f i c t i o n 

a n n e m a r i e  s c h w a r z e n b a c h



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 alone.

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.




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 danger...”

“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 fallen still.

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 freedom.

– 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 Angelface.

But we always added: “Or the harbor whore of Marseilles.”

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 the wall.

“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 was there.

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 stop it...

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?”

I nodded.

“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 wordless devotion.




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 dance.

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 sleep.

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 Willy...

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 Schwarzenbach

is published by permission of Lenos Verlag, Basel.




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