I think it was two summers ago that I was last in Chicago for the annual Goethe Institut Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize Extravaganza. (I love these gatherings. The award ceremony, the people involved with German literature, the panels, etc. It always seems to be a beautiful couple days weather-wise as well, which makes the whole series of events even cooler. Hopefully I can get invited back sometime . . .)
Anyway, at that last Extravaganza, Susan Bernofsky was telling me that she was translating the creepiest book that she’d ever worked on—something called The Black Spider. I suspect that most everyone reading this (not including Michael Orthofer, because Michael knows about everything) is unfamiliar with this classic of world literature, about which Thomas Mann claimed, “there is scarcely a work in world literature that I admire more.” That won’t be the case this fall.
Here’s the description from NYRB:
It is a sunny summer Sunday in a remote Swiss village, and a christening is being celebrated at a lovely old farmhouse. One of the guests notes an anomaly in the fabric of the venerable edifice: a blackened post that has been carefully built into a trim new window frame. Thereby hangs a tale, one that, as the wise old grandfather who has lived all his life in the house proceeds to tell it, takes one chilling turn after another, while his audience listens in appalled silence. Featuring a cruelly overbearing lord of the manor and the oppressed villagers who must render him service, an irreverent young woman who will stop at nothing, a mysterious stranger with a red beard and a green hat, and, last but not least, the black spider, the tale is as riveting and appalling today as when Jeremias Gotthelf set it down more than a hundred years ago. The Black Spider can be seen as a parable of evil in the heart or of evil at large in society (Thomas Mann saw it as foretelling the advent of Nazism), or as a vision, anticipating H. P. Lovecraft, of cosmic horror. There’s no question, in any case, that it is unforgettably creepy.
And although this has been translated into English in the past, it’s never been translated by Susan Bernofsky. So even if you are familiar with it, I’d still recommend checking out this version, since, Susan Bernofsky.
Over at World Books, Bill Marx has a very thoughtful review of two Swiss horror books: The Vampire of Ropraz, by Jacques Chessex, translated by W. Donald Wilson and published by Bitter Lemon (a Best Translated Book nominee) and The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf, translated by H. M. Waidson and published by Oneworld Classics.
The spanking new The Vampire of Ropraz asserts that, when faced with irrational violence, the forces of ignorance and fear predominate. The classic The Black Spider (which was first published in 1842; this is a reprint of the 1958 English edition) revolves around a reneged deal with the Devil, who wants, but doesn’t get, an unbaptized child as payment for his services. The betrayal unleashes the title monster, who can be stopped by goodness, if it is free of moral corruption and hypocrisy. The latter turns out to be a tall order. But at least there’s some Paradise around to counterbalance Gotthelf’s Hell.
Interestingly, both of these books root their avenging vision of mayhem in the brutal mistreatment of children. Gotthelf appears to wish for a God “Who would avenge Himself terribly for all the injustice that is done to poor children who cannot defend themselves.” In a strange way, the Devil is doing the Lord’s work by punishing the sadists among the low- and upper classes.
I was pleasantly surprised by The Vampire of Ropraz, and although The Black Spider doesn’t sound like my sort of book, it does come with a ringing endorsement by Thomas Mann, who claimed it is “like almost no other piece of world literature.”
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