The Last Summer (2016, tr. Jamie Bulloch. Original: Der letzte Sommer, 1910) feels like a treasure chest full of letters. As we read through them, we are drawn more and more into the book: unlike the characters, we are able to see the story through different points of view, so that we are turned into the invisible but ever-present vector holding the plot together.
It’s the beginning of the 20th century, and we are in pre-Revolution Russia. The governor of St. Petersburg, Jegor von Kasimkara, acting in the name of the Tsarist regime, has ordered the state university to be shut down, following a period of student unrest and protests. The revolutionary students were arrested and their trial is due to start at the end of Summer. After receiving death threats through the mail, the governor retreats with his wife and three children to his countryside residence, where he plans to spend the Summer.
Concerned for Jegor’s life, his wife, Lusinja, hires a secretary to serve as his bodyguard. Lju, the man put in charge of the governor’s safety, is a young philosophy graduate who soon captivates everyone in the family, especially the governor’s children – his son, Welja, and his two daughters, Jessika and Katja. However, the danger is coming from inside: only the reader knows that Lju is, in fact, a member of the terrorist group that is plotting to kill the governor.
The story is told through a series of letters written by the various characters and arranged in chronological order: we read the letters sent by Lju to his co-conspirator, Konstantin; by Lusinja to her sister; and by the children to themselves, to their aunt, and to their cousin Peter.
The epistolary narrative style allows us to be the central structuring element around which the pieces of the puzzle are slowly assembled: since we can see the story through multiple perspectives, we are given insights into each character’s motives and blind spots.
At the beginning, Lju seems firm in his belief that the government was the “agitator and lawless barbarian” and the revolutionaries were the ones on the side of justice. He is very critical of the family’s lifestyle: “There is something childishly harmless about the family overall (…) deep down they feel themselves to be alone in a world that belongs to them.” As we read on, our feelings toward Lju become inversely proportional to the trust he manages to build with the von Kasimkara family.
Gradually, however, as he gets to know the family better, Lju seems to become more moderate, and we notice that he starts to feel reluctant to complete his mission: “The family has all the virtues and defects of its class. Perhaps one cannot even talk of defects; they merely have the one: belonging to an era that must pass and standing in the way of one that is emerging. When a beautiful old tree has to be felled to make way for a railway line, it’s painful to watch; you stand beside it like an old friend, gazing admiringly and in grief until it comes down”.
The governor, however, does not make things easier for Lju: Jegor is adamant that the revolutionary students must be executed. The letter where he washes his hands of guilt and responsibility for the students’ death is as violent and chilling as Lju’s assassination plans – and both equate killing with some kind of moral superiority and justice.
The letters are brilliant at communicating to the reader precisely what the characters cannot see or understand at the moment they are writing: we can see the points where they misunderstand each other, and the points where they take each other for granted. Different perspectives on the same events overlap, creating a gradual sense of accumulation that is made more unsettling by the characters’ steadfast cluelessness. Summer is coming to an end, the students’ trial is around the corner, and Lju must decide and act fast.
By contrasting what the characters feel and what the reader knows, you build up tension masterfully, so that a somewhat claustrophobic sense of unease starts to grow, lurking beneath the placid domestic life of the von Kasimkara family. We know what is going to happen, but there is nothing we can do: we are as trapped in the treasure chest as the characters are in their blind spots.
“The fact that everything, by virtue of coming into existence, is doomed to pass – that is the sole tragedy of life, for it is the nature of life, for life so constructed is the only one that can ever be ours.” – Ricarda Huch, The Last Summer
About the book
- Peirene Press, 2016, tr. Jamie Bulloch, 121 p. Goodreads
- Original: Der letzte Sommer, 1910
- My rating: 4,5 stars
- Projects: Read More German Books in 2020, hosted by Mel and Britta; Back to the Classics, hosted by Karen; European Reading Challenge, hosted by Gilion; Women in Translation Month, hosted by Meytal
- The book was made into a film twice: Der letzte Sommer (1954, IMDb), directed by Harald Braun; and Skyddsängeln (The Guardian Angel, 1990, IMDb), directed by Suzanne Osten.