Friday, 8 March 2013

Stories of the Rhine, by Erckmann-Chatrian

Recently I have been reading Stories of the Rhine, jointly written by French authors Émile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian. Above its unforgettable romantic aesthetics, these stories are a jewel of prose in which the supernatural is present, and in which mysterious characters with cock feathers in their hats chat among wine and beer barrels, in the misty old cities on the Rhine.

In some tales, music is a central theme (“My illustrious friend, Selsam”, “The raven’s requiem”,“The song of the tun”), or has a major role (“Black and White”); similarly, painting acquires relevance in “The miraculous draught of fishes”. A treasure found by supernatural means, the treasure of Gontran the Miser, is the main topic of “The buried treasure”. “The child-stealer” is a peculiar crime tale, quite different from the other stories.

The first-person narrative is often used, as the witness narrator gets involved in the action. The prose combines - in an extraordinary way – agility and attention to detail. A richness of nuances pervades the brief descriptions, fully integrated in the narrative thread. Action is often linked to a thoughtful approach, to the musings of the characters (especially in “My illustrious friend Selsam”, a really notable flight of fantasy); sometimes action is linked to the philosophical (“Hans Wieland the cabalist”).

The stories are set in the late 18th century and in the 19th century.  The preoccupation with the supernatural is similar to the one in Hoffmann’s Tales, but in Erckmann-Chatrian’s tales, the perfection of their prose makes characters unforgettable: Furbach the bookseller and Nicklausse the coachman; Doctor Adrien Selsam, professor of pathology; Andreusse Cappelmans, the seascape painter; the ghost of Van Marius; Hérode Van Gambrinus the innkeeper and Théodore Blitz the violinist. Certainly this treasure earned a place of honor on my bookshelf.

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