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Into the Light: A review of The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch

By Ray Barker.

Review of The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch

Ricarda Huch, The Last Summer, translated by Jamie Bulloch (Peirene Press, 2017)

A slight stack of handwritten letters is placed before you—approximately 60 pieces. Close inspection reveals roughly a group of seven writers, as the individualised script of the correspondence indicates. The first letter was mailed the 5th of May, “19—”, early in the twentieth century, from Kremskoye, a family estate in the Russian countryside outside of St. Petersburg. The final letter is dated August 9th the same year—about three months’ duration.

The letters are arranged chronologically. You begin reading the one on top, sent from a man named Lyu, to his confidant, Konstantin. It begins:

Having taken up my post, I will outline the situation as I find it here. I do not doubt that my plan will succeed; indeed, the circumstances appear even more favourable than might have been expected. The family seems well disposed towards me…

The Last Summer, a slim epistolary novel makes its first appearance in the English-language this year, courtesy of UK-based Peirene Press, as part of their East and West Series. Published as Der letzte Sommer in 1910, Huch remains largely unknown to English readers. A pioneering German historian, poet, philosopher and novelist, she was one of the first women to study at the University of Zurich, receiving her doctorate degree in both History and Philosophy in 1892. In 1926 she became the first female writer to be accepted into the Prussian Academy of Arts.

With these kinds of credentials, it begs questions like: Why has it remained untranslated and in relative obscurity to English readers? And why is it relevant today rather than, say, 20, 50 or 100 years ago? After finishing the story, answers to those questions remain elusive, though Peirene Press publisher Meike Ziervogel sheds some light. Ziervogel claims a recent discovery of the work, and its historical relevancy, as justification for the publication of what she calls, a “topical story” that looks at “how people can be trapped in an ideology”. Was it simply an accidental discovery that lead to its publication? There is a decidedly modern sensibility to the short work (more novella than novel at 114 pages), told in convincing and at times ironic voices that feel contemporary. But is Huch’s significant backstory, the book’s obscurity, and emphasis on political ideology reason enough to herald its arrival and return?

The story is simple, and told in a fine translation by Jamie Bulloch. Part domestic drama and part thriller, it is pieced together through the gradual accumulation of overlapping and intersecting notes sent from the handful of the von Rasimkara family members. The main theme, though, is Lyu’s “plan”, the details of which are considered and revealed through the correspondence he sends. Lyu serves as both protagonist and antagonist, and one might even call him an anti-hero, depending on your politics—such is the duality of his character, and cause. His mission is related to and obscured by the other character’s messages. Receivers and senders include “Papa”/Yegor, the governor of St. Petersburg; his wife, “Mama”/Lusinya; blonde, intelligent daughters in their early-20s, Jessika and Katya; precocious, sensitive son Velya; and Lyu himself, the bodyguard hired by Mrs. Von Rasimkara to protect her husband from real and imagined threats.

Following a student protest, Yegor closes the state university as the implicated students await trial. All of the family members are drawn to Lyu for different but complementary reasons. In an early letter from Velya to his cousin Peter, he describes his impressions of Lyu: “We were expecting someone with a bushy beard, trusty fists and a pompous manner… Instead he’s slim, clean-shaven, reserved; more of an English type.” Katya divulges this description in an early note to Peter as well: “The new secretary is very elegant, and he’s a brilliant man, phenomenally clever.”

While highly scrutinising and critical, the family accepts Lyu immediately, and the relationship becomes symbiotic: he is entertained by their domestic games and play, them by his sophistication, manners and intelligence.

But Lusinya quickly shares her suspicions with her sister-in-law, that even with a hired bodyguard, her husband is vulnerable at all times to attack. The family sees only who they want to see in Lyu, not aware or refusing to perceive him as the serious threat he was assigned to keep at bay. His intentions are clear, determined and detailed, as he shares his stray observations to Konstantin regarding his impressions of the family, and why he must act out:

The family has all the virtues and defects of its class. Perhaps one cannot even talk of defects; they merely have the one: belonging to an era that must pass and standing in the way of one that is emerging. When a beautiful old tree has to be felled to make way for a railway line, it’s painful to watch; you stand beside it like an old friend, gazing admiringly and in grief until it comes down. 

Life in the Rasimkara household is never placid, as the emotional waves running from sibling to sibling to parent to aunt and cousin and back—ripples shared in the correspondence which capture the fever pitch of the family in almost real-time. The family is an emotional group, quick to dash off a brief note to share the charged events transpiring over the three-month period.

The threads unspool gradually. The relative day-to-day dramas of any close-knit family hyper aware of one another’s business is told in sharp contrast to the excessively violent plans Lyu intends to carry out, conveyed in deeply confessional missives to Konstantin. A new plan for the ensuing murder develops:

I have had another idea which I feel has great promise. If possible I should like not to be personally involved in the act of killing, which means a machine would have to play my role. It now occurs to me that his could be a typewriter.

One of Huch’s greatest talents is in her ability to create distinct characters that appear fully realised, and even fresh to modern readers. It is Lyu’s and Lusinya’s messages—the two characters seemingly tied to one another most closely due to their intimate relationships to the Governor—in particular which provide insight on the main theme of the novel, and move the predetermined tragedy forward.

With the children traveling abroad and Lyu departing the home, the novel’s denoument seems sublimely idealistic for the governor and his wife, “like little children, the two of them are looking forward to being alone,” Lyu writes to Konstantin. Lusinya sends a final note to her daughter Jessika, in an effusive display of love, describing the home garden as being “full of new blooms,” a sign of hope. Lusinya is sitting next to the governor who is playing the piano “…more beautifully than anyone else in the world”—a tragically sad picture of domestic bliss. She asks, tenderly, “When will I decorate your hair with roses again? Who knows how soon? Beautiful things come unexpectedly overnight.”

Peirene Press, by bringing this book literally back into light, is giving Huch an equal chance at being read with her contemporaries (Hesse, Kafka and Thomas Mann, who named her the “first lady of Germany”), and within her proper historical context. Is this the delayed recognition she perhaps should have received the first time?  It is not entirely the “lost classic” it appears to be—it’s not only a short novel, but it often feels weightless. While it is an ultimately satisfying work, Huch’s life under Nazi Germany may be the more interesting story. Likewise, The Last Summer may best serve as a springboard to explore her other work (one assumes it remains untranslated in the original German—perhaps a greater loss). But consider this then a thoughtful and carefully composed mini-classic, occupying a tiny canvas that yields small, but not insubstantial, rewards.


Ray Barker

Ray Barker is an Archivist in the Special Collections department at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, the central library in Washington, DC. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Music & Literature, The Collagist, Heavy Feather Review, Full Stop, The Los Angeles Review, Denver Quarterly, Rain Taxi, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and daughter in Washington, DC.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 3rd, 2017.