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Paul Heyse - Andrea Delfin

Paul Heyse - Andrea Delfin

The eponymous protagonist of Paul Heyse's Andrea Delfin is a man come early to middle age, his weary features and grayed hair an indication of a great trauma in his past. He arrives in Venice poor and without connections, and soon finds himself living at Signora Giovanna's home as a lodger. The Signora, an interesting character in her own right (she employs peasant sayings with the frequency and good humour of a Sancho Panza), sees Andrea Delfin as follows:

He wore, as far as she could make out in the gloom, the decent, black garments of the lower middle class, carried a leather portmanteau under his arm, and held the hat modestly in his hand. Only his face made the woman wonder. It was not young, not old, the beard was still dark brown, the forehead without wrinkles, the eyes lively, but the expression of his mouth and the way he talked was tired and worn out, and the short hair was, in a strange contrast with his still youthful features, completely gray.

Within several pages, Heyse creates a strong impression of Andrea, and just as important, an equally strong portrayal of Venice. During the time in which the novel is set (18th century), Venice is in the grip of the Inquisitors, and the sbirri, or secret police, are everywhere, searching for indications of rebellion, disgruntlement, and assassination plots. Venice is a city boiling with anger at those in power and, as one character notes, half the citizens are spying on the other half. Heyse builds up the character of Venice well, focusing on the geography, mood and look and feel of the city as much as he does on Andrea himself.

We learn very early on that Andrea is not all the he seems. Indeed, within twenty or so pages, Andrea has unpacked his things while musing over the secret police's traps for renters – they install hiding places and come late at night to open them up in search of seditious or violent material – and we even read a letter he has sent to Veronese nobel Angelo Querini, in which Andrea Delfin reveals himself as being a member of the Candiano family, a once powerful Venetian family thought entirely destroyed. This letter, which is long, provides Delfin with an impetus for his return to Venice – revenge – and a mechanism by which to move the story along. Heyse works alternately on describing Venice's corruption, and Andrea's search for ways to make the upper echelon of the city pay for the murder of his family.

Unfortunately, not a lot is done with the story once this has occurred. Heyse sets up his pieces, but then he doesn't do all that much with them. Andrea stumbles into employment as a spy to protect the nobles, he engages in a very one-sided romance with the girl whose window opens across from his (one-sided in that she does the romancing, and he curiously unexplained grimacing), and he becomes friends with a member of the Austrian nobility, a young man he likes very much, though we don't know why because Heyse doesn't show us.

The machinations of the plot seem to affect Andrea with a great deal more strength than they do us. First one, and then another, of the inquisitors are killed, each by a knife with the inscription, “Death to all inquisitors!” Upon the death of the first inquisitor Venice falls into chaos, as one woman explains to Andrea,

But of course, you're no Venetian and can't understand what this means: a member of the inquisition has been murdered, one of the tribunal. This is worse than if it had been a doge, of whom many have come to an unnatural death, for the tribunal has the power, and the doge has the robe…This isn't just some scoundrel being paid by a bravo to do away with a single man, because he's keeping him from a love affair, a powerful position, or something else. 'This is a political murder,' my neighbour the spicer told me.

It is clear something is afoot, and the secrets to which the reader is aware point to a highly probable suspect – Andrea, of course. Yet Heyse doesn't really allow Andrea to play his hand to us by way of his thoughts, instead Andrea goes about his day much like any other. We are led to suspect Andrea by virtue of his past and his participation in this story as the protagonist, yet the text itself seems to confound these suspicions by never confirming or denying.

Events continue, and the fear gripping the important figures in Venetian politics causes further outbreaks of paranoia and outrage. The people are not happy, but neither are the nobility, which serves to heighten the tension in the city. Andrea, however, keeps himself away from all this, instead devoting himself to developing further his friendship with the strange Austrian.

The middle part of this novella, which stretches from, roughly speaking, Andrea's induction into the sbirri, to the climax of the novel along the abandoned streets of Venice as one cowled man skulks after another, is a sluggish and ill-formed series of scenes which are not, either while reading or after the novel has finished, completely clear in their merit as part of the text. Certainly some aspects of this section are necessary (ie the ones driving along the plot), but there are secondary characters and scenes which never seem to coalesce as part of the whole. In a larger work this would not be such an issue, but in a 112 page novella, these distractions are exactly that – distractions – and add little to the thrust of the work. It is only when, in the last thirty or so pages, Heyse focuses his attention exclusively on the upcoming climax, that Andrea Delfin regains its sure footing.

Toward the end of the novella, Heyse uses the spy Rosenberg as the mouthpiece for his attack on the corrupt politicians of Venice, savagely denouncing the stated claims of the aristocracy against the actual effects of their policies. These passages are engaging and incisive and, coupled with the rising intensity of an upcoming murder, do much to counteract the malaise of the novel's sluggish middle. The spy says, among other things, to Andrea that,

An aristocracy which is organised on such a monstrous scale as the one of Venice requires, in order to prevail, in order to secure itself against the tempestuous waves of the will of the people, the firm dam of an everlasting dictatorship, which would have to be re-established again and again in milder or tougher forms. After all, where are those elements from which a genuine republic with free institutions could be formed? You've got a ruling class and a ruled class, sovereigns by the hundreds and mob by the thousands. Where are the citizens, without which a free administration of the city is an impossibility? Your nobili have made sure that the common man has never matured enough to develop a citizen's way of thinking, the feeling of being responsible, and of having to make true, conscious sacrifices for great purposes. They've never allowed the plebeians to get involved in matters of the state. But because the rule of eight hundred tyrants is too sluggish, too much in disagreement, and wastes too much time with idle banter to have a powerful effect on the outside world or on internal matters, these gentlemen rather enslaved themselves and put up with the yoke of an irresponsible triumvirate, which has at least originated from amongst their midst. They preferred seeing their own peers falling victim to this triple-headed idol, without any laws and legal rights, to a life under the protection of laws and rights, which would render them equal to the people.

This is interesting, and suffices as a clear statement of intent – but it comes from the mouth of a minor character, and not Andrea, who is, ostensibly, the perspective by which the reader views the world within the text.

Andrea Delfin concludes well, though the intricacies of the plot (which really had little to do with Andrea at all) threaten to spiral into the ridiculous. That it doesn't quite manage to do so is testament to the strength of Venice as a character, and monologues such as Rosenberg's, above. Andrea Delfin is an early work of Heyse's – written when was twenty-nine – so a certain minor quality to it is certainly understandable. It is, however, an interesting starting point to an author who would go on to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, and provides one of the few English-speaking avenues of access to his work.


Special mention should be made of the translation and its translator, Gunther Olesch. In his introduction to the text, Gunther explains that he was unable to find any of Heyse's works in print in English, and wished to change that in his own small way. As such, he set to work translating the German-language edition of Andrea Delfin available at the Project Gutenberg website, and then released his text to the public domain. This is a wholly admirable use of the original German text (which is itself in the public domain), and one hopes that, as Gunther states, his own humble translation might be used as a springboard for renewing English-language interest in one of Germany's great writers.

Author Paul Heyse
Title Andrea Delfin
Translator Gunther Olesch
Nationality German
Publisher Project Gutenberg
Pages 112
---Amazon (US)

See Also

List of German authors under review
Other works written by Nobel Laureates in Literature under review


"as a tribute to the consummate artistry, permeated with idealism, which he has demonstrated during his long productive career as a lyric poet, dramatist, novelist and writer of world-renowned short stories"
-Nobel Prize in Literature, 1910