Das Erwachen by Josef Ruederer

I admired the conception of Das Erwachen (The Awakening) more than I enjoyed its execution. As Josef Ruederer’s widow Elisabeth wrote in an brief introductory note, “[He] wanted to portray life — history and people — in his home city through the nineteenth century up to the present [1916] in a four-volume novel.” Unfortunately, he died in 1915, leaving the overall work unfinished. The Awakening, which was to be the first volume, was the only one completed at the time of his death.

Das Erwachen by Josef Ruederer

The contours of the larger work are visible in the first few chapters of Das Erwachen. The book begins at an unspecified but relatively modern time, and each chapter steps back a generation or two until Ruederer reaches the known beginnings of the Gankoffen family, a man who led the construction of Munich’s largest church, the Frauenkirche. He is mainly seen through the efforts of a later Gankoffen to trace the family’s continuity from its first famous son, through a period of obscurity in northern Italy, and back into social prominence in nineteenth century Munich. Each of these chapters offers an interesting period picture, but except for the family names they are mostly untethered to any ongoing narrative. I can imagine that Ruederer intended for these chapters to connect to elements in subsequent volumes, or for there to be equivalent chapters of an outro to match his intro, but as Das Erwachen stands, they give it an unbalanced structure.

Ruederer narrates the first chapter from the perspective of a very young boy, Peppi, giving readers an unusual view of life in nineteenth-century bourgeois Bavaria. Given that Peppi is a customary diminutive of Josef, and that Peppi’s family name Luegecker echoes Ruederer (particularly in using “ue” rather than “ü”), this chapter is very likely based on the author’s earliest memories. Some of them are slightly horrifying reminders of the accidents that could befall a child even in wealthy nineteenth-century households: falls, spills of boiling liquids, and so forth. Peppi presumably survives to adulthood, even though the chapter ends with his early school years and he is not seen again in the text.

The novel mostly follows the interrelated stories of three Munich families, the Gankoffens, the Luegeckers, and the Gaigls. The Gankoffens manage to catch the royal eye and rise to prominence in the establishment. The Munich Gaigls are established by two cousins who come down the Isar from Alpine foothills where there are vast numbers of Gaigls in various branches. One cousin becomes a brewer, the other a baker, and both prosper to the point that the Gaigl brewery is one of the largest in the city and the bakery is appointed to provide for the royal residence. The Luegeckers are initially more modest, running a restaurant, although one that is on the land of Munich’s most exclusive shooting club. The Luegeckers rub elbows with the rich and powerful, and aspire to gaining some of that for themselves.

The plot, such as it is, turns on two things. The first relates to the coming of the railroads. Bavaria was home to the first passenger rail service in Germany; it ran between Nuremberg and Fürth. When Munich joined the growing railway network later in the 1830s, its station was out on the city’s edge. Before long, plans were afoot to build a larger station more conveniently located closer to the center, just outside where the Karl Gate had been the western entrance through the city’s wall. Part of the land that would be used for the new station is where the Luegeckers run the shooting club. The Gankoffens own another parcel of land that would go to the station. Luegeckers want to buy the land before the Gankoffens, prestigious but unworldly, get wind of the plans.

The second main element of the plot points to some of the novel’s weaknesses. The seventh chapter of The Awakening, the halfway point of the book, introduces King Ludwig I as a major viewpoint character. What had been a novel of families, of striving, of changes in social eras suddenly becomes a story of royal perspectives and tribulations. It’s a rough transition, a poor fit, and my reaction was much more “What?!” than “Hmm.” Maybe Ruederer’s point is how badly royal absolutism (or semi-absolutism, as Ludwig does not want to abolish ministers and parliament; he just wants them to follow his wishes all the time) fits with the times. The problem is that I can’t really tell. Maybe Ruederer’s intentions would have become clearer if he had finished all four volumes. The Awakening ends with the king apparently reconciled to his people, after they have forced him to send his mistress, a dancer known by her artistic name Lola Martinez, whom he had scandalously made a Countess, into exile. The scenes in the novel reflect historical developments in early 1848.

The reconciliation was short-lived. Less than a month later, he allowed his mistress to return. Official resistance buttressed by popular opinion forced Ludwig to acknowledge that power resided in the bureaucracy, not in the monarch. Unwilling to live with this fact, he abdicated in favor of his son Maximilian. The crown prince was 37 at the time, and does not appear in The Awakening. Nor do any of his seven siblings who survived childhood (one did not) and were adults at the time the novel is set. Nor does Ludwig’s queen, Therese. (Their wedding in 1810, by the by, was the occasion of the original Oktoberfest, and the site where it is held is still named Theresienwiese, “Therese’s Field.”)

Ludwig appears very much alone in his chapters. There’s the occasional manservant, a jester dwarf who annoys him, and some ministers who annoy him even more. On the whole, though, Ruederer shows Ludwig alone with his thoughts, which mainly turn to his mistress and his poetry. These chapters could have been a plausible court intrigue, but Ruederer’s style in this novel leans heavily toward exposition. Far more often than not, he tells readers what is happening rather than showing them. Compared to a more modern storytelling style, it is like a panorama painting (or rather, part of a panorama because The Awakening was only one-fourth of the planned work) versus a movie or television show. It’s inevitably less immediate, and I found myself admiring the intent more than enjoying the work.

The narrative distance does have its occasional moments as, for example, when Herr von Firneusel — a court functionary who first appears as a member of an amateur string quartet seen during one of their rehearsal sessions — observes the decline in morals between the solid days of his youth and the fallen present. “Herr von Firneusel, who had long since finished eating, turned some bread rolls with his right hand and opined, with a shrug of his shoulders, that nothing would surprise him these days. Because what was happening, what was said, all came from the spawn of this crazy epoch, the lack of discipline and above all the increasingly powerful godlessness.” (p. 177, my translation) Plus ça change.

The plot thread about the train station also gets tied off by the end of The Awakening, though rather hastily. It’s possible that later volumes in Ruederer’s conception would have chronicled the Luegeckers’ rising fortunes through the time of Peppi’s early misadventures. Certainly Elisabeth Ruederer’s introduction gives the impression that Josef had plans for what would happen in the nearly 70 years between the end of The Awakening and the time when he was writing. This first volume is reasonably complete, even if some of the parts fit awkwardly together and others gesture toward a larger work that remains incomplete. It has not, to my knowledge, been translated into English.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/10/17/das-erwachen-by-josef-ruederer/


    • Sumner-Beebe Toni on October 22, 2021 at 6:10 pm
    • Reply

    I am curious- as a non-German speaker – what does the use of “ue” in a name vs “ü” tell you?

    1. No real difference. It’s mainly the convention for writing letters with umlauts if you don’t have a keyboard (or printing press, I suppose, back in the day) that doesn’t have German letters. Kinda like ß vs ss, although apparently also there are Rules about when you use one of those two options, except the Swiss don’t ever use ß, and the spelling reform of 2006 or so that was supposed to make things easier just managed to confuse me.

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