Friday, 27 April 2012

Celebrating a Life Too Short: Annemarie Schwarzenbach

Wednesday night was a special one in Berlin-Neukölln, celebrating the life and writing of the Swiss journalist, novelist, antifascist, archaeologist and world traveller Annemarie Schwarzenbach (1908-1942). The event was organised by her English translators - and my friends - Isabel Cole and Lucy Renner-Jones, and featured Schwarzenbach's great-nephew, the historian Alexis Schwarzenbach. Who was totally fabulous – I think we all fell a tiny bit in love.

But back to Annemarie. She grew up in a wealthy family with four brothers and sisters – the youngest being Alexis S.'s grandfather – and a domineering mother who loved her husband, her children and her live-in ladyfriend. Annemarie loved women too – and published her first novel at the age of 23. Then she fell in love with Erika Mann, who politicized her but didn't return the favour, and then she moved to Berlin and discovered drugs, before travelling widely, working as a photographer, marrying a French diplomat, doing archaeology, writing more novels and a lot of travel journalism. She eventually kicked the drugs and died as the result of a cycling accident. So like a prototype Nico without Andy Warhol.

The event was framed by Alexis Schwarzenbach, who gave us a fascinating slideshow of pictures of and by Annemarie, while providing more details on her life. She was a striking androgynous beauty, standing out in all the family photos with the kind of face that tells you just what mood she was in at the time. Mostly sulking. My favourite was of her holding hands with another teenage girl, at a table with Winifred Wagner, who'd popped by to collect some money from her parents for the fascist cause.

Lucy read from Lyric Novella, a love story set in Weimar-era Berlin featuring a protagonist who's ostensibly a man but can just as easily be read as a woman. Apparently Schwarzenbach regretted not being more open about that aspect. Lucy told us she read Isherwood for inspiration on the narrative voice, but that Schwarzenbach's character was having a lot less fun. She's also translated the later novel, Death in Persia, apparently a "more open exploration of lesbian love and existential anguish against the background of 1930s Teheran", which will be out later this year.  

And Isabel read from Schwarzenbach's journalistic texts on Afghanistan, compiled in All the Roads Are Open. This was the more impressive extract, to be honest, as we got a taste of her more mature writing including some beautiful descriptions. As Alexis Schwarzenbach pointed out, however, she was as much a woman of her time as she was a rebel – her gaze is classic Orientalism, as some of the photos illustrated very clearly.

On the basis of the event you should obviously buy both translations, but also Alexis Schwarzenbach's illustrated biography Auf der Schwelle des Fremden. As he pointed out, previous biographers have tended to take her literary first-person without the requisite pinch of salt, interpreting all sorts of things into her life. I agreed on that, having read a rather vexing portrait of her at the hairdresser's a while ago. So I assume his version is a little more distanced. You can also view photos of and by Annemarie Schwarzenbach in a couple of Swiss archives. It's worth it.


Andrew Olds said...

Amazing it has taken so long for AMS's work to be translated into English. What's the problem? I think I came across the first French translations and Dominique-Laure Miermont's French biography about seven or eight years ago.

I also recommend Melania Mazzucco's fictionalized biography *Lei così amata* (don't think that's been translated into English either (!) but it has been into French and Spanish).

And completists could do worse than to check out *Die Reise nach Kafiristan*, a 2001 feature film about the trip AMS and Ella Maillart made in 1939 and largely based upon *Alle Wege sind offen*. I wouldn't say it was a great movie but it's certainly watchable. There's also an excellent documentary, *Une Suisse rebelle* which has loads of movie footage and stills - you can find extracts on YouTube.

Interesting that you mention Orientalism in connection with AMS. If you strip away her political commitment, which can be seen as a product of her times, I often get the feeling that you're left with an extremely aestheticizing "gaze" that wouldn't be out of place today in a Condé Nast travel or fashion publication.

She wasn't a great writer and she wasn't a great photographer but she was very good at both and apart from that, was probably the most stylish woman I've ever seen.

I just discovered your blog. It's great to see someone doing something they love!

kjd said...

Thanks Andrew.