Friday, 1 May 2015

Book Review: Lyric Novella by Annemarie Schwarzenbach
Thinking of Switzerland literature certainly isn’t the first thing that comes to mind because in this context language is more important than nationality and therefore the country’s bigger neighbours France, Italy… and Germany reap many of the laurels. Nonetheless there is a thriving community of German-language writers in Switzerland and probably there always was although among Swiss authors published before 1939 I could name only four until recently: Johanna Spyri, C. F. Meyer, Carl Spitteler, and Hermann Hesse. With today’s review I’m putting the spotlight on the work of a fifth, of a woman writer. Lyric Novella by Annemarie Schwarzenbach is the sentimental story of a nameless narrator’s obsession for the cabaret singer Sibylle set in the thriving theatre scene of 1930s Berlin as it is known from the musical Cabaret.

Annemarie Schwarzenbach was born in Zurich, Switzerland, in May 1908 as daughter of a wealthy silk manufacturer. Already during her studies of History at the universities of Zurich and Paris she turned towards writing and published first journalistic articles along with some literary works. In the 1930s she travelled a lot (Europe; the Near and the Middle East, Persia, Afghanistan; USA; Belgian Congo) producing a great number of newspaper reports and books inspired by her impressions. Her debut novel was Freunde um Bernhard (1931; Friends Around Bernhard) which was followed by Lyric Novella (Lyrische Novelle: 1933), Winter in Vorderasien. Tagebuch einer Reise (1934; Winter in the Near East. Diary of a Journey), Lorenz Saladin: Ein Leben für die Berge (1938; Lorenz Saladin: A Life for the Mountains), and Das glückliche Tal (1940; The Happy Valley). The author became addicted to morphine early on in her career and underwent several detoxification treatments. Annemarie Schwarzenbach died following a bycicle accident in Sils, Switzerland, in November 1942. Many of her works were published for the first time long after her death in the 1990s and 2000s like All the Roads are Open. An Afghan Journey (Alle Wege sind offen: 2000) and Death in Persia (Tod in Persien: 2003) which are available in English translation.

The scenery of Lyric Novella are alternately Berlin and a small town in its environs about fifteen years after the end of World War I and of the German Empire, thus in the early 1930s when people who haven’t yet fully digested what the war did to them are striving hard to make ends meet despite the World Economic Crisis. The narrating protagonist, however, is a twenty-year-old man, or boy really, from a good family and although he isn’t rich he has his own car and always enough money to get along. He is a committed and promising law student who aspires to become a diplomat when he first meets the cabaret singer Sibylle. The experienced woman possesses particular charms that make men her slaves and also the young student falls up to the ears in love with her at once. He doesn’t care what people say, that she is a cold woman, one who has gone through a lot and who has allegedly destroyed many people (notably men). Before soon he neglects his studies by day and drives around with her in his car by night without ever getting what he craves for. Whatever he does, Sibylle remains aloof and never once takes him seriously in any sense. The constant lack of sleep takes its toll, makes him feeble and pale, but he can’t stop thinking of Sibylle, nor refrain from picking her up every night after her show. It’s a compulsion. Even when he falls ill with a fever confining him to bed for a couple of days, he can’t rid himself of the overpowering desire to see her. Not only then his friends call him hopeless. And yet, when Sibylle asks him a big favour, he flees from her and from Berlin. In a small town he begins to write down the story of his obsession. 

Since the rediscovery of Lyric Novella in the late 1980s, the first-person narrative has often been referred to as an innovative work on lesbian relationship because after its publication in 1933 Annemarie Schwarzenbach (who was lesbian herself) declared that the nameless hero was really a young woman, not a man as the wording suggests in several passages while in other places it isn’t quite clear if the narrating voice is female or male. In my opinion it doesn’t matter, though, because revolving around unrequited love and obsession the story is a lot more universal than the author herself seems to have been aware. I believe that the novella also has another, less obvious dimension attributing to obsessive love a similarly destructive power as any kind of addiction has (like the author’s to morphine). Moreover some of the described conditions – headaches, vertigo, fever, etc – reminded me of what I heard and read about withdrawal symptoms. The plot of the novella is uneventful, but rather than on outward action its focus is on emotions and the process of digesting the end of a one-sided affair. This accounts for the novella’s title since the adjective “lyric” also means “emotional” or “sentimental”. Omnipresent despair and suffering are mirrored by the surroundings. There is interwar Berlin which serves as the bleak background for the protagonist’s love to Sibyille and which is very much like it is also depicted in the musical Cabaret set in the same milieu and time. And there is the small town with its wintry landscape before snowfalls which feels so gloomy that it is the perfect place for the protagonist to lick his/her wounds. Of course, I read the original German version of this very slim novella – the original German edition of 1933 is estimated 90 pages long – and I found that the author’s language is so simple and concise that an uninformed reader could easily mistake it for a contemporary work. 

All in all, Lyric Novella by Annemarie Schwarzenbach has been a very quick and easy read which I enjoyed thoroughly despite its melancholic tone. What I liked best was the authentic picture that it paints of a resigned generation that – as it turned out very soon after publication – was easy prey for Adolf Hitler and his lot. Its lesbian dimension would have escaped me completely, hadn’t I read a few comments on the novella to help me bring this review of my German edition in line with the English translation. At any rate, it’s a piece of classical Swiss literature in German language which deserves my recommendation.

* * * * * review is a contribution to the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015, namely to the category Classic Novella.

»»» see my sign-up post with the complete reading list.


it is another review of a book written by a woman for Valentina's 2015 Women Challenge # 3 on Peek-a-booK!, too.

»»» please read my sign-up post to know more.


  1. Since my husband is Swiss I'm thinking I should read more Swiss literature. Thanks for alerting me to this interesting author.

    1. My pleasure, Lory! And it's really a good book worth more attention.


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