THE MAN WHO FEEDS THE SWANS is an on-line novel project whereby a chapter of the work is downloaded every 2 days. To start at the beginning with the prologue, scroll down to July 3.
Markenburg: August, 1929.
Each day is a little life: every waking and rising a little birth,
every fresh morning a little youth,
every going to rest and sleep a little death.
Arthur Schopenhauer 1788-1860
The Mosel’s first Trockenbeerenauslese was made by the Thanisch estate from the Bernkasteler Doctor vineyard in 1921. It made young Gunther Reisemann’s father very jealous, because the wine, which would sell well and inspire what came to be known as a ‘Doctor’ craze, was bound to be a success. But the small Reisemann vineyard had already been through so many disasters with the deterioration of the vines. The disease Phylloxera had meant that, by this Markenburg summer of 1929, the few good grapes Viktor Reisemann managed to produce were only adequate enough to avoid bankruptcy and offer his struggling business the slimmest chance of survival.
Life on the land had been marginally better than the acute privations suffered by urban Germans, yet thousands of farmers had been forced to sell their holdings. For generations the Reisemanns had maintained a strong tradition of bartering with local farmers, and land not taken up by vines had always been given over to vegetables. Although Viktor had struggled, narrowly avoiding his vineyards going under the hammer, his sons Gunther and Albert had been a help to him since leaving school. They were, like their father, big, muscular young men. Gunther was regarded by many as the gentle giant of the two, not so prone to anger. Albert was different. He possessed the same blonde, blue-eyed strength and physique, yet he was the Reisemann boy the local youths never messed with. He could be like his brother, kind sometimes, helpful, thoughtful, articulate, but a violent whirlwind if provoked. Three years older than Gunther, Albert had been his protector throughout their schooldays. Now, on the threshold of manhood, that protection was no longer required. The Reisemann boys, like their father, could well look after themselves. Viktor always hoped that his sons might carry on the family business when he finally retired, but although they knew every task and point in the winemaker’s diary, they never expressed the level of enthusiasm for the vineyard Viktor had hoped for. He had a large frame on the wall above the fireplace setting out, in colourful Teutonic calligraphy, what was expected of a winemaker;
THE REISEMANN CREED: The Winemaker’s Ten Commandments.
1. Cooperate with skilled and knowledgeable viticulturists.
2. Constantly monitor the maturity of grapes to ensure their quality,
thereby determining the correct time for harvest.
3. Diligence when crushing and pressing grapes.
4. Pay maximum attention to the settling of juice
and the fermentation of grape material.
5. Be extremely vigilant when filtering the wine to remove remaining solids.
6. Test the quality of wine by tasting - and if you need help from good palates, invite them along - they’ll be keen enough!
7. Place your filtered wine in our casks for storage and maturation.
8. Carefully make your plans for bottling wine once it has matured.
9. Ensure that quality is maintained when the wine is bottled.
10. Try and get the best price for our product, and never let a customer down, be honest, be fair, deliver on time, and always respect the competition.
It wasn’t exactly a workshop manual, but he’d hoped that by seeing this every day that Albert and Gunther might at least know their duties when, or if, the time came for them to take over.
The vineyard still received the odd valuable export order, and their Reisling was enjoyed by many aficionados as far away as Britain. The family’s small boat, the Falkon, which was fitted with a petrol engine not long after the Great War, had been instrumental in bringing in some extra income during hard times. The family had always been as skilled at navigating the Mosel as they were at producing good wine, so 19 year old Gunther was proud and pleased that he’d been taught everything he needed to know about transporting goods up and down the river. Nothing made him happier than being on the water; it seemed the ultimate freedom. During the summer of 1929 he’d been allowed to make a couple of longer trips on his own, and managed to collect the fees due to his father, which impressed Viktor and made him very grateful. Gunther wished there were more opportunities to sail, yet much of the family’s time and effort was taken up on the land. In the busy periods, such as planting, the harvest, and bottling, Viktor would employ as much casual labour as he could afford. However, the acreage they enjoyed on the hillside included some assets many of his competitors envied. As well as the good soil, the Reisemanns had benefited greatly from the heritage left to them by their predecessors on the hill over a century before. At some time in the mid-19th century two natural caves discovered in the bedrock of the hill had been expanded, with many sizeable side-chambers blasted into the rock, with interlocking passages and large storage areas. With the installation of electric lighting, this meant that the complete process, bottling, labelling and storage of the Reisemann wine could be achieved almost in secret, precluding the need for expensive outbuildings. Viktor had even installed a small rail system with defunct equipment bought from a closed mine in the next valley to shift barrels. Deep in his secure tunnels there were still stored vintages for which people from far and wide were more than happy to pay a high premium.
Yet Germany’s seemingly endless trough of depression had taken its toll. Viktor had become an unhappy man, and although dedicated and willing, Gunther was becoming dissatisfied with life on the hill. Yes, they’d been lucky. And yes, Markenburg was a nice part of the country, much better than the grimy city life. But for a virile young man there was little to do in the form of adventure. He could go for a beer sometimes with friends, but they were the same old faces, and every time Gunther went into town yet another one had left to look for work elsewhere. Since leaving school he knew he’d failed to achieve anything remotely memorable or remarkable. He did well at the Volksschule and later managed to pass exams with good marks. Like his older brother, he was fit and good at sports, especially boxing.
Like their father, the big Reisemann boys were known among their friends as genial, tough characters, good to have around, because nothing stood in their way.
But now Gunther wondered if this struggle up there among the vines was all life had to offer. Up in the morning, out on the land with his father, run errands down the hill with the cart, and home again. The only two high points of the year were the wine festival and Christmas. With a few old school friends in 1928 he’d taken a train to Koln to visit the fair there. As usual, they drank too much beer and enjoyed a laugh or two, but it wasn’t much of an adventure. Some summer nights he would sit outside on the veranda holding a pocket compass, and watch the needle as it flickered in a northerly direction. He knew that beyond the northern horizon, perhaps only a three or four hour train ride away, the sea was waiting. The sea; the end of the land and the beginning of the world.
It was this sense of boredom that had eventually driven Albert to leave home. He had found work in a Munich furniture factory. His departure had caused his mother much anguish, yet his father understood the reasons why the lad had left. Gunther only hoped that the family would show the same understanding when his turn came. However, for the time being, staying at home had slight compensations. Like his parents, Gunther enjoyed reading, and there was always a lively discussion going on in the Reisemann house around current affairs.
Many of his friends had left school early because of the terrible economic struggle of the past seven years, yet the Reisemanns survived because of the community up on the hill. Compared to what was happening elsewhere in the country, with stories of escalating poverty, starvation, suicides and bankruptcy, at least this family had never gone to bed hungry. As well as growing their own produce, Frau Reisemann, Elena, skilled in the art of bartering, often managed to get bread when no-one else could.
In addition to his immense strength and capacity for long hours of physical labour, Viktor Reisemann was a man of impressive intelligence and wisdom. He maintained that his sons should have as much education as he could afford. He had always bought books, and negotiated with Markenburg’s retired academic, Professor Steiglitz, to give the boys private instruction in the classics, German and history. The old Professor was a good man who had lost his post in Essen when the French occupied the Ruhr in 1924. He never went back. Viktor could not pay him in money, but kept him supplied with wine, whilst Albert, naturally skilled at carpentry, had kept the Professor’s house in good repair. But when the ailing Professor Steiglitz passed away after a long illness, there was a brief intellectual void in the Reisemann household. Steiglitz had been a wise mentor, and was much missed. A staunch patriot, he had left a letter addressed to Gunther, in which he suggested that Germany would one day be a great nation again, and that the country’s miserable existence would not go on forever. Gunther had always worried why the letter was simply addressed to him, and not Albert. When he showed it to Albert, the older boy simply shrugged, commenting that every teacher had a pet, and that unlike his ‘little brother’, he had always argued with the old man over certain points.
“If you need answers, Gunther,” said Albert, “you need to ask questions.”
Yet such optimism, even from such a learned old man as Professor Steiglitz, had trickled away into a forlorn hope in 1929, and some of the history he had taught made Gunther want to escape and immigrate to America. Yet he knew the time was not yet right, and in any case, such an act would break his mother’s heart.
Viktor had a keen interest in politics, yet Gunther could never see why his father spent so much time on the subject. In his opinion, politicians seemed to do nothing but live luxuriously and tell lies. He found it increasingly depressing to hear his father repeat the mantra that yet again, Germany was on the brink of an even greater depression. Things had been bad enough, but another depression? How much more could they take? What had they done to deserve such privation? Yes, they had lost a war, but the Reisemanns had never stopped working, day in, day out. They considere they had nothing to do with the national economy, the banks or high finance. They had done what was expected of them – obeyed the law and worked hard. And thus Gunther pondered; why elect these politicians if all they did was talk, live high on the hog and steer the population into more misery? Yet despite the repetitive, grim assessments, Gunther looked up to his father. After all, he’d been a brave man who had served his country, and whilst serving with the Army of the Mosel between 1914-17 he was wounded and awarded the Iron Cross, which was proudly displayed in a small glass case on the mantel above the fire. In many ways, Viktor’s deceased older brother, Kurt, also enjoyed ‘hero’ status in the family. Kurt had been too old to serve in the Great War, but had volunteered to look after the business in Markenburg during those difficult times.
Viktor’s younger brother, Karl, worked on the railway. Gunther regarded Uncle Karl as a fascinating character, fiery, self-opinionated, yet always clued up with the latest political information, whilst his obsession with official facts, figures and statistics sometimes bordered on tedium. Karl travelled far and wide across Germany. Gunther frequently asked if there were any vacancies on the railway for someone like him, yet the answer was always no. A single man living in Koblenz, Karl often came to see Viktor on his days off, bringing news about what was happening around the country. One day he brought a page from an old newspaper which he’d found in the Stationmaster’s office at Koln. It was from the fourth issue of a publication named Der Angriff, dated 25 July 1927. In this newspaper there was a general attack on the government. This impressed Viktor, who had pinned it up on the parlour door, much to Elena’s disgust, telling Gunther and Albert;
“You should read it every day, because this is what’s wrong with this country”. Gunther had read the yellowing newspaper clipping so many times that he eventually he knew it off by heart.
‘The German people are an enslaved people. Under international law, it is lower than the worst Negro colony in the Congo. They have taken all sovereign rights from us. We are just good enough that international capital allows us to fill its money sacks with interest payments. That and only that is the result of a centuries-long history of heroism. Have we deserved it? No, and no again!
Therefore we demand that a struggle against this condition of shame and misery begin, and that the men in whose hands we put our fate must use every means to break the chains of slavery.
Three million people lack work and sustenance. The officials, it is true, work to conceal the misery. They speak of measures and silver linings. Things are getting steadily better for them, and steadily worse for us.
The illusion of freedom, peace and prosperity that we were promised when we wanted to take our fate in our own hands is vanishing. Only complete collapse of our people can follow from these irresponsible policies. Thus we demand the right of work and a decent living for every working German.’
Albert had been particularly taken by the article, and before leaving home for Munich, had even copied it down in an exercise book. Yet Gunther found it puzzling. He’d remembered what Professor Steiglitz had said. They were the words of a Greek who lived 400 years before Christ. ‘Criticism comes easier than craftsmanship’. So, this man called Goebbels, writing in Der Angriff , had given a clear picture of what was wrong, yet apart from suggesting ‘a struggle’, hadn’t offered any solutions. In any case, what ‘struggle’ did he mean? Wasn’t that what everyone had been doing for years – struggling? Staying alive was a struggle. Did he mean the kind of struggle the Bolsheviks had had in Russia? If so, then the failure of Germany’s communists, the so-called ‘Spartacists’ to take over Bavaria or Berlin was a poor example. Then there were the growing ranks of disenchanted ex-soldiers, the Freikorps – they ‘struggled’ violently on the streets every week yet seemed to make no advances whatsoever. And this suggested struggle – would the big businessmen, the bankers and the aristocracy join in? It seemed doubtful. According to Viktor, with a few exceptions, most of them had been absent from the trenches during the war. Yes, something needed to happen, yet all that seemed to transpire was that things became steadily worse. Gunther mentioned all this to his friends in the town but few were interested. They were spending their adolescence in the only social climate they knew. Politics, for the time being, was not their problem. Most had only just left the challenges of puberty, and now they simply lusted after girls and, when they could afford it, beer. So Gunther had come to understand that it was pointless to expect the same level of discussion on serious topics that he enjoyed at home. Even old Professor Steiglitz had frequently said to him “Everyone deserves to remember the joys of youth.”
However, when it came to girls, Gunther was cursed with the same weakness as his lusty friends. He had seen the girl he wanted a few times in the market place. He didn’t know her name but she was beautiful, elegantly tall, with dark hair and brown eyes. Shy and awkward, and unable to discuss his desire with his friends, he had no idea how to go about it, yet he fervently hoped that one day he might have a chance to talk to her. Perhaps, he thought, she might even be elected as Markenburg’s annual Wine Queen one year. She was certainly pretty enough.
Elena Reisemann, well-rounded, energetic, blonde and full-bosomed, was a religious woman. She prayed daily to the Virgin Mary and always welcomed Father Heinzel into the house when he could find the time and the energy to waddle up to the top of the hill on his worn-out donkey. Viktor’s religion, battered by war and economics, had withered on the vine and he frequently argued with his wife about the Catholic Church.
“What bloody good are priests?” he often asked, and “Where was God at Versailles when we were crushed and humiliated? He has abandoned us. You pray all you like, my dear, but Germany will not get any better.” And Elena would always respond;
“Ah, but we’ll all be better off when we get to heaven,” a remark which would infuriate her husband.
“Well, I hope your pope is right, and that there is a heaven, because I’m sick of us all living in hell!”
Gunther loved his mother, but could not help agreeing with his father. He had noticed how the priest, Heinzel, always went back down the hill into town with his donkey loaded up with gifts – wine, vegetables, which the poor people of his flock had given him. No wonder he remained so fat whilst everyone else got thinner. Yet people still crowded into his church every Sunday, and they still attended mass every day. Gunther could never see the point.