Growing trees

While the garden is getting greener, it seems that we are going to be trapped in this situation for quite some time still. For the first time since the beginning of the lockdown, we plan on watching the presidential announcement on TV tonight, although I don’t expect much surprise there: we will keep confined for at least another month, with probably no precise information about what’s supposed to come next, and when it will come. 

On the bright side, my fruit and vegetable producer from the famers’ market has organized a deposit in the city center; I am very much looking forward to fresh greens on Friday. Also, my bookshop allows for online orders with one pick-up hour in the week, so that my daughter’s birthday will still allow for some surprise gifts (without endangering the post office’s employees). And I have joined a group of volunteers who distribute meals to students who can’t afford food anymore (many have lost their income, or used to manage their short budget based on highly subsidized canteen meals at the University, which are not provided anymore).  And finally, I am getting ready to having my study at home freshened up and painted when confinement is over (I exchanged e-mails with the craftsmen and it looks like we are 2nd on their to-do list when they can get back to work) and decided to start cleaning the shelves and organizing the boxes progressively. This keeps me busy – both head and hands – and helps having something to look forward to for the time after, whenever it comes.

I still can’t decide on another big book, so I read a small one, Die Judenbuche, by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Another well-known novella I should have read long ago! I felt somewhat bad having talked about Droste-Hülshoff in my class and not having read much more than a poem or two by her: problem solved! Solved partly though, because it left me a weird impression, as if I now had unfinished business with Droste-Hülsoff and her beech tree.

This novella was written in the 1840s by one of the most famous, if not the most famous German woman writer from the mid-19th century, and based on a historical event. I am somewhat uncomfortable with higher class writers depicting lower class people in general. In this case, this was made all the more uncomfortable as all of these characters were dark, poor, hungry, full of bigotry.

There is darkness in many romantic texts and I should be used to it by now. But it was particularly dark. Partly because of all that is being left unsaid: although the novel follows the main characters quite closely, it changes perspectives all the time so that the reader is constantly left in uncertainty. Also, it only describes from afar the one character that is really key to the whole plot, so that said plot seems to be left to an arbitrary destiny.  And darkness prevails too in the setting itself: the houses are small and dark, a great part of the action takes place at night, dawn or shortly before sunset. The characters are dark, the setting is oppressing, even nature in and of itself is dark.

It was actually a relief to be done reading this novel, and I was disappointed in myself. Why have I not been able to enjoy this text? I mean, checking narrative structures, symbolism and character construction in novels usually is my fix in general and in 19th century novels in particular. This is one tree that still has to grow on me…

Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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