloomy portrait of a family of winegrowers whose fate stands for that of virtually all others cultivating vineyards in the Moselle and Rhine valleys shortly after World War I. As such it’s also a social study in the guise of a regional novel written from the perspective of an omniscient and unconcerned third-person narrator. In particular, it shows how the growing misery of the 1920s broke people financially as well as emotionally and made a peaceful peasants’ demonstration explode in a furious run on the revenue-office. Although villages and plot are fictitious, they are unmistakably modelled after real places and events known to the author, notably winegrowers’ riots and Moselle floods. With its many perfectly plausible twists and turns the novel is primarily action driven, but its main characters appear none the less nuanced and authentic for it. Descriptions of landscape are stunning with often symbolic overtones. In the final chapter the narrative tone changes from disturbing to vaguely hopeful without giving the story a truly happy ending, though. Of course, I read a German edition which thanks to the author’s precise and unpretentious language gave me much pleasure.

As it turns out, I was pretty lucky to pick The Golden Hills by Clara Viebig instead of another novel of the once widely read and today forgotten German author. Above all her best-selling, earlier novels seem to be permeated with the kind of nationalist spirit and racist views about Poles that later pleased the Nazis… and that would have repelled me without doubt. This late regional novel of hers set in the German Moselle valley, however, was an interestingly multi-layered and engaging read despite its rather gloomy plot and background. Certain aspects of it brought back to my mind another novel dealing with the backbreaking and poorly rewarded work on a vineyard, namely The Grape Harvest by Miguel Torga (»»» read my review) set in the Portuguese Douro valley. All things considered, The Golden Hills by Clara Viebig is a fictional testimony of hard times that deserves renewed attention.

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