Bad Moses: Wilhelm Raabe’s “Der Hungerpastor”

Raabe, Wilhelm (2002), Der Hungerpastor, Edition Anker
ISBN 3-7675-6945-0
[Originally published in 1864]

This review’s going to be very short, since I am really tired and the book’s really not great. Look, even it’s author hated it. Wilhelm Raabe was a German writer of the late 19th century. His work is generally divided into two distinct phases. His very first novel, Die Chronik der Sperlinggasse (1856), was his breakthrough, and its style, Bürgerlicher Realismus, i.e. bourgeois realism, proved defining for the first part of his oeuvre. Bürgerlicher Realismus was torn between its two main intentions: showing the real circumstances of that new class, the bourgeoisie, and celebrating the ideals and values of that class. This led to a literature that was curiously Dickensian; the realism never rose to social criticism, but it came close, at times. In its worst moments it was dull and moralistic. A great example of the latter is Der Hungerpastor (1864), which has been translated into English as The Hunger Pastor. The novel’s plot is simple enough. It is a classic Bildungsroman: it details the life of Hans Jakob Unwirrsch, who is born a son of a shoemaker, and manages to go to university where he studies theology and becomes a pastor. He finds a wife and weathers many mishaps until he finally settles in a poor parish at the Ostsee. His best childhood friend, a Jew named Moses Freudenstein, becomes his antagonist when he meets him again many years later.

The writing is a marvel. It’s not, strictly speaking, good, it often feels clumsy or awkward, it’s usually circuitous, and weighted by learned allusions that feel superfluous and gratuitous. But the further you progress in the book, the more it all seems to cohere in a strange way, especially if you factor in another important element: the vividness of so many of his descriptions. In its best moments the book feels like a children’s book, highly illustrative, and suffused with a quirky humor, which extends even to aptronyms. Quirky humor, however, isn’t the only sort of mirth Raabe offers his readers. Another one’s irony. Reading the book is so much like listening to someone tell a story that some phrases appear to be equipped with a video file with the narrator’s smirk in it. Take note: this is not the sophisticated irony of Thomas Mann, it is its obvious and grimy-faced cousin. The narrator has important things to say, and he’s not taking chances: he wants everybody to understand him. He makes clear points about proper moral behavior. Raabe wrote his early novels to be accessible to the lower classes, educating them about right and wrong, in a style that he thought would appeal even to a peasant or a worker. The Hungerpastor can, in many ways, be seen as the culmination of this enterprise; indeed, although Raabe frequently referred to his novels of that period as “Volksbücher”, he always singled out the Hungerpastor as the one where he achieved his purpose most completely. And, as many of his earlier books, it was a resounding success. When Raabe died in 1910, the novel had known 34 pressings.

Today, several of his novels and novellas are in print at large publishing houses, but the Hungerpastor, a huge popular and critical success at its time, has needed the efforts of an obscure Christian publisher to stay in print. One reason is the change in taste. Raabe himself has come to hate his earlier work, referring to it as apprentice and even child’s work. His masterpieces, such as Stopfkuchen (1891), which he personally considered his best, are far more adept at social criticism and far more ambiguous and complex works of art. By this time Raabe had lost all the simple yet circuitous elements that are so prominent in the Hungerpastor. The critical establishment, these days, agrees with Raabe’s own assessment, thus, clearly, a taste in change could account for this, but other works of the same period, such as Die Chronik der Sperlinggasse (1856), or Schüdderump (1870) are alive and well. The linchpin here is antisemitism. Der Hungerpastor, as well as one of the novels its modeled on, Gustav Freytag’s Soll und Haben (1855) has frequently been accused of antisemitism. In contrast to Freytag’s patriotic novel, which is among the most important German novels of the 19th century (and also dependent on a small niche publisher for staying in print), the case for the Hungerpastor isn’t as straightforward.

In fact, the novel explicitly addresses the issue, taking a clear stance against antisemitism, bafflingly. On the other hand, the antagonist of the simple Christian German Hans is a greedy rich Jew, who betrays his former friend. What Raabe is doing, basically, is telling his readers that not all Jews are bad. There are good Jews, actually, Jews are generally nice smart cosmopolitan merchants. But there are evil Jews who conform to stereotype. These are not just a disgrace to Germans, they are a disgrace to their own race. History tells us that this is not a minor point. Many famous antisemites have held Jews in high esteem, this is why, they claim, they have become a danger to the Germanic race (cf. for instance, Marr’s Der Sieg des Germanenthums über das Judenthum). Additionally, Germans have a unpleasant history of claiming to know what’s best for Jews. See any debate about Israel on TV these days. The book is an enjoyable read, but some parts of it are hard to swallow. The unease resulting from this is the reason why the book has dropped out of print for decades. That’s no reason not to read it. It is of its time and of its genre, but it’s certainly worth reading. It’s a good bad book, so to say. Flawed, but fun.

10 thoughts on “Bad Moses: Wilhelm Raabe’s “Der Hungerpastor”

  1. Thanks for that review, Shigekuni. That’s another two German authors you’ve introduced me to that I hadn’t heard of before. Soll und Haben is available in English, but I’ll have to continue battling away with my German if I’m to read antyhing else at any point.

  2. Well done!! A few aspects could be added: if Freytag wrote an antisemitic book, then this one is a pendant to it. It was intended that way by Raabe, showing that he could do better than Freytag, even in “exposing” the “wrong” Jew. And btw. I’ll never understand your tendency to allow space for every piece of shit produced. Just like Freytag’s “Soll und Haben”, I don’t regard it as a literary loss if the Hungerpastor is out of print. A reading suggestion: Freytag once proved Wagner to be a “Jew in music” – using Wagner’s own stupid antisemitic pamphlet. That’s a treat!

  3. The HUnger Pastor is a major classic, and like Freytag’s novel it’s important for the history of the German novel. As a stylist, by the way, Raabe is heads and shoulders above Auster. Easily. Go ahead and reread the HUnger Pastor. My comments on the language in the review were praise. I think he does a lot of interesting and surprising things there.

  4. Unlike you I can’t read just for the enjoyment of the ‘making of’, s.a. form and structure – if I don’t have to.
    I need that stuff to agree with me. We had this discussion before, remember? Tarantino..

  5. Pingback: Wank: Thomas Strittmatter’s “Raven” « shigekuni.

  6. der hungerpastor

    i would say ‘der hungerpastor’ is not raabe’s best work. i love ‘die akten des vogelsangs’ or ‘stopfkuchen’. there is even something like irony and melancholy in these two books (which i am not sure of if i found it in ‘der hungerpastor’) i enjoyed reading them.
    best regards be:a

  7. I agree. It’s not his best book by a long stretch. Stopfkuchen is superior in almost every way. It’s also less antisemitic.

  8. Pingback: Werner Bräunig: Rummelplatz « shigekuni.

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