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I'm reading Bernhard Schlink's novel "Der Vorleser" and got stuck trying to understand this sentence in the beginning of the second chapter:

Kein Stuck, keine Spiegel, kein Läufer. Was das Treppenhaus ursprünglich an bescheidener, der Prächtigkeit der Fassade nicht vergleichbarer Schönheit besessen haben mochte, war längst vergangen.

I understand "Was das Treppenhaus ursprünglich ... besessen haben mochte, war längst vergangen" as "Whatever blank the staircase may originally have possessed had long been gone".

What I don't understand is:

  1. What's the function of the preposition "an" as in "an bescheidener..."?
  2. What noun is "bescheidener" referring to?
  3. "der Prächtigkeit der Fassade nicht vergleichbarer Schönheit". I don't understand the structure here at all. I'm not sure of the cases and overall meaning of this bit.
8

The part you are missing is "an bescheidener, der Prächtigkeit der Fassade nicht vergleichbarer Schönheit".
We have an adjective and an adjectival phrase here:
Die Schönheit des Treppenhauses war:

  • bescheiden (modest)
  • der Prächtigkeit der Fassade nicht vergleichbar
    = nicht vergleichbar mit der Prächtigkeit der Fassade
    (not comparable with the splendor of the facade)

Der Prächtichkeit is dative, der Fassade is genitive

The usage of "an" is idiomatic here

Das Treppenhaus besitzt bescheidene Schönheit ->
Was das Treppenhaus an bescheidener Schönheit besitzt ...

  • 1
    Oh, now I see. What threw me off here was that in English one would use a preposition to link the adjective "comparable" to "beauty", whereas in German one simply uses the dative case. Vielen Dank! – gabspeck Feb 10 at 12:52
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That's quite a sentence you found there!

First of, was an (plus dative). It's a construction that can sometimes be paraphrased by was für, sometimes by welche.

Weißt du, was der Anbieter an Gebühren verlangt?
Weißt du, was für Gebühren der Anbieter verlangt? (what kind of fees)
Weißt du, welche Gebühren der Anbieter verlangt? (which fees)

(Neither paraphrase is perfect. To me, the English phrases as far as fees are concerned or in terms of fees match the meaning of an Gebühren in the above example pretty closely.)

In the above examples, was is the object of the verb; was is modified by the prepositional phrase an Gebühren, and that's just the way it is in your example.

Was das Treppenhaus an ... besessen haben mochte

Let's look inside the prepositional phrase and build it up piece by piece.

an Schönheit (feminine head noun)
an bescheidener, vergleichbarer Schönheit (two adjectives depending on the head noun)

The adjective vergleichbar is extended. Compare the following:

Ich kenne keinen Künstler, der (mit) ihm vergleichbar wäre. (sentential structure)
Ich kennen keinen (mit) ihm vergleichbaren Künstler. (adjectival phrase)

an Schönheit, die (mit) der Prächtigkeit der Fassade nicht vergleichbar war
an (mit) der Prächtigkeit der Fassade nicht vergleichbarer Schönheit

The sentence is quite easily translated if the the adjectival phrase headed by vergleichbar is moved into a parenthetical phrase:

What the staircase may originally have possessed in terms of modest beauty, a beauty that was not comparable to the splendor of the façade, was long gone.

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Was das Treppenhaus ursprünglich besessen haben mochte, war längst vergangen.

Was das Treppenhaus ursprünglich an bescheidener Schönheit besessen haben mochte, war längst vergangen.

Was das Treppenhaus ursprünglich an nicht vergleichbarer Schönheit besessen haben mochte, war längst vergangen.

Was das Treppenhaus ursprünglich an der Prächtigkeit der Fassade nicht vergleichbarer Schönheit besessen haben mochte, war längst vergangen.

It's a list of two adverbials lead by an. The second adverbial has additional genitive supplements. Such genitive supplements are common in German. In English you have to use of, which leads to a very clumsy literal translation:

Whatever the staircase may originally have possessed of the not comparable beauty of the pomp of the front had long been gone.

Please note the correct placement of not compareable is hard to find. I think I found the best solution, though some attachment of nicht vergleichbar to Fassade got lost in translation. This is somewhat related to genitive supplements, it seems. They are more tightly bound to an item than prepositional phrases.


Such an adverbials often talk about a type of supplies:

Die Vorräte an Bier gehen zur Neige.

Sie besitzen einiges an Vermögen, sind aber arm an Geist.

  • Try the pomp of the front's incomparable beauty. – vectory Feb 10 at 13:32
  • That's a Germanism, isn't it? – Janka Feb 10 at 13:43
  • @vectory The original doesn't say the beauty of the facade is incomparable, it only says the beauty of the stairway doesn't compare to it – PiedPiper Feb 10 at 14:10
  • Indeed, I see now, but that's missing in this translation anyhow. – vectory Feb 10 at 20:10
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The construction etwas an ... haben is peculiar indeed. Taken out of context, it would remind of Kleidung anhaben (to wear clothes), and the preposition also appears in jemandem etwas anhaben (to afflict someone with something) and conversely das kann mir nichts anhaben (loosely that has nothing on me, does nothing bad to me).

However, the expression could also be found with the preposition von, i.e. etwas von Schönheit haben or more usually etwas von jemandem [or etwas anderem] haben (to have an apparence reminiscent of someone [or something else], as if taken from; compare reminding on).

We say was hast du an Sorten zur Auswahl; more usually was für Sorten, I'd say. So we can deduce that an works in it's usual function denoting direction, towards, for, thus abstractly

in favor of

Prepositions are idiomatic and don't always translate well. A historical derivation would likely complicate the exposition.

  • 1
    I am afraid I can't see where this answers the question. – tofro Feb 10 at 13:58
  • @tofro it covers question 1, doesn't it? – vectory Feb 10 at 20:10

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