Sunday, April 17, 2016

Jeremias Gotthelf : "The Black Spider"

When Thomas Mann was doing his research in preparation of his novel “Doctor Faustus”, he needed examples of some Ur – German story –telling. The idea  was to imitate in certain chapters of his book both the language and the true “gothic” atmosphere of  Biedermeier writings. He found what he was looking for in a novella “The Black Spider”, written by the Swiss author Jeremias Gotthelf in 1842.

In an Alpine village guests gather to celebrate the christening of a newborn child in one of the oldest and most respected farmer families. One guest is surprised that in the new house where they  seat themselves around the food-laden table, an old  black wooden post has been used to support the framework of the construction.  The merry patrons urge the grandfather of the new –born child to  tell the story of the house and the old man reluctantly uncovers the chilling secret of the wooden beam and the ancient story of their Alpine village which was once ripped to shreds by a demonic curse.

The story the grandfather will tell is so horrific that it will cut the appetite and the merriment of the guests. Thankfully and unlike the horror stories of today, a clear message is given to ward off Evil in the future : to relentlessly praise the Almighty God and live a simple and honest life.

Thomas Mann, loved Gotthelf’s narration of the Homeric  battle between Good and Evil and admired the spider book "like no other piece of world literature”

The horror has not aged. Creepy crawlies abound. Young mothers should abstain..

Susan Bernofsky’s translation (New York Review Books Classics ) feels awkward and contrived at moments