Hans Henny Jahnn: Die Niederschrift des Gustav Anias Horn nachdem er 49 Jahre alt geworden war [The Notebook of Gustav Anias Horn after he was 49 years old]
After he had written Das Holzschiff (The Ship), Jahnn planned to add a tenth chapter. This book is the tenth chapter – all 1600 pages of it. Gustav Horn is writing about the Lais, the ship on which he travelled as a stowaway and which sunk and subsequent events. He is writing twenty-seven years after Alfred Tutein died. Gustav gives a clear account of what happened on the ship, primarily from an account by Tutein. He learns that it is Tutein who had killed Ellena, albeit under the influence of Georg Lauffer, the Supercargo. Lauffer will later kill himself and leave all his money to Gustav, which enables him and Alfred to lead a quiet life. Gustav forgives Tutein. He himself questions his own decision but recognises that he has a strong affection for the man and that Tutein is very penitent, even preparing to sacrifice himself as compensation for Ellena’s death. Ellena’s body went down with the ship and this saddens Gustav but he decides it is now all in the past. With the help of Lauffer’s money, they are able to settle down to their life.
They move to South America, going to Lagoa dos Patos and then to Bahía Blanca. We get one of Jahnn’s intriguing stories early on. The landlady of the place where they are staying insists that people share a room, including Gustav and Alfred. When Gustav remonstrates and says that people would prefer smaller but single rooms, she finally admits that the reason for doing this was that, when she was working there as a maid, there had been a murder of one of the guests. The culprit has never been caught. However a young lad who had worked there had disappeared immediately afterwards. She admitted that yes, she did know him and that in fact, she had been engaged to him She had never married. Gustav and Alfred make a side trip to Africa, where they meet a sailor who was on the Lais and tells them more about what happened. They then head for Scandinavia, particularly Norway, where they settle down. The pair do often quarrel but tend to make it up. Gustav is very keen on music and takes up the mechanical piano, even though he admits that his competence is only average but he does practise. However, he starts to write music and manages to write several pieces, including a symphony, which are performed and he goes onto achieve fame as a composer. At this time, Tutein becomes friendly with a young lad called Egil Bohn and he work with Alfred, who is now a successful horse trader, though he does have his ups and downs. Meanwhile, Gustav starts an affair with Gemma, which causes some problems between the two of them.
The second part of the book carries on in the same manner but the pair now seem to be alone and, as Gustav says, the years go by. However, the key event of the book is the death of Tutein. We are well prepared for it. He prefigures his death and Gustav warns us of it. The death is described in detail but, in particular, what follows is also described in detail. Gustav does not tell his friends and neighbours of Tutein’s death but pretends that he has gone away. They speculate (it must be because of a girl, one says) but Gustav feigns ignorance. However, we know that he has embalmed the body and he keeps it in a chest for a long time. Gustav continues his life and his relationships with his neighbours, particularly the vet, Daniel Lien and his family, but also with nature, his farm (in particular his beloved horse, Ilok) and with his new servant/companion, Ajax. It is Ajax that he eventually tells of Tutein’s embalming and it is Ajax that urges him to have the body properly buried at sea. Gustav does have the consolation of the success of his musical career. The book ends with Gustav’s detailed will, which shows that he has almost certainly been murdered.
What makes this novel so special is Jahnn’s rich use of language. Though it has not been translated into English, it has been translated into French. I have not seen a copy of the French version but I wonder how the translator was able to cope with Jahnn’s very Germanic language. Right from the beginning, when there is a storm, Jahnn gives a wonderful description of both the storm and Gustav’s feelings, mirrored by the storm (Inmitten des brausenden Kampfes zwischen Licht und Finsternis, in den ich gestoßen worden war [In the middle of the thunderous battle between light and darkness into which I was thrown]) and continues in this way, as Gustav’s feelings are brought forth. More particularly, Jahnn’s wonderful lyrical descriptions of nature are some of the finest I have read in a novel. English readers might compare them to Henry Williamson or Richard Jefferies. Much of the novel is about this love for nature but also the impermanence of man (In sieben Jahre wird unser Leib abgebaut. In einem Tag schon verwüstet ihn das Fieber, die Angst Schmerzen, Verwundungen. [In seven years, our body is broken down. In one day, fever, fear, pain and injury ravage it]). Death stalks the novel, with the memory of the death of Ellena, Gustav’s worry about it and actual deaths, such as their friend Gösta Vogelquist and Mimi, whom Gustav kissed and who later died of diphtheria. Both Tutein and Gustav’s father foretell their own death. We even hear of the Bishop of Winchester who was the richest man in England but this, to his great annoyance, could not save him from death.
At sixteen hundred pages, this is not a book for everybody. Jahnn/Gustav goes into great detail of Gustav’s life, his fears, his music, his obsession with death, his love of nature and, above all, his relationships with others, particularly Alfred Tutein. The writing is at times superb, though, at times, also very long-winded. I think it is highly unlikely that it will ever appear in English and, though there is more of a taste for long novels than there used to be, I cannot see many people wanting to read all of this work. Nevertheless, it stands as a fine achievement, even if one that is likely to remain relatively unknown.
First published 1949/50 by Weismann
No English translation
Published in French as Les cahiers de Gustav Anias Horn après qu’il eut atteint quarante-neuf ans by José Corti in 1997