The Last SummerRicarda Huch
A psychological thriller by the pioneering German writer Ricarda Huch. A novel of letters from the last century – but one with an astonishingly modern feel. Now for the first time in English.
Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. To counter student unrest, the governor of St Petersburg closes the state university. Soon afterwards he arrives at his summer residence with his family and receives a death threat. His worried wife employs a young bodyguard, Lju, to protect her husband. Little does she know that Lju sides with the students – and the students are plotting an assassination.
‘She is the First Lady of Germany. No, she is probably the First Lady of Europe.’ Thomas Mann on Ricarda Huch
Why Peirene chose to publish this book:
I came upon this novel in the original German a year ago. And I loved it. It’s a proper epistolary novel. Even though it was written more than 100 years ago, it feels as relevant now as then. The Last Summer asks how people can be trapped by an ideology. A topical story. An enjoyable read. A gem.
Written by Ricarda Huch.
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.
East and West series
120pp, paperback with flaps, £12
Ricarda Huch (1864 –1947) was a ground-breaking German historian, novelist and philosopher. As one of the first women to study at the University of Zurich, she received her doctorate in Philosophy and History in 1892. She authored numerous works on European history. She also wrote novels, poems, and a play. Der Letzte Sommer (The Last Summer) was first published in 1910. In 1926 she was the first female writer to be admitted to the Prussian Academy of Arts. She won from Thomas Mann the title: ‘The First Lady of Germany’ – and even had an asteroid named in her honour.
Jamie Bulloch is a historian and has worked as a professional translator from German since 2001. After studying Modern Languages, he obtained an MA in Central European History and followed up with a PhD in interwar Austrian history. His translations include books by Paulus Hochgatterer, Alissa Walser and Timur Vermes. He is the translator of five Peirene titles: Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius, Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe, The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, winner of the 2015 Schlegel-Tieck Prize for German Translation, The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift and The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch. He is also the author of A Short History of Tuscany and Karl Renner: Austria.
‘She is the First Lady of Germany. No, she is probably the First Lady of Europe.’ Thomas Mann
‘The very model of stylish female of troublemaker… a social revolutionary in the deepest sense.’ Clive James
‘A captivating and at times electrifying read, one which expertly evokes the instability and tension of the period… A remarkable lost-and-found classic.’ Malcom Forbes, The National
‘I was gripped by this remarkable short novel… it is both a work of its time, and a timeless work.’ Imogen Robertson
‘The novel [has] a poignant Chekhovian melancholy. The shocking denouement, however, is effected by a stroke of Modernist brilliance that is anything but Chekhovian.’ C.J. Schuler
Lyu to Konstantin
Kremskoye, 5th May 19—
Having taken up my post, I will outline the situation as I find it here. I do not doubt that my plan will succeed; indeed, the circumstances appear even more favourable than might have been expected. The whole family seems well disposed towards me and I detect no hint of any suspicion, which is entirely natural, as only we in the know could fear the contrary. If the governor has made enquiries into my person, this cannot have done any harm, as all the way from elementary school to university my reports have been outstanding. The one thing that might paint me in a damaging light – my quarrel with my father – is mitigated by the fact that his domineering and eccentric personality is widely known. But I rather think that he has not undertaken such enquiries; the man is so completely free of mistrust that in his position his behaviour would be verging on naivety if it were not more a reflection of his fearlessness and his poor judgement of people. Besides, my appointment seems to be entirely his wife’s doing. An anxious woman by nature, ever since she received the threatening letter she thinks only of how she can protect her husband’s life. Mistrust is not a feature of her character either; whilst she senses implausible dangers lurking at every turn, she would offer the murderer a spoonful of soup if she felt the poor man’s belly were crying out for a drop of something warm.
She told me that the letter you wrote gave her the idea of seeking a young man who, under the pretext of working as her husband’s secretary, would protect him from possible attacks without his realizing it. She had failed, however, to keep her fears or her plan secret from her husband. Eventually he gave in to her incessant pleading for the sake of peace, but also because he has been suffering recently from a type of neuralgia in his right arm, which is making writing difficult. His one stipulation was that – at night-time at least – he should be under the sole protection of his wife. The two of them laughed and he added that his wife was such a dab hand at making the bedroom secure that he could confidently place his trust in her. She never went to bed without first checking every single cupboard and especially the curtains, all of which she regarded as potential hiding places for criminals. Of course, she said spiritedly, one had to be circumspect, but she certainly wasn’t afraid; why, she even left the windows open at night because she liked the fresh air. She was, however, toying with the idea of having bars fixed in front of them. For seeing as all the doors to the house were locked, those people with malicious intent would have no choice but to climb in through the window. Still, she did concede that she feels less apprehensive now that I am here. As she uttered these words there was something tremendously endearing about her expression. I said, ‘I do hope so. Any worries you might have now I would deem an affront to my professional pride.’ During our conversation their son came into the room. He gave me a look of concern and said, ‘Are you starting today already?’ This made us all laugh so much that it lightened the atmosphere at once. The son, his name is Velya, is a handsome and terribly droll young chap, not much younger than I, but he still behaves as a child of five, albeit with a slightly different set of toys. He is studying law in the hope of one day pursuing a diplomatic career, although you would not suppose any of this. Velya is a smart, modern individual with numerous unrestrained impulses. His susceptibility knows no bounds. All one can say about his character is that he has none, and this makes him thoroughly inconsequential. Things only interest him in so far as he can adorn them with his witticisms, the great and irresistible charm of which lies in the languid way he utters them.
Besides the son there are two daughters, Jessika and Katya, between twenty and twenty-three. Both are sweet, blonde creatures, so similar they could be twins. Initially they were prejudiced against me because they consider their mother’s fear to be foolish and they were concerned that their summer seclusion might be disturbed. But as they find me handsome and stylish, and Velya, who is their role model, feels drawn to me, they’re gradually coming round to the idea of my being here. I don’t know why, but these three children remind me of little canaries huddled close together on their perch, chirruping away. There is something childishly harmless about the family overall, which could make me and my mission appear ridiculous to my eyes, but I’m sufficiently acquainted with the human soul to know that at its foundation is bottomless pride. Hatred, even ill-will assumes a certain familiarity with these people; deep down they feel themselves to be alone in a world that belongs to them. None of the others here are of particular significance and do not encroach upon their peace. The servants consist of a coachman, Ivan, who likes to drink – Velya calls him ‘the gaffer’ – and three maids. All of them are old-school Russians: they still feel like serfs, worship their masters and yet pass judgement on them with an unwitting sense of superiority because they are closer to the primary source of life. Dear creatures who, like animals, fill me with a certain awe. Such are my initial impressions. You’ll be hearing more from me soon.
For Reading Groups
Reading The Last Summer in a book group? Here’s some questions to get conversation going:
1. The Last Summer is told through letters. How does this technique bring us into the narrative?
2. The Last Summer was written at a time when the powers of Europe were in disarray. Do you think the book was written to sympathise with the need for change, or the hierarchy that stood in place?
3. What themes does this story use to make it still seem relevant to our current era, despite being over 100 years old?
4. What does the correspondence between the Governor’s children show about the generation gap in 1910 Russia?
5. Lyu describes the children of the Governor as “little canaries huddled close together on their perch, chirruping away”. Does the author succeed in showing us that this rich family is “alone in a world that belongs to them”?
6. There is a deep sense of loyalty between the family and their servants. How does this affect our thoughts on Lyu’s political opinions?
7. What role do you think the Aunt and her nephew play in the story?
8. Katya claims that “It’s outrageous that a man can enjoy such power; this fact alone spells doom for our circumstances.” Given Huch’s later open rejection of Nazi rule, how far do you think she uses Katya to portray her own political views?
9. Why do you think we never see the letters of Konstantin to Lyu?
10. Who do you sympathise with most, and why?
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