Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Annemarie Schwarzenbach - "Orient Exils" "La Mort en Perse"

For some reason Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s books are not available in English. Or maybe it’s not that strange. According to Dominique Miermont’s preface to “La Mort en Perse” it was only ten years ago that her work was rediscovered.

Born in Switzerland, 1908 Annemarie’s life has the makings of a Hollywood production: an overbearing mother, a closet lesbian who stifled her daughter’s homosexual feelings and kept her strictly segregated from children her own age; famous friends (Thomas Mann’s globetrotting artsy kids Klaus and Erika); the economic means to travel the world; a profound uneasiness and depression that spurred her on to some the most remote places available to a young woman in late twenties and early thirties, while keeping her mind chained to her (mother) country; a one- time photographer, reporter and archaeologist; beauty, style and talent.

Beneath the eccentric characters, vivid descriptions of both scenery and roaring twenties expat community in the middle-east, Schwarzenbach’s books “La Mort en Perse” and “Orient Exils”, lies an uncomfortable plunge into the heart of deep depression. Often, Annemarie mentions the power of the vast eastern landscape, that dwarfs the individual and with it, the importance of human life. But she also makes more subtle remarks (sometimes using her characters) on the guilt she felt at escaping political events in Germany. While the Mann siblings kept active fighting fascism, she (and other young Germans, Austrians, Italians) fled as far as they could. To Africa, the Orient, America. And even though they could not, then, imagine the breath of Nazi crimes, still the guilt travelled with them, to Nairobi, Teheran or New York. Undoubtedly Annemarie felt like a coward. The fact that she was also struggling and coming to uneasy terms with her lesbianism (when she was 27 Schwarzenbach married an homosexual French friend, and kept having affairs with women)couldn’t have helped her bleak outlook on life. Pretty soon she started experimenting with morphine to which she would be addicted until her untimely death at 34, following a bicycle fall.

The descriptions of her despair are moving and frightening:

"You raise your hand slowly and clench the fist. It’s impossible to clench your fist. Everything is bland and insipid, and the lack of will, that trying disease, worse than malaria, is already nestling on your spine, your knees, on the back of your head. Your hands are perspired, speech requires too much of an effort. You must get up and walk! The heartbeat quickens, and you hug the river, hurrying so you won’t fall prey to the temptation of throwing yourself on the ground and weeping out sheer weakness and despair. No, you won’t cry. It’s a lot more serious than that. You are alone."

“On lève lentement la main et on serre le poing. Impossible de serrer le poing. Tout est fade et insipid, et le manqué d’envie, maladie affreusement éprouvante, pire que la malaria, niche déjà dans votre dos, dans vos genoux, dans votre nuque. Les mains deviennent moites, parler demande trop d’efforts. Il faut se lever et marcher! Les batements du Coeur s’accélèrent, et on longe le fleuve, en hâtant le pas pour ne pas succomber à la tentation de se jeter par terre et de pleurer à force de lassitude et de désespoir. Non, on ne pleurera pas. C’est beaucoup plus grave que cela. On est seul.”

Schwarzenbach is a tragic figure and few can resist her allure. It was already so in her lifetime – many felt compelled to write about her (Carson McCullers whom she met on her southern states jaunt dedicated “Reflections in a Golden Eye” to her) or to save her (writer and adventurer Ella Maillart would take her along in her car expedition to Afghanistan in hopes of clearing her drug addiction). She represents that unusual mixture of extreme frailty and strength that bred the myths of “life-fast die young” American movie stars of the fifties – that she left her own thoughts behind makes her that more precious and mesmerizing.

That the German and French speaking world might be trying to keep her all to themselves, must be excused. Myths are fragile and prone to over-exposure. But just you wait until the BBC gets hold of her.


_lethe_ said...

Her journey with Ella Maillart was turned into a feature film, Die Reise nach Kafiristan. I saw it on TV several years ago, I remember quite liking it.

bookworm (inês) said...

Thanks for the heads up! I'm definitely getting the dvd