A Painterly Eye

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I first discovered Theodor Storm about eight years ago when someone sent me a copy of The Dykemaster in an excellent translation by Denis Jackson. I say excellent, not because of its truth to the original German, of which I’m not competent to judge, but because of its strong and consistently evocative English; like all good translations, it brings its own flavour to the story.

And what a story! Storm wrote it in 1871 and the setting is the coast of North Friesland a century earlier, with the heroic dykemaster’s plan to strengthen the sea defences being impeded by the ignorance and prejudice of the locals, as if the forces of man as well as of nature were against him. The historical background is less important, though, than the threatening climate of that storm-tossed coast and the immediate circumstances of its inhabitants’ daily existence, intimately described. You’re reminded a little of Thomas Hardy, in whose novels the tribulations of Tess or Jude are somehow given an extra-keen edge by our knowledge of the landscapes in which they move.

Since then the same publisher and translator have produced a collection of three of Storm’s novellas under the title Paul the Puppeteer, which is the English title of the most substantial of the three. This is a much gentler tale than The Dykemaster, and much less widely known, though in its own way equally compelling.

It’s set mostly in the same part of the world that Storm knew and understood so well, Friesland, this time in the town of Husum a few miles inland. Its narrator, Paul, is an old craftsman telling the author the story of his life: how a travelling puppet master brings his show to the town, how the boy Paul falls for the puppet master’s daughter and how, many years later, in the distant German town of Heiligenstadt, he is able to rescue the innocent father from undeserved imprisonment.

The ending is happy and the whole thing rich in sentiment. Does the child Lisei have beautiful black eyelashes and do they lie modestly on a perfectly formed cheek? They most certainly do, but haven’t we seen plenty of such creatures elsewhere? Why, then, does the read

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About the contributor

Nicholas Bagnall, a former literary editor of the Sunday Telegraph, was educated at Oxford, where he sat at the feet of J. R. R. Tolkien and acquired a taste for unnerving legends.

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