Annemarie Schwarzenbach was a Swiss novelist. On the surface, “Lyric
Novella” is the story of a young man’s hopeless love for a
nightclub singer. Schwarzenbach later regretted having cast the story
as a heterosexual romance, though at the time she could hardly have
done otherwise. “The twenty-year-old hero is not a hero, not a boy,
but a girl – that should have been admitted...” she wrote.
However, the real subject of this sensitive, deeply-felt story is the
difficulty inherent in all human relations, the impossibility of real
intimacy. The “mask” of the hero(ine) only contributes to the
sense of dreamlike tension.
The story itself, set in Berlin in the last years of the Weimar
Republic, is easily summarized. Rather than pursuing the diplomatic
career which his rich family has sought out for him, the young
narrator abandons himself to his obsession with the nightclub singer
Sibylle, who toys with him coolly and kindly and keeps her distance.
He finds himself in a tangle of adult relationships in which
friendship, rivalry, dependency are often synonymous. Another woman’s
kindness begins to free him from Sibylle’s spell. But when Sibylle
comes to him for help – imploring him to adopt an orphan she has
taken in – he enters a state of crisis. Overwhelmed, he flees the
city, leaving Sibylle to his rival. Taking a room in a small village,
he begins to write “the story of a love”.
“A tormented inability to relate to other people... makes love a
sickness, friendship a shared flight from life and independence a
senseless burden... The subject of Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s story
is not failed love – Sibylle’s apparent emotional coldness – but
the failure of love - the protagonist’s helpless inability, in the
crucial moment, to accept his human responsibility toward the beloved,”
wrote the Neue Z¸rcher Zeitung.
The story is told in 21 brief chapters;
scenes of the country and flashbacks to the city are set down in
terse, ironic, crystalline prose with moments of austere lyricism.
This town is so small – one walk and you know every
corner. I have already discovered an old and very pretty courtyard behind
the church, and the best barber in town, who lives on a cobbled side
street. I walked a few steps past his shop and was suddenly at the end of
town, there were only a few brick villas, and the street was sandy like a
track across the fields. The wood began just beyond. I turned back, passed
the church again, and found my way quite well. The old courtyard leads to
the main street, and now I am going inside the "Red Eagle” café to
do a little writing. In my hotel room I am always tempted to throw myself
onto the bed and idle away the short daylight hours. It costs me an
enormous effort to write; I have a fever, and my head is ringing as if
from hammer blows.
I think if I knew anyone here I would quickly lose my
self-control. But I go about without saying a word, and my feelings are
unclear to me.
This café strikes me as odd. It’s more a pastry shop,
with glass cases, cakes on display, and a waitress in a black wool dress
with a white apron. There is a light blue tiled stove in the corner, and
the sofas have been lined up with their upright, cushioned backs to the
wall. A puppy runs about yelping, a wretched scruffy little creature. A
grey-haired woman tries to pet him, but he slips away from her, slouching
apprehensively. The old woman follows him, lures him with a sugar lump and
talks to him loudly and persistently.
I think she is insane. No one in the cafe seems to pay
any attention to her.
Now the pain is coming back, and I’ve only written two
pages. It’s a stabbing on the right-hand side; it goes away as soon as I
lie down or drink strong alcohol. But I don’t want to lie down, I could
write so well now, and it’s terribly disheartening to be idle when I am
The insane old woman is gone; I would like to watch her
cross the street and see whether she talks to herself outside too like the
grey-haired beggar women in Paris. –
I used to be unable to tell the difference between
insane people and drunks; I watched them with a kind of reverent horror.
Now I am not afraid of drunks anymore. I’ve often been drunk myself, it’s
a sad and beautiful state, things which you would never admit otherwise
become clear to you, feelings which one tries to hide and are not after
all the worst in us. –
I feel a little better now. I will have to ask the
reader to bear with what I write today. But Sibylle told me that nothing,
not even the bitterest experiences and most hopelessly lost hours of my
life, should be completely unfruitful. That is why it is so important to
abandon myself to my weakness even in this state of incapacity and later
subject it to the only criticism which matters to me: will I ever in any
sense of the word be taken seriously by Sibylle?
What bothers me most is that I left without saying
goodbye to my friend Magnus. He is sick, he’s been lying in bed for
three weeks now, and I have neglected him. I saw him a few days ago, and
he looked pretty bad. He was lying in the back room of his studio, the
doctor was with him when I came, and shook my hand. He examined him in
silence, examined the temperature curve and gave instructions to the
porter’s little son. The porter’s son is a pale skinny boy of about
eighteen who cooks for Magnus and by now has taken over the entire task of
caring for him. When visitors come, the porter’s son shows them into the
studio himself and then vanishes into the kitchen. He stays there until
Magnus calls him. He is very devoted... The doctor gave him a prescription
and sent him to the pharmacy. “A good boy,” he said to me. And Magnus
smiled, and they simply overlooked the fact that I belonged. The doctor
left, and I waited until the boy came back from the pharmacy.
“Do you have enough money?” I asked Magnus.
“Do we have enough money?” Magnus asked the boy, who
answered, “Yesterday you gave me ten marks, that should hold us for now.”
They said du to each other.
Then I left, and a few days later Magnus sent me an
invitation he had gotten from the English ambassador for me, and wrote me
a letter to go with it. Since then I haven’t heard from him.
Once I always had the need to explain myself to everyone
so that I could live with them in harmony. And yet I hated talkiness. But
I don’t know whether I hated it because I kept succumbing to it, or
because I saw the futility of all attempts to make yourself understood,
even to your best friends.
I say “once” and mean the time three months ago. I
have always resisted all external periodization, because I detest imposed
discipline. Now I must accustom myself to spontaneity, it is as if I
became an adult in a single night. That night I could have seen Sibylle in
the Walltheater, the choice was mine. But then I left. And before that
night I wouldn’t have stood it here for a single day. I knew nothing
about being alone. I can even stand being misunderstood by my friends.
Until now truly my sole wish was to assure myself of their good will, and
for that I squandered all my good nature. And much more.
I’m done with that now. Who knows what will come of
It’s a shame about people, says Strindberg. Several
months ago I sat in a coffeehouse in Berlin with a poet, we talked
inspiredly and went on inspiring each other with our mutual understanding.
He was years older than I, I could almost have been his son. He leaned
across the little table and grasped my hands, he shot his ecstasy, his
optimism, his delirious joy at me like flames. “You are youth,” he
said, “the only youth I don’t begrudge the future, and the victory
over us –”
His words sobered me a little. At once he seemed to
sense it; he let go of my hands, looked me urgently in the face and said:
“Do you have any idea how endearing and how in danger
you are? You’re so pale all of a sudden, tell me what I can do for you.”
People often tell me that I am in danger. Maybe it is
because of my excessive youth –
At the time I laughed about it. “I love danger,” I
said, and I felt my eyes shine with elation.
“I must go now,” I said, it was midnight, I left him
in a hurry, almost without saying goodbye. At the door I realized the
unseemliness of my behavior, I hurried back, squeezed his hands and said:
“Forgive me, I’ve spent the past two days waiting for a great
“Go,” he said, smiling, “withstand it...”
But I did not withstand it.
I was in the wood all afternoon. First I walked into the
wind across a large field, it was exhausting, I froze, and the edge of the
wood was like a shelter. There were no people; once I stopped and looked
around, and the autumnal desolation of the landscape deadened my sadness.
The sky was grey, darker clouds raced across it, showers fell to earth
here and there. And the earth absorbed them unperturbed.
I walked on, and the heavy clods hampered me. But then I
was in the wood, bare bushes brushed me, I bent them apart, the wind had
Right in front of me an animal bolted up without a
sound, a big grey-brown hare; it dashed across the roots, crouched down,
and vanished in the depths of the wood like a shot. I saw its nest,
hollowed out round beneath the bushes, bent down and laid my hands where
its fur-cloaked body had lain. A trace of animal warmth remained, and I
felt it with an unfamiliar thrill. I bowed my head and nestled my face to
this spot, and it was a faint breathing and almost like a human breast.
I am coming back from the fields. The soil clings to my
shoes and makes me walk slowly, like a farmer. Sometimes I forget why I am
here, on the run, so to speak, and I imagine I have lived here for a long
time. But if I were a real farmer I would know what is sown on these
fields, how much is harvested and which soil is most fertile. I don’t
know any of that. Sometimes I think that the farmers’ knowledge comes
from heaven, because they are religious and reliant upon the heavenly
powers. I walk across the fields like a stranger and am only suffered
here. I hate myself now suddenly because I am without obligations. Here,
in the country, I understand Gide’s “Immoraliste” and am kin to him,
burdened with the same sin, abandoned to a hostile, delusive and fruitless
– People don’t know what sin is. –
Yes, now I am ashamed of many things, and would like to
ask God forgiveness. If only I were religious.
In Marseilles I knew a girl they called Angelface. I
hardly knew her really, I only saw her at night, one single time, and she
was standing in her room and thought we were burglars, Manuel and I. She
slept on the ground floor of an ugly house. The village was two stations
from Marseilles, her mother lived there, and when the girl was tired of
the city, the bars and the sailors, she went back to her and lived quietly
like a well-brought-up girl. Probably that was why they called her
But we always added: “Or the harbor whore of
Manuel and I were on the road in a Ford. We drove
by the sea, it was the middle of the night, and we wanted to get back to
Marseilles. I was hungry. So we stopped outside the house where Angelface
lived and woke her.
Manuel knelt on the ground with his arms propped against
“Angelface!” he called.
No one answered. Then she came across the room, all you
could see was a white shadow gliding up to the window. And then she
pressed her white face to the wire screen which kept out the mosquitoes. I
could not make out her features, but my knees grew weak.
“It’s me,” said Manuel.
“Who is with you?” asked Angelface.
“My friend,” said Manuel.
“How old is he?” asked Angelface.
“Twenty years old,” said Manuel. “And we’d like
something to eat.”
“I can’t let you in,” said Angelface. “My mother
wakes up so easily. But I’ll make you some sandwiches.”
I went back to the car to wait for Manuel. Then he
brought the sandwiches, and we drove on.
“Are you in love with Angelface?” Manuel asked me.
And then he said coldly: “It’s not very original to love her.”
That was half a year ago.
Manuel and I never write. But he had a friend tell me
that Angelface had shot herself.
And now I think it is not very original to be in love
with Sibylle. I think no one can resist her. –
I used to work very methodically before I knew Sibylle.
I got up at seven, and at eight-thirty, if I didn’t have a lecture, I
would go to the main library. In the mornings there were plenty of empty
seats, I would get my books quickly and begin to read. The reading room is
semi-circular and dimly lit, and the desks are arranged in a horseshoe as
if around a speaker’s lectern. I always thought that there ought to be a
speaker there, at the center of the room, a powerful man toward whom our
eyes would instinctively turn, and that it would reassure us to know he
My place was on the left-hand side, near the windows,
which were shrouded in heavy curtains. The curtains were drawn only on
bright afternoons, then a little sunlight entered the room and slipped
across the floor, hesitant and colorless. I could not see out, but the
noise of the street reached and tempted me. I would picture the way the
cars drove back and forth and passed each other below, how the people
hurried into the restaurants, read newspapers and felt content, and I
would gather up my books and leave.
No one cared. Each was here by himself and paid no
notice to the others.
Then I would go to a restaurant and order something to
eat. And I was almost always very hungry.
But that was soon over. And then I spent the entire day
in almost unbearable impatience.
Only when evening came was I consoled, the lights blazed
up, and Sibylle woke.
The thought of her name was a delighted torment. I left
the library, went home, took a bath and changed my clothes. Usually I had
dinner with friends; they were cultivated and friendly people, and the
evenings passed quickly and engagingly. I concealed my impatience, but
every time I looked at my watch it was only nine o’clock. Mostly I
talked with my hostess; I liked her very much. She knew my mother.
But one evening everything changed suddenly. We were
speaking, I believe, of the German Empire of the Middle Ages, of the
symbolic power of a name with so little reality at its command. All at
once I heard my voice like that of a stranger, a flush of heat came over
me, I whispered Sibylle’s name unthinkingly, saw the infinite pallor of
her face loom outside the window of the room, I ran to the window and tore
back the curtain.
The others looked at me in surprise. What had happened?
Nothing, Sibylle’s face. And what did they know of it,
unending strangeness severed us, strange people looked at me, the ground
caved in between us, the light grew dim, their conversations no longer
reached my ears, now they themselves vanished, and I could do nothing to
I remembered often seeing a special kind of scene change
at the Bayreuth Festival Theater:
The music played on and the curtains were open, but
vapors rose at the edge of the stage, shot with colored light; they grew
denser, interflowed in white streams to form increasingly impenetrable
walls behind which the scene sank imperceptibly out of sight. Then it grew
still, the mists parted, the stage reemerged, a new landscape lay gleaming
in the soft young light.
I was asked a question, and answered, but I don’t know
whether my answer made sense.
I got up and went all alone to the hostess, who gave me
her hand with a smile.
On the street I breathed a sigh of relief. I had escaped
a danger. No one had noticed my flight.
So it was: I had slipped away from them, the abyss had
opened up before me, irresistibly drawn I had spread my arms and plunged.
A boy stole past me, his head ducked; he gave me a
cagey, challenging look.
“You’re leaving your car here?” he asked. “Want
me to keep an eye on it?”
“You seem to know my car already,” I said.
Then I looked at my watch.
“Eleven,” said the boy. “Eleven,” I said
happily. And hurried back to the car. As I took the keys out of my pocket,
trying to remember the way to the Walltheater, I suddenly had to lean
against the hood to catch my breath. The boy looked at me sternly.
I yelled at him: “Get in” – and opened the door.
Then I grabbed the boy by the shoulders, pulled him
toward me roughly and simultaneously started the motor with my left hand.
He maintained a stubborn silence and stared at me in
Do I think very much about Sibylle?
I’d say that I don’t know, I don’t give her
thought, but I never forget her for a single second. It is as if I have
never lived without her. Nothing connects us, but I am charged with her
presence, sometimes I remember her breaths or the smell of her skin, and
it is as if I am still holding her in my arms, as if she is sitting next
to me and I need only stretch out my hand to touch her. But what is there
to connect us: these long evenings, these long nights, this parting
outside her door in the paling morning, these endless solitudes –
It is not late, but darkness has sunk across the land
like a curtain. When I think of the city it seems to me that I lived there
in ignorance of the world, I don’t know how I endured the confinement,
the cruel uniformity of the walls, the apprehensive reserve of the
buildings and the barrenness of the streets. I slept, and no dream
consoled me, and when I woke, I was tired. Then I sat at my desk and it
grew dark again, and the headlights of the cars glided up and down outside
my window. – The nights always went very late. Sometimes the dawning
began as I drove home. At first it was dark, and the headlights fell
gleaming on the black asphalt. Then they faded slowly, the street grew
light and the sheen of it dulled. The sky between the trees of the
Tiergarten was filled with surges of grey; clouds, sack-like formations,
shrouds and spear-heads moved through the ebbing darkness, the trunks
gleamed silver, in the branches danced the waves of dawn.
I longed for the sight of the sun, which was rising now
somewhere in splendor. But in the city you did not see it. A little red
was in the sky, that was the east. All was still.
I stopped in front of the building where I live. A
gentle breeze rushed down upon me and freshened my face. It was the
morning wind. Soon it would be drowned by the noise of the city, smothered
in its haste. I went into the building, took the elevator to the third
floor, crossed the corridor and opened the door of my room. Hardly taking
the time to remove my clothes, I sank down asleep.
Today I am impatient, hurrying back to my room as if
someone could be waiting for me there. But that is impossible, no one
knows where I am, not even a letter can reach me. I will force myself to
walk slowly. I have taken up so much blind haste. For weeks the city
pressed in on me from all sides, the sky was overcast, the stillness rent.
Here the sky is immeasurable, and when I sit down somewhere on a hillock
or lean my back against the trunk of a tree, I hear nothing but the murmur
of the wind.
I can’t imagine spring here, in this melancholy
region, or the exuberant colors of summer. Sometimes, stretched out in
bed, I force myself to picture these things, and the image of a rippling
field slowly grows in the darkness, yellow ears join in rows, yellow stems
in endless ranks merge into an undulating mass, a moving carpet over the
brown earth; in the distance reapers open an aisle with powerful strides,
they wade up to their knees in crackling yellow, and left and right the
sheaves sink rustling to the ground. After the men come the women,
laughing, gleaming with sweat and sun, streaming forth a pungent smell.
Their naked arms catch the sinking sheaves and gather them into orderly
bundles. The hiked-up skirts show their powerful knees.
Yes, how it was in the summer ––
The sky is shot with bright rays and blinds the eyes.
You cannot endure so much brightness, you lower your eyes or you throw
yourself down upon the grass: it gleams with freshness and presses soft
and damp against your glowing skin.
Or it was spring. And the sky stretched to ever-greater
transparency, to a rapt, delicately-hued lightness, mild winds rose,
clouds rushed through the high spaces, the trees, barely in leaf, bowed
their crowns, raised them again and surrendered to the gentle
unsettlement; the grasses, gone weary and pale under the masses of snow,
untangled themselves, strove upward and shone. If you stood at the edge of
the field, you were seized by this new splendor; on all sides the land was
bathed in young moisture, pale tints from lightest green to the white of
the clouds, untouched blue, brown with the matte lightness of animal furs,
unearthly grey, silver of the tree bark, reddish cracks in the ground,
hazelnut twigs, scraps of faded leaves, first emergence of yellow
primroses in brown marshy hollows, black soil of the garden beds, veiled
in grey, and then the deeply-broken, steaming clods of the field.
Then you went and turned your face to the extravagant
caresses, sucked in the just-warm air, felt as you strode the onset of
jubilation, lifted your hands to your breast, and saw in the distance the
line of the horizon shrouded in silver, sensed hills, roads barely thawed,
thundering water, bridges over ravines, and steep mountain peaks rising
into the vault of shimmering blue.
I open my eyes. The room is badly lit, but now it is
warm; the white oven crackles as if pine twigs are burning inside it. When
I go to the wood tomorrow I will bring back a few twigs and hold them into
the flames; that will make a Christmassy smell. I will be homesick then.
I sit up in bed. Maybe I am better. But the room spins
before my eyes; I fall back onto my pillow. By all rights I should be
discouraged, maybe I am too weak to feel anything at all. The room is so
ugly. Oh, if only Willy were here! I would like to know who slept in these
awful beds before me.
There are two beds here, but I am alone.
I hold the writing pad on my knees, and the letters
Soon I will be too tired to write any more, and I have
not yet gotten to my subject. For I do have a subject. I want to write the
story of a love, but time after time I let myself be distracted and speak
only of myself. It is probably because I am sick. I can’t bring myself
to do anything. I am still entangled in the raw stuff of my work, I was
astray in obscure regions, now I want to return to life. I want to grow
used to the passing of days again, to eating and drinking and healthy
That is why I went away, but I should not have gotten
sick just now. Now more than ever I am thrown back into the strangest
entanglements. And I am writing again. All these weeks I have really never
stopped, I have lived crouched over myself, that has not been good for me.
Of Sibylle I know nothing really, I have failed to think about her. Or
But is it possible to think about Sibylle?
Do I think about the weapon which wounded me?
(“You were a weapon, Sibylle, but in whose hands.”)
translation © Isabel Cole
This excerpt from “Lyric Novella” by Annemarie
is published by permission of Lenos Verlag,