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i loved a german

2 april 2024

In his introduction to A.H. Tammsaare's 1935 novel I Loved a German, Allan Cameron seems to give up the fight before you even turn to the main text. Cameron says of Tammsaare's novel that it "can occasionally appear arcane" (viii) and that it's "discursive" (ix); one of the best things he has to say about I Loved a German is that it is "not of course incomprehensible" (vii). Cameron does conclude that "this is one of those novels that deserve to be read more than once" (x), but that's after making it seem like a desperate slog to get through even once.

I think that Cameron's fears are overstated. I do not have patience with arcane or discursive fiction, but I read I Loved a German straight through in a single day (albeit including a stint on an airplane). I was consistently intrigued. Christopher Moseley's English translation is vigorous and stylish.

I Loved a German: it may sound like a joke title, but it's serious business for a young Estonian man in the interwar years in his new republic. For centuries, Germans were the ruling class in the Baltic states that formed the northwestern marches of the Russian empire. (The decay of this aristocracy features in the excellent Latvian film The Swamp Wader.)

Tammsaare fences his love story in with an elaborate frame. In his own person, he explains in a preface that he is just transcribing the novelistic journal of an Estonian, that the German woman he'd loved is dead, and that the narrator himself has disappeared. So the story comes pre-spoiled. We are also denied the usual assumption that a first-person narrator must survive his own story. Our hero may or may not, but our author makes sure that he's at least beyond objecting to publicity.

Our narrator has grown up on a farm. With the liberation of Estonia from German and Russian rule, he's gone up to university and joined a Korporation, analogous to an exclusive fraternity. He lands a bureaucratic job but it barely pays enough for his board, let alone his room. His landlady's maid has to bring him extra food at night under the pretense of not wanting to eat it herself.

The Estonian falls in love with Erika, granddaughter of a German baron. She supports her family by giving lessons to the landlady's family. Erika falls just as hard for the narrator. They begin to walk out together. 1930s Estonia doesn't provide much privacy for a couple hemmed in by prudish norms. At one point, I was sure they had consummated their relationship while sheltering from the rain under a spruce tree (88), but it appears not. Later on, Erika's grandfather tells the narrator "Be content with love alone; marriage to you would be too heavy a burden for her" (113). Is the old guy suggesting that they date for a while but not marry? Or is that too 21st-century an assumption to read back into a 90-year-old text?

Still later in the story (122-29), a suitcase that Erika seems to be carrying randomly becomes the emblem of her love for the narrator – so much so that Vagabond Voices, the publisher, uses an image of a suitcase for the cover illustration. The narrator doesn't realize till the very end (when he reads a posthumous letter from Erika) that she'd packed the suitcase because she was willing to run away with him, to become "compromised." The reader realizes this pretty quickly, so the suitcase scene is very well done. "You love grandfather more than you love me," Erika announces (127), and it's true. The narrator will defy convention, but only on conventional terms. He is willing to love and even marry his German, but not to elope with her and embark on a bohemian defiance of the old rules.

Yes, the novel is talky at times. One motif is the conversation in the boarding house, where the landlord and landlady keep up a battle-of-the-sexes dissection of Estonian society, social class, and love. When the narrator and Erika can get a word in edgewise, it's usually at cross purposes, revealing their alienation from their hybrid world, and from each other. But these set-pieces work to contextualize the plot, which otherwise would be just boy meets girl, boy loses girl. But it's engaging and affecting. I may not read I Loved a German twice, but it's pretty good read through even once.

Tammsaare, A.H. I Loved a German. [Ma armastasin sakslast, 1935.] Translated by Christopher Moseley. Glasgow: Vagabond Voices, 2018.