Creepy cover, don't you think? The Black Spider (Die schwarze Spinne) by Jeremias Gotthelf (1797-1854) was loaned to me by a friend. She also shared a small book of photographs of Gotthelf's (Gotthelf was the pseudonym for Albert Bitzius) native village in the Emmental region of Switzerland. I was quite taken with the simplicity of his home, and the breathtaking beauty of the Swiss countryside (on a good day apparently the Bernese Alps can be seen in the far distance), as well there were photos of the costumes people would have worn at the time. And a delicate looking desert with what appeared to be schlagobers (I'm such a pushover for foreign pastries), which put a sweet spin on the pairing. An interesting juxtaposition it ended up being.
When I realized that The Black Spider is a morality tale I admit that I was less enthusiastic about the prospect of reading the story, but I am so glad I persevered. Gotthelf was a Protestant pastor and this is a story that oozes with moral teachings. This will happen if you if you do this (fill in the blank with your favorite sin). The this is what concerns the residents of a small Swiss village when a Faustian pact is made with the devil and the result is, can you guess by the cover illustration of the book? According to the introduction this is a plague legend, which devastated the town in the early 1400s, and the story is based on "motifs from ancient myth". In this case the plague is a swarm of particularly nasty spiders.
The main story is bookended by scenes from contemporary life (Gotthelf wrote The Black Spider in 1842), as a celebration of the baptism of a newly born infant is taking place. The first pages are quite idyllic as the family prepares a feast for the villagers. It's all very pleasant and there is lots of detail about this small community, but I wasn't quite sure where it was leading and found my attention beginning to stray just a little.
Putting my bookmark in a natural break in the narrative (there are no chapters just pages filled with solid text with the exception of a few breaking points), I set it aside to finish another book not realizing the story was just about to take off. When I picked it back up thinking I had better get moving I started reading the main section of the story and literally couldn't put it down until I finished. It's a short book, so it can be gulped, but now I wish I hadn't waited until the last minute (the book has been sent on now). Gulp it you may, but I wish I had taken more care reading the contemporary parts.
The middle section of the story reads like a fairy tale, though a Grimm's fairy tale. It goes something like this. An awful prince decides to build a beautiful castle high up on a hill and gets his peasants, this being feudal Switzerland, to do all the heavy lifting and organizing. The prince's knights have a lot to answer for as they egg the prince on in his choice of location. Halfway up a hill it's all bare, but a nice tree lined avenue would make for a good view. So the awful prince sets the peasants yet another task of moving fully grown trees from the village to his avenue and gives them an impossible deadline with which to work. An impossible one as a matter of fact, but the prince can't go back on it now and appear weak to all and sundry. There are no good answers--the prince will kill the peasants if he doesn't get his way and if he does, they'll have no time to care for their crops so they'll still die due to lack of food when there is nothing to harvest.
The solution comes by way of a hunter clad in green to offer his help. He can get the trees moved and planted with the barest of help from the peasants so they can attend to their crops. All for the low, low price of an unbaptized child. An offer that is not initially taken up, but when all the forces of nature seem to conspire against the villagers in their work, it's an offer that needs to be reconsidered. Besides, it's possible to cheat the devil, right?
If Gotthelf was alive today I think his writing might just rival any modern day author working in the genre of horror when it comes to telling an engaging, page-turner of a story. I will say, however, I don't want to stare down any black spiders anytime soon. This is a story rich in meaning and symbolism, and even with some moments of heavy handedness, I was still hugely impressed when I finished reading. He gives you much food for thought and riffs on a number of different themes--rich vs poor, men vs women, piety vs secularism, greed vs generosity. I was especially interested in his take on the collective responsibility of one village vs the actions of one person as you could easily apply it to the early wars of the twentieth century.
The Black Spider wasn't a big success when Gotthelf first wrote it, rather it was another book entirely that brought him fame outside Switzerland.
"It was not until the twentieth century that The Black Spider became the most widely read of its author's works. In 1949, Thomas Mann wrote that there was scarcely a work in world literature that he admired more than The Black Spider, and its position as one of the outstanding examples of narrative fiction in the German language is now generally recognized. Perhaps the psychological theories of Freud and Jung and the nightmare fantasies of Kafka had to be absorbed before the European imagination was ready for Gotthelf's The Black Spider."
One of my lucky finds so far this year, despite a swarm of spiders guaranteed to raise the hair on the back of your neck. Now I think I really must read Kafka.