Die Judenbuche / The Jew’s Beech Tree, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff

beechtreeDie Judenbuche (The Jew’s Beech Tree) is an 1842 novella by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, a 19th-century German writer and composer who is known mainly for her poetry. This, her only completed novella, is loosely based on a true story: the unsolved murder of a Jew during a time of unrest and lawlessness, namely the disintegration of the Roman Empire. The novella is considered “a masterpiece of German realism” and also one of the very first written murder mysteries.

The central character is Friedrich Mergel, who grows up with an alcoholic father and a bitter mother in a town that shows little regard for the law. The locals frequently poach game and steal timber from the surrounding woods. When Friedrich is 9 years old, his father dies in a drunken stupor. Friedrich’s efforts to uphold a positive picture of his father fail, and he withdraws from his fellow villagers. His mother is unable to help him and eventually, she lets her brother, Simon, adopt the boy. Simon is a shady character with many different business interests—none of them completely legal. He is a bad influence on Friedrich, and the boy grows up to be vain, aggressive, and shifty.

When Friedrich is in his early 20s, timber thieves are plaguing the area. Friedrich is at least partly responsible for the death of an official who tries to catch the thieves. A little while later, a Jew who has lent Friedrich money and has come to ask for it back is found dead. Friedrich is the main suspect, but he is able to escape. 28 years later, Friedrich returns to the village a broken man. While he is welcomed into the village, he eventually hangs himself in the same beech tree below which the dead Jew was found.

For me, the most interesting aspect of this novella was the way the story was told. A narrator either is omnipresent or has clearly limited knowledge. In this narrative, we have a narrator who is more than a by-stander or observer, but also less than an omnipresence. At times, it seems as if the narrator might be a villager, firmly placed within the events that are taking place, but at other times, he or she provides us with insights into the thoughts and motivations of different characters. Because of the constantly shifting perspective, the reader can never know exactly what is going on. There are several shady characters, but not one is ever openly accused of wrong-doing. The ongoing speculation of who did what is part of the fun of reading this novella, and the story ends without a definite solution to the murders.

The novella has been translated into several languages, and most of them are easily available online. Especially for someone who enjoys 19th-century literature, this is well worth reading. While I personally might not call it a masterpiece, I do think it is an entertaining—and quick—example of realist literature.

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While I read this piece mainly for German Literature Month (hosted by Caroline and Lizzie), it also counts for Novellas in November (two events hosted separately by Poppy Peacock Pens and Laura at Reading in Bed) and the Women’s Classic Literature event over at the Classics Club.

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12 comments

  1. The style of this story sounds like something I would find very frustrating. I typically like certainty in my reading and it seems like in this book, it’s hard to even place the narrator. I enjoyed hearing about it from you though 🙂

  2. I’ve visited Meersburg and have read some of Annette’s poetry but have nor read Die Judenbuche. I have it in a book of short stories (Erzâhlungen) so maybe I’ll read it for next year’s German month!

  3. I read this two years ago for German Lit Month in 2013. I found it very interesting and was glad to relive it through your excellent post.

  4. This sounds interesting – especially the narrative style and the time in which it was written. And, it’s great that it fit into 3 of your events!
    I’m having a great time collecting novella titles for next November. 🙂

    • It was quite interesting to read, but honestly, I don’t think this novella would appeal to that many readers today. I’m collecting lots of novellas for next November as well. I might have to start reading them early.

      • Me too! The ones I requested from the library about a month ago are finally coming in, but now it’s the end of November! oh well. 🙂

  5. Oh you are involved in quite a few good reading events. I have not heard of this book but it does sounds interesting, especially the different perspectives you talk about. Next year German Lit month!

  6. The shifting point of view sounds very interesting – I can imagine how this might add to the unsettling nature of the story. I’d never heard of this author, so it’s good to read about her work here. The novella must have been quite groundbreaking/influential in its day.

    • I’m not surprised you hadn’t heard of her before. I don’t think she’s widely read even in Germany. People might know this novella, but her poetry has a strong religious tone (she grappled with doubt in her faith), so it is not something that would have a wide appeal. The poems were only published posthumously, so while she had some literary success during her lifetime, most came after she was dead. I actually only read this novella because I found a book of her complete works among the books I inherited from my aunt.

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