Spinning out of control

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 11.12.2020

Last time I encountered the Grimm brothers was about three years ago in Gast Mannes’s Der Abschied des Hofbibliothekars, which is a collection of scholarly essays followed by a tongue-in-cheek revenge narrative. Now Jacob and Wilhelm pop up again in The Treasury of Tales, a novel by Robert Schofield, who has long been a key figure in terms of writing in English here in Luxembourg. It is the first novel published by Black Fountain Press, the plucky editing house that has been going from strength to strength.

The novel takes you back to Napoleonic times, to the seven-year French occupation of German territory. It imagines a journey to the Moselle valley by the Grimm brothers. Jacob, the elder, is swiftly going to return to Kassel, where he is working as a court librarian for King Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoleon’s youngest brother and newly appointed King of Westphalia, while Wilhelm is to stay in Rabenheim, a town on the Moselle, in order to research, classify and record the books in the library of the local convent which has been ransacked by the very French troops that are now keeping order. Grimm being Grimm, he also hopes to find tales that he will then collect and catalogue.

So, partly Schofield’s novel is a book about books, a celebration of the tactile qualities of leather-bound volumes, of their smells and, above all, of the beautifully detailed illuminations to be found inside ancient manuscripts.

Wilhelm chooses to stay in a run-down inn in Rabenheim, a town which is a far cry from the fairy tale Moselle villages surrounded by rolling hills and terraced vineyards. Here workers have their voices poisoned by the mustard mills whose stench hangs over the streets. The French occupation is mostly felt as intrusive though some locals try their luck in collaboration. Clearly, Rabenheim is a place trapped by history! There seem to be spies everywhere, and the French garrison are still hunting for the treasure trove they were expecting to find at the convent: Where are the bejewelled crucifixes and the gold chalices? Frustration triggers ever greater cruelty…

Schofield draws particularly vivid portraits of the innkeeper, of his wife and her sister. In some ways, Marie, the latter, echoes Azarías in Miguel Delibes’s Los Santos Inocentes as well as Ophelia in Hamlet. She lives the life of a marginal character distrusted and abused by many, yet her status as an outsider also gives her the freedom to roam and find refuge in the dark woods most of the locals are scared of.

The portrait of Catherine, her sister, is equally moving. A woman whose marriage meant social humiliation in exchange for a roof over their heads for both herself and Marie. When Wilhelm comes to stay at the labyrinthine inn, he soon discovers the brutality and the despair that define Catherine’s life. Yet is he really the man who loves too little? Or would any other visitor feel equally unable to help? We watch him being drawn into a web of lies and intrigue that he finds impossible to untangle. Crucially, the Grimm brothers seem out of their depth once they step outside library walls, once they leave their ‘singleness of purpose’ and the company of books.

All the characters Schofield conjures up are complex and ambiguous. And though the pace of the novel becomes slightly slack about halfway through, the plot then builds up to an ending that is both unforgiving and truly haunting. Even after you stop reading you will go on spinning the different threads together in your head. The magic of novel writing has triumphed once again!

Robert Schofield, The Treasury of Tales, Black Fountain Press, 2020 (ISBN 978-99959-998-6-5)

Janine Goedert
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