I don’t know how Sudermann is regarded in Germany, but it’s fair to say no one in the English-speaking world has heard of him – let alone seen one of his books in a bookshop (even though he does have a Wikipedia page).
The Silent Mill is among his earliest tales (1888), and it’s a fairly straightforward, pleasant story. The plot is this: two brothers are very close to one another; the elder brother gets married while the younger is off at war; then, when the younger brother returns, he and the elder brother’s wife fall in love. There used also to be a middle brother, but the elder brother killed him in a fit of madness – an act which he’s subsequently come to regret, and which indicates to the reader the likely outcome of the current menage a trois.
It’s one of those stories which you’re not sure whether to say is any good, because perhaps you find it all a bit simple and sentimental, but which you nonetheless probably enjoyed reading at the time. The situation – brothers in love with other brothers’ wives – has a basic interest to it (I find), though it has to be said, Grazia Deledda’s version (Elias Portolu) we read a few months ago, was much better – the emotions better described, better analyzed; – Sudermann is quite superficial in this respect.
The finest part about it, I thought, was the characterisation of the wife: a sort of mischievous innocent (she might be as young as seventeen – I wasn’t concentrating enough), little aware of the world’s darkness. Here is a passage in which the younger brother reads her (Trude) a poem about a miller’s wife (like herself), which she is expecting to be a happy tale, but which only presages future misfortune:
“The miller’s heart delights to roam”–Trude gives a cry of delight and beats time with her feet against the wooden posts. “I heard a mill-stream rushing.”–Trude listens expectantly. “I saw the mill a-gleaming.”–Trude clasps her hands with pleasure and points to the mill. With “Didst thou mean this, thou rippling stream?” the lovely miller-maid comes upon the scene and Trude grows serious. “Had I a thousand arms to stir.” Trude gives slight signs of impatience. “No flowret I will question, nor yet the shining stars.” Trude smiles to herself contentedly, “Would I might carve it upon every tree!” Trude sighs deeply and closes her eyes; and now proceed the passionate fancies of the young, love-frenzied miller, till they reach the cry of joy which penetrates above the rippling of the brook, the rushing of the mill-wheels, the song of the birds:
“The loved miller-maid is mine!” Trude spreads out both arms, a smile of quiet happiness flits across her face, she shakes her head as if to say, “What in the world can come after this?”–Then suddenly commences the miller-maid’s mysterious liking for green, the hunting-horn echoes through the wood, the jaunty huntsman appears. Trude grows uneasy, “What does the fellow want?” she mutters and hits the beam with her fist. The miller, the poor young miller, soon begins to understand.–“Would I could wander far away, yea, far away from home; if only there were not always green wherever the eye doth roam.” Thus the burden of his mournful strain. Trude puts out her hands in suspense and hope; why, it cannot be, things must come right again in the end. And then:
“Ye tiny flowrets that she gave.
Come rest with me in my lonely grave.”
Trude’s eyes grow moist, but still she hopes that the hunter may go, and the miller-maid think better of it; it cannot, it must not be otherwise. The miller and the brook begin their sad duologue–the mill-brook tries to console him, but for the miller there remains but one comfort, one rest:
“Ah! brooklet, little brooklet, thou wouldst comfort my pain,
Ah! brooklet, canst thou make my lost love return again?”
Trude nods hastily. “What has the silly brooklet to do with it? What does it know of love or pain?”
And then–there comes the mysterious lullaby sung by the waters. Surely the young miller must have fallen asleep on the brink of the rivulet–a kiss will waken him and when he opens his eyes the miller-maid will be bending over him and saying. “Forgive me, I love you as much as ever.”
But nay–what is the meaning of those words about the small, blue crystal chamber? Why must he sleep till the ocean shall have drunk up the brook? And if the cruel maiden is to throw her kerchief into the brook that his eyes may be covered, why, then the sleeper cannot be lying on the water’s brink, then he must be lying deep down–Trude covers her face with her hands and bursts into loud, convulsive sobs, and when Johannes still persists in reading to the end, she cries out “Stop, stop!”
A fair enough story then. I feel prompted to try some of his later work.