Category: Fiction

Karen Duve
Fräulein Nettes kurzer Sommer
[Fraulein Nette’s Brief Summer]

Novel

The Rebel Betrayed

This spring writer Karen Duve was awarded three prestigious literature prizes. Born in Hamburg in 1961, Duve is no stranger to such recognition, having received numerous awards before for her stylistically and thematically varied prose. But the freelance author’s most recent novel, Fräulein Nettes kurzer Sommer (Fräulein Nette’s Brief Summer), has been a surprise bestseller. Even more surprising is the fact that her heroine is a German romantic poetess who, despite her considerable literary importance, is largely unknown to the reading public except perhaps from school textbooks: Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, born in 1797 as the daughter of Catholic landed gentry in the Münster region, died unmarried in 1848 in Meersburg on Lake Constance. In Duve’s narrative she comes alive as if she were our contemporary. What’s more, the times she lived in, the Biedermeier period, marked as they were by political and social upheaval, are revealed to us in previously unknown, bizarre and tragicomic qualities.
 
In an almost 600-page yet highly entertaining mixture of historical epic, artist novel, family saga and moral portrait, Karen Duve examines not one but three summers in the life of Droste, known to her friends as “Fräulein Nette.” The title refers metaphorically to the brief summer of her life as a woman, which ended in her early twenties. The focus of this work is not on how the Westphalian baroness became a poet and composer (because she was that too) but what she herself referred to as the “catastrophe of her youth”: the infamous plotting of an envious and misogynous society which attempted to put this rebellious and unconventional young lady in her place, having a profound influence on the subsequent course of her life.
Years of research, an audacious attempt to put herself in someone else’s shoes and no small measure of feminist solidarity form the basis of Duve’s case study, which she embeds in a sharply drawn, often wickedly amusing panorama of characters. At the center is Fräulein Nette, ever-ailing and physically unappealing, yet extremely clever, cultured and quick-witted, the reason why some perceived her as a “nuisance.” We see her surrounded by extended family, by friends and acquaintances in the houses of the Westphalian nobility, and furthermore by the intellectuals and writers of her day, from the Grimm Brothers to Schopenhauer, from Hegel to young Heine. And finally the university students of Göttingen, wildly eccentric or fiercely nationalist, whose lively debates “Fräulein Nette” took part in and in whose company she also met the two gentlemen who would abuse her tender feelings on behalf of a scheming uncle, compromising her in a lasting way – a fate which in those days was tantamount to being condemned to eternal spinsterhood. But instead of resigning herself to playing the victim Annette von Droste-Hülshoff created a work that secured her a place in literary history.
 
Karen Duve has captured all this in a seemingly effortless prose that is neither stilted nor artificially modern, consistent even in her dialogues, and retaining a wonderful balance between empathy and irony. The fact that the focus is not on Droste’s literary work but on the environment she lived in, on her personal fate and fortunes, makes the book all the more suitable for translation, the linguistic gap of two centuries being rendered inconsequential.
 
Kristina Maidt-Zinke

By Kristina Maidt-Zinke, 11.09.2019

​Kristina Maidt-Zinke is a literary and music critic for the Süddeutsche Zeitung and writes reviews for Die Zeit.

Translated by David Burnett