Die Akten des Vogelsangs
[This page by Dagmar Paulus]
Die Akten des Vogelsangs; The Vogelsang Files (1895)
Es ist eine Dummheit, wenn man sagt: Der Mensch braucht nur zu wollen. Dieser wilde Mensch konnte nicht mehr wollen.
It is a stupid thing to say that a strong will is all that is required. This wayward man was unable to want anything anymore.
As in Die Chronik der Sperlingsgasse, Raabe uses the technique of a first-person narrator to tell the story of this novel (first published in 1895). On receiving news of his childhood friend’s Velten Andres’ death, the narrator Karl Krumhardt decides to write down an account (or, as he calls it, files; hence the novel’s title) of the former’s life and especially of his unhappy love to Helene Trotzendorff.
The three friends grew up together in the neighbourhood of the Vogelsang, an idyllic environment yet untouched by nineteenth-century urbanisation and industrialisation:
Bauschutt, Fabrikaschenwege, Kanalisationsarbeiten und dergleichen gab es auch noch nicht zu unserer Zeit in der Vorstadt, genannt ‘Zum Vogelsang’. Die Vögel hatten dort wirklich noch nicht das Recht verloren, der Erde Loblied zu singen.
There was no such thing as building rubble, paths covered with factory soot or sewage works back in our time in the suburb called ‘Zum Vogelsang’. The birds there had not yet lost their right to sing the earth’s praise.
Acquiescing to the wish of his rather strict father, Karl succeeds at school and studies law. Velten, however, has to repeat a class and is not overly interested in career issues. His tender feelings towards Helene are probably mutual, but the girl emigrates to America with her parents and gets to marry a millionaire there. With her gone and Karl becoming a successful, if somewhat tedious, legal practitioner, Velten remains the only one of the three failing to find his place in the world and settle down. He gradually becomes increasingly estranged from his friend Karl whose wife Anna, an epitome of bourgeois complacency and decorum, doesn’t approve very much of her husband’s friendship to Velten.
After his mother’s death, Velten burns all the furniture in her house in a spectacular bonfire, thereby forfeiting all his wordly belongings due to his, as he calls it, “Eigentumsmüdigkeit” (being tired of possessions). In a very strange and powerful encounter, an ‘ape-human’ called German Fell, member of a varieté witnessing Velten’s bonfire, solemnly greets him as an equal, as someone who is “verklettert” (entangled) in the Tree of Life:
Auf bürgerlich festen Boden hilft wohl keiner dem anderen wieder herunter; aber reichen wir uns wenigstens die Hände von Zweig zu Zweig.
We won’t be able to help one another reach solid bourgeois ground again but let’s shake hands at least across the branches.
Karl’s wife runs away in disgust at the sight of this pyre and Karl, following her, never sees his friend again as Velten leaves shortly afterwards and sets out to travel the world. Years later, on receiving a letter from Helene, Karl learns that Velten has died in Berlin.
The novel’s most interesting character is undoubtedly Velten whose problematic nature and notorious inability to make use of his talents to his own advantage qualifies him as an anti-hero. He is an independent free thinker, both unwilling and unable to settle down to a bourgeois existence. In that, his life contrasts sharply with Karl’s modest but solid career and his slightly boring but respectable marriage. In this respect, Die Akten des Vogelsangs bears a certain resemblance with Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus whose narrator, Serenus Zeitblom, could indeed be Karl Krumhardt’s brother. Although Mann never mentioned Raabe as an inspiration for his novel, some scholars think that he was influenced by him.
Further Reading in English
John Walker, ‘Wilhelm Raabe: Die Akten des Vogelsangs – The End of Inwardness‘, in John Walker, The Truth of Realism: A Reassessment of the German Novel 1830-1900 (London: Legenda/MHRA, 2011), pp. 89-109
Further Reading in German
Soeren R. Fauth, Metaphysischer Realismus und Willensverneinung in Wilhelm Raabes Erzählungen 'Zum wilden Mann', 'Unruhige Gäste', 'Die Akten des Vogelsangs' und 'Wunnigel' (Wuppertal: Arco, 2006)