Jeremias Gotthelf: The Black Spider

This year’s Halloween treat from NYRB Classics is a new translation of Gotthelf’s novella/religious sermon The Black Spider (Schwarze spinne, 1842; tr. from the German by Susan Bernofsky, 2013). With the threat of plague and damnation around every corner, it fits the bill nicely.

Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.

Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.

The book opens with a beautiful sunrise over a green valley. Bernofsky’s wonderful translation skills immediately pay off as we read about the animals, including the “amorous quail,” waking up and singing songs as we zoom in on a nicely kept house.

About the house lay a Sunday gleam such as cannot be produced with just a few strokes of the broom applied of a Saturday evening between day and night; such gleaming splendor bears witness to a precious inheritance — inborn purity — that like family honor must be upheld day after day, for a single unguarded moment can besmirch it for generations with stains as indelible as bloodstains, which are impervious to whitewash.

This house, we may already guess, is a stand-in for the soul. It’s not enough to brush it off on Saturday night. To keep it clean — truly clean — one must tend to it every day.

And this is a particularly festive day. The house is all a bustle as everyone prepares for the baptism of a baby boy. Gotthelf lovingly spends twenty pages of this 100-page book on this baptismal day, showing us the foibles of the characters — none of them too severe. However, we also spend a bit of time getting to know their superstitions, the things that haunt them, and for good reason: going back to the house, salvation requires constant vigilance.

As the party relaxes, someone asks the grandfather, patriarch of the house, why he has an ugly, rough, black window post on his otherwise lovely home. It’s been a family secret, but the grandfather knows that it’s an important story that could save someone’s life — someone’s very soul.

He reluctantly begins the first of two related stories, one from a very long time ago indeed, and one from a few hundred years ago, each dealing with the inhabitants of this house and the reason for that black post.

Long ago, this was a village of peasants working under a sadistic overlord. This overlord and his knights were of the world, and cared more for their own pleasure than for their own soul. After nearly killing themselves with overwork building the overlord’s castle, the peasants receive an invitation to visit. Thinking they’ll be praised and thanked, perhaps with a feast, they hustle along. Instead, the overlord demands something impossible. He wants them, in the next thirty days, to transplant 100 fully grown birch trees, so he can enjoy some shade on the pathway to his new castle.

The peasant men know they cannot do this, and while they moan they are visited by a green huntsman — yes, the green man — who says he can help. Excited, they ask what he wants in return: an unbaptized child.

The remainder of the book is a fun, creepy, atmospheric horror story about a deal with the devil and the peasants’ unfortunate attempts to outwit the bad man.

Surprisingly, to me at least, Gotthelf doesn’t hold back. He must have figured if he was going to make a parable about damnation he might as well make it truly horrific. Physical travail, pain, death, and the like are inescapable. The best one can hope is to die smiling.

I highly recommend this quick read as you prepare for the witching hour.

7 thoughts on “Jeremias Gotthelf: The Black Spider

  1. I reviewed this at mine (http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2010/01/31/the-black-spider-by-jeremias-gotthelf/), where oddly enough I recommended as a possible candidate for a Thanksgiving read. I enjoyed it, but I recall being concerned with its gender politics which are a bit dodgy.

    Nice catch on the house as metaphor for the soul. It’s strikingly obvious, yet although I quoted the same section I didn’t make that point which suggests I missed it.

    I also found the contemporary characters a bit smug, a bit too sure of their own salvation. They seemed to lack humility, or perhaps to be overly proud of their humility.

    Still, criticisms aside it’s huge fun and a great suggestion as a Halloween read.

  2. Guy Savage says:

    As you know Trevor, I’ll be starting this in a few days. Really loking for ward to it

  3. Trevor says:

    I’m looking forward to discussing it with you, Guy.

    Max, I agree about the gender politics. Last night my brother and I recorded our podcast on this book, and I talked about that for a bit. I think it’s an interesting reflection of the time: Eve is the downfall of Man. Gotthelf certainly pushes that here.

    I also agree about the contemporary characters, which made me wonder if Gotthelf were suggesting they might be close to letting the spider out. However, when this point came up in our conversation, I couldn’t really find anything that helped me make this point and quite a bit of stuff contrary to it. I think Gotthelf is heavy-handed, and from the characters it comes off a bit smug.

  4. Agreed Trevor, though having raised those points it strikes me there’s a risk too of dwelling on the negative and not enough on quite how fun it is – which your review nicely brings out.

  5. Tony says:

    This is the kind of book people who don’t like classic literature should read, a great, frantic horror story with a moral :)

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