Friday, 27 October 2017

Book Review: My Heart by Else Lasker-Schüler failed marriage usually isn’t a reason to rejoice, but it can well serve as an inspiration, if not as a driving force for whatever follows… and I don’t have in mind any of these ugly wars of the roses that we read about time and again in the yellow press! Especially artists, among them writers, often find the most wonderful ways to transform disappointment and sorrow, even hatred into something great and compelling. As a matter of fact, true art lives off strong emotions. The epistolary novel My Heart by Else Lasker-Schüler began as a series of open “Letters to Norway” published in the German avant-garde journal of her husband when their marriage was over. While he travelled around Norway with a friend, she went on with her life in Berlin seeing and gossipping with (and about) their Bohemian friends as ever, having several love affairs and struggling to make ends meet.

Else Lasker-Schüler was born Else Schüler in Elberfeld (today: Wuppertal), North German Confederation (today: Germany), in February 1869. After having dropped out of high school before graduation she was taught by private tutors. In 1894 she married the physician Jonathan Berthold Lasker, moved with him to Berlin and studied drawing. As from 1899, first poems from her pen appeared in periodicals, a poetry collection titled Styx came out in 1901. Several other, much acclaimed volumes of expressionist poetry followed until the final one entitled My Blue Piano (1943). She also wrote some, usually short prose works like Das Peter-Hille-Buch (1906; The Peter Hille Book), Die Nächte der Tino von Bagdad (1907; The Nights of Tino of Bagdad), My Heart (Mein Herz: 1912), Der Prinz von Theben (1914; The Prince of Thebes), or Der Wunderrabbiner von Barcelona (1921; The Wonder Rabbi of Barcelona) and plays like Dark River (Die Wupper: 1909), Artur Aronymus (1933) or unfinished I and I (Ichundich: 1941/1980). After Hitler’s takeover of power in Germany in 1933, she emigrated to Switzerland and later to Palestine. Else Lasker-Schüler died in Jerusalem, Mandatory Palestine (today: Israel), in January 1945.

In the winter of 1911/12 Else Lasker-Schüler writes My Heart, a series of open letters for the avant-garde journal Der Sturm (tr. The Storm) published by her soon-to-be ex-husband Herwarth Walden. She addresses the letters to him and to his lawyer friend Curt Neimann with whom he travels through Norway, while she stays in Berlin. She passes the greater part of her days in the famous Café des Westens surrounded by the leading artists of her time whom she knows and whose regards she regularly gives to her “boys”, “Cook and Peary”, “Northlanders”, “reindeers” or whichever other name occurs to her for the two travellers. Sometimes as herself, sometimes in the guise of her alter egos Tino of Baghdad, the Prince of Thebes or Prince Yusuf she recounts the most important events of her daily life along with the latest gossip from her Bohemian circles. Some true names of her illustrious friends and acquaintances she conceals behind more or less imaginative aliases like Cajus-Majus for much admired aesthete Peter Hille, Dalai Lama for Viennese writer Karl Kraus or Pitter Boom for her friend Peter Baum from Wuppertal to whom she writes in their Low German dialect. Alfred Döblin appears as Dr. Döblin who wants to remove her thyroid gland to ease the pressure on her heart. She laments that publisher Cohn rejected her latest manuscript fearing that the book wouldn’t sell. In another letter she shows herself bewildered because her maid quit after recognising herself in a published text and feeling offended. Most importantly she dwells on several love affairs, but transposes her adventures into a colourful and exotic world making her lovers a Sultan’s son, a Slav and a bishop whom she later promotes to archbishop. Half-jokingly, she also describes her recurrent problem of procuring money to feed herself.

Although the letters of My Heart clearly give a rather distorted or exaggerated version of reality that, in addition, is interwoven with imagined elements, they undeniably combine to an epistolary novel of essentially autobiographical nature. It could well be called the author’s literary farewell to her second husband to which there is never an answer, at least not in print. No matter how difficult or unpleasant are her living conditions, Else Lasker-Schüler always manages to keep her humorous tone and positive attitude. Her language is chatty and the wording unpretentious, but the author’s pleasure in spinning oriental tales around reality and in calling no matter what and no matter who by others than their true names, often makes it a confusing, truly expressionist read. With an outsider in space and time like me many of the plainly identified people and places don’t ring a bell, either, while readers a hundred years ago may have been quite familiar with them. Perhaps the illustrations from the author’s own hand helped too. It goes without saying that I read the original German edition that is in the public domain, so I can’t say anything about the book’s fairly recent first translation into English.

I must admit that reading My Heart by Else Lasker-Schüler has been a bit of a challenge, but a pleasant one, all things considered although there is no sign of a plot. Most of the letters contain just playful chit-chat about all and nothing, but this is exactly what makes them evoke an exceedingly vivid picture of the artistic circles of Berlin – and the entire German-speaking world really – before the Great War of 1914-18. The author herself subtitled the book “A Novel of Love with Pictures and Really Living People” because in it she shows that she is willing and able to keep her heart open for love even after the disappointment of this failed second marriage. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that she tried to hide great misery and worries beneath her outward cheerfulness. Maybe her poems from this period are more telling than this unusual epistolary novel from 1912 that I recommend with good conscience.

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