Monday, November 28, 2011

St. Nicholas's Trouble

by Felix Timmermans (1886-1947), Flemish author

"De nood van Sinter-Klaas" (1924, in Het keerseken in den lanteern) is a tale of St. Nicholas and his comrade Knecht Ruprecht, set in modern, 20th-century times:

Es fielen noch ein paar mollige Flocken aus der wegziehenden Schneewolke, und da stand auf einmal auch schon der runde Mond leuchtend über dem weißen Turm.
Die beschneite Stadt wurde eine silberne Stadt.
In this city, not a mouse or a man was stirring, except for a poet in the throes of composition and a night watchman and Trinchen Muster, a confectioner who was despondent since she had not sold her masterpiece, a great chocolate ship which stood grandly in the windows of her shop. The ship has silver paper and sugar adornments, and puffs of cotton wool rise from its chimneys; its name is the Congo (this is the first of several politically incorrect things which I will gloss over); and she had invested her entire money in it.

Besides there is a poor child, Cecilia, who cannot sleep since she had dreamt for several nights that she would receive the chocolate ship. She is waiting for its arrival with a pillow for it to drop onto, for fear that it might be injured otherwise by its fall through the chimney.

Unseen by these townsmen, the moon gapes like a silver portal; from it, on a beam of light, St. Nicholas descends on his pale donkey and, holding the beast's tail, Knecht Ruprecht glides down with him.

The donkey is practically buried in sweet and baked things, many of which Knecht Ruprecht had made and many of which were bought in shops on earth. They tour the houses of the city and Knecht drops the presents through the chimneys into the expectant plates and shoes; in a few cases, he leaves a switch for naughty children instead.

One house is left at last — Cecilia's — but unluckily the confectionery has gone. Cecilia opens her curtains and sees St. Nicholas and Knecht Ruprecht, standing before her house somewhat at a loss.

St. Nicholas is magnificently arrayed and she admires
den goldenen Bischofsmantel, der funkelte von bunten Edelsteinen wie ein Garten, [. . .] die Pracht der Mitra, worauf ein diamantenes Kreuz Licht in die Nacht hineinschnitt wie mit Messern, [. . .] den Reichtum der Ornamente am Krummstab, wo ein silberner Pelikan das Rubinenblut pickte für seine Jungen, [. . .] die feine Spitze [. . .], die über den purpurnen Mantel schleierte
In other words, he bore a gold bishop's mantle decked in bright jewels like a garden, a magnificent mitre from whose diamond cross light cut into the night like knives, and a richly ornamented crook, whereupon a silver pelican was pecking at ruby blood for its young, and fine lace that veiled the crimson mantle.

Cecilia overhears the mens' difficulties and suggests the chocolate ship. So they wander out into the cold streets to Trinchen Muster's shop, and since the child is too feeble to awaken the confectioner by knocking at the door, they hail the poet. But when the poet has pounded on the door until Trinchen comes down and St. Nicholas asks for the ship, she is obstinate: she will not give it away for nothing. But the poet, St. Nicholas and Knecht Ruprecht, and Cecilia are equally poor.

So St. Nicholas fetches the night watchman, who offers to pay the twenty-five franks' price of the ship the day after; since Trinchen knows him and trusts his word, she relinquishes the ship at last.

Cecilia comes home and the pillow remains empty even as St. Nicholas and Knecht Ruprecht glide up the moonbeam again. She is disconsolate, but then she looks in the ashes of the hearth and finds that quietly and unnoticed by her, the chocolate ship has been laid there, unharmed.


Picture: Intocht van St. Nicolaas, by A.C. Callenfels (Alkmaar: Gebr. Kluitman, 1903)
From Wikimedia Commons


As a 26-year-old I have more problems with the story, or find it more materialistic and a bit self-indulgent, than as a 10-year-old. But it is atmospherically and detailedly written and beautifully illustrated in our German-language copies — we have one hard-cover and one soft-cover copy, each with pictures by Else Wenz-Viëtor. (Since I couldn't find these illustrations at Wikimedia Commons, though they might no longer be covered by copyright, I have substituted one from close to the date of publication and one from some six centuries earlier for this blog.)


From: Sankt Nikolaus in Not, Felix Timmermans
Trans. into the German by Anna Valeton-Hoos
(Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1987)


Illustration: "St. Nicholas miraculously filling the holds of the ships with grain," (1332)
by Lorenzetto Ambrogio (c. 1290 – 9 June 1348)
Uffizi Gallery
From Wikimedia Commons

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