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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

Waves

by
Eduard von Keyserling


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Waves



Title: Waves
Author: Eduard von Keyserling
Genre: Novel
Written: 1911 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 208 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Waves - US
Waves - UK
Waves - Canada
Le murmure des vagues - France
Wellen - Deutschland
Onde - Italia
Olas - España
  • German title: Wellen
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Gary Miller
  • Previously translated as Tides, by Arthur J. Ashton (1929)

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Our Assessment:

A : neat and straightforward, and very effective

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Die Zeit A+ 16/6/2011 Michael Maar


  From the Reviews:
  • "Man liest das erste Kapitel und kommt ins Stutzen. Man liest mit erhöhter und dann wieder bang gebremster Geschwindigkeit weiter und sieht sich am Ende perplex. Ist das denn die Möglichkeit? Was für ein kapitaler Wurf, was für ein Meisterwerk! Der Bursche ist ja besser als Fontane! Welche Prosa! (...) Die Handlung tut überhaupt nichts zur Sache, obwohl auch sie schön ausgedacht und nicht ganz ohne Überraschung ist. (...) Seine Paarstudie ist so fein, trocken und tief wie seine Psychologie überhaupt. Keyserling versetzt sich in alle Figuren hinein und gibt jeder ihr Recht." - Michael Maar, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Waves is set in a Baltic Sea resort town, and the story begins with a large family beginning to settle in for a summer vacation. The family matriarch, the widow of General von Palikow, has rented out a whole inn to put them all up in. The Generalin had arrived a few days early, with her companion and friend Fräulein Bork, a cook, and a maid, to prepare things, and when the novel opens the bulk of the family has just followed -- specifically, the Generalin's daughter, the Baroness von Buttlär, and her three children, grown girls Lolo and Nini, and fifteen-year-old son Wedig. The Baron is expected later -- as is Lolo's fiancé, Hilmar.
       It is, however, an outsider who is the dominating figure in the novel, a woman from the same circles as the family who has, however ... gone a different way. The beautiful young Countess Doralice Köhne-Jasky shocked society by leaving her husband the ambassador and running away with ... an artist. Fräulein Bork has the dirt, explaining to the Baroness that Doralice is in this resort-town as well, staying in a local house: "with ... well, let's call him her husband".
       The Generalin tries to be above it all, figuring they can just ignore the wayward woman -- she isn't one of them any longer, after all, she isn't the Countess Doralice, but rather:

The beach is wide enough that we can walk past each other, past a stranger named Frau Grill. Her artist, I believe, is named Hans Grill.
       Indeed, she reassures her daughter:
You are the Baroness von Buttlär, are you not, and I am the widow of General von Palikow, and that means we are both fortresses, admitting no one who is not of our rank; and so we can sleep easy tonight, as if Madame Grill did not exist. We simply decree, Madame Grill does not exist.
       But these are fin de siècle times, and nobility is no longer the secure, dependable bastion it once was, and even as everyone has a general sense of their place, the borders and bounds have become much more indistinct (as even chirpy young maid Ernestine's behavior shows). Matters aren't helped by the fact that Doralice is such a stunning beauty that all are drawn to -- notably the Baron, when he joins the family, who can't just walk by her, be she Countess or mere Frau Grill; engaged -- and hence on the cusp of true adulthood, including that mysterious world of sex -- Lolo; and, eventually and unsurprisingly, Lolo's fiancé, Hilmar. For all the Generalin's imperious attempts at treating Doralice and husband Hans as literal non-entities, reality proves more awkward:
     "To be sure, replied Baroness von Buttlär with raised eyebrows, "this couple seems to be unavoidable for us, our inevitable fate."
       Of course, it works both ways: Doralice escaped the city and a stultifying life with a much older husband for the would-be complete freedom of being an artist's inspiration and companion only to find:
All of a sudden Privy Counsellor Knospelius is standing in front of me on the strand, and over there Generalin von Palikow and Baroness Buttlär are moving into the Bull's Inn -- my old life at every turn.
       The other major entity in this seaside novel is, of course, the sea. It always beckons, and several characters succumb to its call: the shore and its firm ground suggests stability, but also brings everything too close together, while the bordering great expanse of water suggest the promise of complete freedoms. The realistic Doralice isn't completely pulled in by the sea -- as others will be -- but she wants to find a balance, an in-between world between the staid foundations of the old guard like the Generalin (who, of course, has nothing to do with the water) and the complete freedom of an idealized art-world that Hans (almost) represents. An ideal, as Doralice pictures it, is to: "hang in a hammock out there over the sea, just high enough so that that the waves did not reach it, but close enough so that if I allowed my hand to dangle I could touch the white foam". Hans tries to oblige her, holding her in his arms above the waves -- but of course he can only do so briefly. Still, she praises his efforts:
"We don't belong in the sea, of course. But you must be very strong, to be able to hold me that way."
     "Aren't I," replied Hans proudly, "and you know, the way I was holding you, when I think about it, that was actually symbolic, in the middle of the waves, and I was holding you."
     But Doralice replied tiredly: "Oh no, it would be better if it were not symbolic."
       Of course, there's a lot more that is symbolic in the novel is, too -- especially to do with the water. So also, Hans has difficulty painting the sea, suggesting:
I can paint your blue dress, nothing is easier than that, but to paint it so that everyone can see that you are there under the blue -- that is art. With the sea there is also something there, just under the transparency and the greenness, which lives and moves, and that is precisely the sea.
       Keyserling proves himself the artist with his portrait of Doralice, building up revealing layers of the character not so much in focusing on her but on her effect on those around her and their (re)actions. Like the sea, she, like every human, is unfathomable in all her depths, and yet the story neatly captures her and her tragedy.
       Much of Waves is observational, its characters not so much voyeurs but watchers. At one point, Privy Counsellor Knospelius is presented standing at the window of a cottage, "holding opera glasses to his eyes and looking out at the beach", and Keyserling has him narrate -- murmuring to himself -- what he sees as his gaze sweeps across the beach and water (which includes others observing, too -- Nini "bathing under the watchful eye of Baroness Buttlär", for example). From the fishermen's wives who watch the sea, waiting for their husband's returns, to the Baroness' children making a game of watching and waiting to catch sight of Doralice and Hans, to some peeking into windows, so many of the characters are so often involved in watching and observing; indeed, Knospelius isn't even the only one who gazes over the scenes through opera glasses (themselves, of course, also symbols of a particular class and life, and used not to look at real life but a staged representation thereof ...) .....
       The action in the novel is fairly limited and simple. There is some in the water -- some swimming-dips that take dramatic and unexpected turns, and a variety of excursions on boats, often with local fishermen, and often at night. There is a party that Knospelius holds, which he manages to invite everyone to, bringing them all together. But mostly this seems to be a leisurely summer-vacation tale, the characters happy enough amble and drift about.
       The appearance of Lolo's fiancé stirs things up. Hilmar is a lieutenant in the Brunswick Hussars, and prides himself on his reckless abandon:
To want only one thing, to see only one thing and to chase after it, that is really the only way to live.
       Doralice can't help but be somewhat drawn to Hilmar, as even the artist she ran away with clutches to old traditional ways which she had, after all, sought to escape, Hans insisting:
We cannot live in unbounded space. I cannot stand in the moonlight and hold you between sky and the sea forever. And so we must organise our lives, with regular activities and a permanent household. We need ordinary, everyday life
       Hans doesn't want to be jealous, but he can't help it; Doralice doesn't want the attentions of Hilmar, yet part of her is also drawn to it. And, of course, there's also Lolo to consider .....
       It is the Generalin who eventually tries to get Doralice to more decisively come to her senses:
Very well, you ran away from the old Count. One shouldn't do that, if only for the sake of morality, but it was a foolish marriage and you allowed yourself to be carried off by your painter. But now, my dear, enough is enough, you can't allow yourself to be continually abducted. You can't live off of elopements.
       The other most significant character, alongside Doralice, turns out to be Privy Counsellor Knospelius. Also a representative of the old world order and its absolutes and expectations, his appearance already suggests what is becoming of that, as he is a diminutive hunchback. He insinuates himself into the lives of all the others, his role growing in the novel right to the very end. He makes Doralice uneasy at first, yet the strikingly sensible man is ultimately her only hold; he proves to be a remarkable figure, his development in the novel exceptionally well-handled by Keyserling.
       It is Knospelius who, early on, leads Doralice to one of the more disturbing sites by the sea -- an old cemetery too close to the shore, the waves uncovering the dead. Waves is only in parts a decadence-novel -- but at least for this one scene Keyserling goes all-in:
     "But," cried Doralice, "there is a hand there."
     "Certainly," explained the Privy Counsellor, "that is a hand and an arm and there is a skull illuminated in lovely pink and in that dilapidated coffin over there is a whole man. As you see, this is a cemetery, which the sea is slowly sweeping away.
       Knospelius sees it in almost romantic terms -- "And then comes a stormy night and they are carried off on their journey out to sea" -- while Doralice can't help but be a little disturbed ("I think I would have preferred not to have seen it this morning").
       Waves very nicely captures nobility trying still to hold it together, but inevitably fraying. Unsurprisingly, it is Knospelius who comes up with (in this novel published the year before the Titanic ...) the perfect example:
It is the same as what happens when the great passenger steamers suffer an accident but continue to serve dinner punctiliously right up to the very last minute. It is, so to speak, the symbol of moral order.
       And, of course, in this symbol-laden novel, everything is creaking -- or, more appropriately, being washed out from underneath by the relentless pounding of the waves. It's no surprise that the tragic keeps bobbing up -- averted once, twice, but not three times -- but it is remarkable how beautifully Keyserling manages to reach his conclusion.
       There's a great deal of foreshadowing in the novel, and so much of it seems very simple and straightforward, but it's really quite a remarkably intricate picture: unlike Hans, Keyserling really gets to what's beneath with his almost effortless-seeming easy surface brushstrokes. The exchanges of dialogue are excellent, and the atmosphere very well realized.
       Waves is a beautiful novel, appearing, at first glance, to be deceptively simple but in fact astonishingly rich.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 February 2019

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Links:

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About the Author:

       German author Eduard von Keyserling lived 1855 to 1918.

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© 2019 the complete review

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