“What does it matter if something is old? Charles Dickens said any book you haven’t read is a new book. What does it matter whether it’s old?… I don’t understand what this lemming-like dementia is about constantly having new stuff. When was the last time you read the totality of Steinbeck or Faulkner or Katherine Anne Porter or Shirley Jackson? Everybody always wants something new, new, new – and that’s what’s killing life for writers. This dementia for ‘new’ is ridiculous. It turns everybody into a back number… We’re dealing with a more and more illiterate and amnesiac constituency. It’s impossible to get a readership that will follow you, because all they know is what they knew yesterday… And so when I hear this what-are-you-doing-lately thing, or that the Edgeworks books are bringing back all of my older books, I say, ‘Yeah, they’re real old books – like five years old!’ See, I do go off on these things. And if you ask the wrong question, I get real cranky.”
– Harlan Ellison
The Stone and The Flute by Hans Bemmann was a humbling book to read. When I first read it back in high school, I wrote a review for it in the newsletter of our science fiction and fantasy club. The one thing I vividly remember stating in that review was that the mark of a great book is one that can make you laugh out loud and cry tears onto the pages. Since I was only in high school, I hadn’t read many books with the power to do that. The Stone and The Flute made me weep and laugh aloud on multiple occasions.
I still believe that to chuckle and shed a tear is the barometer of a great story. There are good stories that don’t touch your emotions in that way. But great stories? All great stories take you through that range of feelings. Any book that can make you feel such joy that you are laughing out loud and such sorrow that you actually sob, is awe inspiring. Not many novels have that kind of power in them, to run through a full spectrum of human emotions.
Author Hans Bemmann was 60 years old when he wrote The Stone and The Flute and it shows in his writing. I don’t think a 20 or 30 or 40 year old author would be capable of writing something like this. When I read the book as a teenager, I was already on my way to being a writer. What I read in The Stone and The Flute was both humbling and inspiring. Humbling because I knew at my age, I couldn’t possibly write a book that came close to approaching this. Inspiring because it made me realize how much I had to learn and that maybe in 50 years, I’d be able to create something that wondrous and magical. His achievement is even more amazing when you consider that he only wrote 7 novels in his lifetime and he had only written one novel before this. The Stone and The Flute was only his sophomore effort!
When we’re children and teenagers, we often think we’re totally awesome. We can do anything. We can do things just as good as any adult. We feel absolutely confident and sure of ourselves. The Stone and The Flute was the first time in my life that my arrogance over writing was schooled and given a smackdown. The Stone and The Flute was the first time I read something where I truly realized I was incapable of creating something that good. And I wouldn’t learn how to become that good in one year or 5 years or 10 years. I realized this book was the culmination of a writer who had been honing his craft for decades and I had nothing on him.
The main character of The Stone and The Flute is a young boy named Listener and the novel begins with his birth and ends with his death. Now, I apologize if you feel that revelation is a spoiler. I don’t see it as one. Revealing that the book spans the entire lifetime of a character is, to me, a wonderful selling point. After all, this is the only story I have never discovered in my entire life with the ambition to attempt such an audacious undertaking as spanning an entire lifetime. How many characters have you ever read about where you get to watch the whole of their lifetime? I’ve never seen any short story or novel try such a thing before. Thus, moreso than any other book I know, you come to really feel for the character of Listener. By the time you reach the end of the book, you feel you have known Listener longer than anyone else you ever met. He becomes your oldest friend. From his innocence of childhood, to his insolence of being a teenager, to his adventures as an adult, to his dignified journey into old age, you are by his side. You are a witness to all of his life.
The tone of the book is magnificent. It has the pace and demeanor of a Grimm’s Faerie Tale but it’s over 800 pages long! Now, I don’t know if you ever sat down and actually read any of the Grimm’s Faerie Tales, but to have a story of this length and magnitude maintain such a storybook resonance is utterly spellbinding. Here’s the first few paragraphs:
Once upon a time a boy was born in Fraglund, and this is his strange story. His father was a mighty man whom folk called the Great Roarer: he was tall and burly, and liked to wear his shirt open on his hairy chest. His was a tempestuous nature. One moment, he would fly into a terrible rage, the next he would be shaking with loud laughter. Yet he was known as a just man, and so the people of Fraglund had asked him to come from far away to be judge over them in that part of the country.
Now when the Great Roarer came to Fraglund to take up his duties, he brought his wife with him, a quiet woman who kept so much out of the public eye that at first many thought she was not wedded to him. She was said to be the daughter of the Gentle Fluter, of whose arts they had heard in Fraglund, although he lived very far away, beyond the great forest of Barlebogue. Folk said his fluting was so sweet that even the birds would fall still to listen to him, and so soothing to the spirit that many a man’s quarrel had been settled by the notes of his flute alone.
Such a splendid beginning. And the book maintains that storybook atmosphere for all 855 pages. Beginning to end.
Listener is unlike any other fictional character I have seen because he is portrayed so realistically. He isn’t always heroic. He is occasionally downright villainous. Yet deep inside, he means well and does come to repent for his wrongs. In other words, he’s a lot like you. that is ultimately what is so profound about this story. The journey is a metaphor into your own life, and no matter what your age when you read this book, you will at some point experience the story at the same age as Listener. Because of that, he becomes relatable to everyone. We easily see our own past and present and future in his life and it makes us all the more cognizant of how important our past and future decisions shall prove to become.
As an American, I’m not sure what the world of books and literature is like in other English speaking countries like England and Australia. However, I presume that most of us are exposed to similar books. Maybe I’m wrong, but I tend to imagine that bestselling authors in America and England are, for the most part, the same batches people. I know in America, we don’t often have the chance to read great books and novels from other cultures. The Stone and The Flute by Hans Bemmann was originally written in German and translated into English by Anthea Bell. It may be, in fact I’m almost certain it is, the only book I’ve ever read that was not authored by someone who natively speaks English. Not only was this a wonderful story, but it also made me realize what a shame it is that all people all over the world miss out on storytelling which never gets translated into our native tongues. How many great stories are out there in French and German and Japanese and Russian and Spanish that I will never get to read in my lifetime? Authors we will never hear about. Books we will never know existed.
One of the greatest things about language is the ability to articulate the commonality of the human condition. The most memorable sentences we ever read tend to be the ones which eloquently express those intimate life experiences that we think no one else ever goes through. We come across a sentence in a book and we say, “Oh, my gosh! This person thinks that everytime they step into the shower!? I do that too!” That is the commonality of the human condition. That’s one of the most inspiring and uplifting things to encounter in writing. That serendipity of realizing we relate to each other as people in ways we never expected. And to think, all those books, from all those cultures, written in languages that will never be translated, how much we are missing. How many beautiful stories we will never have the chance to share.
But, thanks to Anthea Bell, The Stone and The Flute by Hans Bemmann is not one of those stories. This glorious German masterpiece is a story that the entire English-speaking world can enjoy. That is reason enough to read this story. Read a copy of The Stone and The Flute and expose yourself to a viewpoint from another culture and see the beauty of a lifetime through the eyes of another world.