Much to my shame prior to proofreading this novel I had not heard of Eduard von Keyserling. It is easy to arrogantly get to the point where you feel you have read the major novels of a particular time and place, only to discover a forgotten classic and wonder how this one came to be forgotten. It is all the more surprising when a writer from a language and culture of prominence is neglected. If a minor classic work in Serbo-Croat were to be neglected one would be saddened but not surprised, but an equivalent neglect of a German or French classic should be a lesson in how capricious literary status can be. And there is much to be said for the world touched upon in Waves (German title: Wellen).
Eduard von Keyserling (1855-1918) was from a Baltic German noble family, born in what is today Latvia. The community of Baltic Germans he belonged to and whose minor aristocrats populate his novels, is now vanished. To put this disappearance into perspective in 1881 the population of Baltic Germans was estimated at 180,000, roughly 5% of Estonia’s and 6% of Latvia’s population. Today there are no more than 5,000 people of German descent, the two wars and their consequences having radically reshaped demographics.
The events of Waves take place over one long hot summer spent on the coast. The real life coastline location is thought to be the Curonian Spit, a sixty mile sand dune spit separating the Curonian lagoon from the Baltic Sea, a beautiful location popular with affluent sojourners and famous for inspiring expressionist painters from the art school in nearby Konigsberg. It is therefore fitting that one of Waves’ main characters is a painter.
The painter in question, Hans Grill, has eloped with a Countess who’s portrait he was commissioned to paint, by her much older husband. The beginning of the novel finds the painter and the Countess Köhne-Jasky, Doralice, one year after their elopement, holidaying for the summer in the home of a fisherman. Free spirited and ambitious, Hans has plans over the summer to make a detailed study of the sea, and then to establish a study in Munich where he will no longer be reliant on Doralice’s money. There is clear evidence that already Hans’ plans that involve a certain level of dull tethered domesticity for Doralice do not sit well with her listless and enigmatic spirit.
Also holidaying close by are the Buttlär family and the Generalin von Palikow. Baroness von Buttlär is particularly troubled by the proximity of such a disgraced woman, not least because of her husband’s incorrigible philandering, but because of her presumption that such an unhealthy example close by will be bad for her daughters, Lolo and Nini. Older, less neurotic and less disposed to such stern society judgements, her mother-in-law the Generalin remonstrates with her objections and insists that the family must at the least show a decent modicum of civility. An uneasy familiarity between the conventional family and the social pariahs is established, in part due to the adoration of the Countess by the young bride to be Lolo. Entranced by her beauty, gracefulness and wit, her sensitive nature romanticises the Countess.
Into this company comes not just the long expected Baron, but Lolo’s fiance, Baron Hilmar von dem Hamm, a dashing and passionate German Army Officer. Quickly and completely infatuated with the Countess, he makes no attempt to conceal his courtship, despite the presence of his own fiance and Doralice’s husband. One might expect the novel’s progress from this point to follow a rather typical pattern of an adultery repeated, a tragic clash of male pride and the further falling from grace of the Countess. But the novel never becomes a drawing room soap opera and avoids the besetting sin of many fin de siecle novels where affluent people with too much time and too little purpose saunter from one languid but cultured dejection to another.
Alongside the little dramas of Lolo and her Officer, Doralice and Hans, and the endless gossiping of the Buttlär’s there is the constant presence of the sea, beautiful, formidable, capricious: a perilous livelihood for the fisherman, a challenge for Hans to paint. Keyserling with his painterly prose and his eye for the contrasts and parallels between nature and humanity, effortlessly accompanies his story of romance and tragedy with rich evocations of the sea, the way a drama is dignified by the addition of apt music.