Monday, 2 May 2022

Book Review: Else Lasker-Schüler

 


Else Lasker-Schüler Three Prose Works
translated by James J. Conway
published by Rixdorf Editions (Berlin)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

According to her translator, James J. Conway, Else Lasker-Schüler was known for her poetry as well as her prose, and this is the first time these prose works, The Peter Hille Book, The Nights of Tino of Baghdad and The Prince of Thebes have been translated into English. Reading them, I felt dipped into an unfamiliar world of fairy-tale. It took me time to fully enter into it, like testing water to see if it’s warm enough before plunging in. But once I did, Else Lasker-Schüler’s prose is immersive. It is not what I think of as prose at all, but poetic and imaginative, it changes scenarios more according to dream narrative than waking chronological events. I came to realise that her perception of life (as she lived it as well as the way she wrote) is a visionary drama, highly theatrical (she was also a performer and experimented with film).

In the first work, The Peter Hille Book, there is a cast of characters who, following dream narrative, act and relate according to their desires. The chief characters are the narrator and Petrus, a leader, an inspiration, a bedrock, foundation (Peter, the rock) a figure of charisma, wisdom, power. He is depicted at different times as like Moses, Noah, Odin, Zeus, a God-like being. The narrator ‘had fled the city and sank down exhausted before a rock’ and having found him, stays by his side, travels with him, for he is the founder of a philosophy, a world, and is recognized as such by a particular group of people. All the characters are shape-shifters, trying on parts as you would costumes, though often marked by one particular mood, emotion or feature, as ‘Antinous looks like an enchanted mythical king, his brother’s curls are bursting yellow, and Onit’s eyes hurry ahead like lean hounds at hunt.’

As in dreams, characters pull at our attention, they merge then separate. We are in the world of Metaphor and everything is alive. The backdrop is infused with the changing terrain and seasons. ‘It is early autumn and the air is still simmering on the stove of summer.’

In The Nights of Tino of Baghdad and The Prince of Thebes, the location shifts to the East. As the translator James J. Conway explains in his Afterword, ‘Tino’ and ‘the Prince of Thebes’ were pseudonyms that Else Lasker-Schüler used in her life as she was someone ‘for whom the distinction between life and work was unusually fluid.’ He also says that the place names that occur in these two works ‘are not signposts to actual places’ but invitations ‘to enter a space in our imagination’.

These imagined spaces, full of Sultans, Pachas, princesses and harems, are far removed from our reality but they have a curious, compelling urgency. You might also imagine that they are written by someone well acquainted with luxury and the time to daydream of distant, exotic lands, but Else Lasker-Schüler’s bohemian existence was far from that. James J. Conway’s excellent Afterword gives us insight into her life, where travel to the Biblical lands in one of those curious twists of fate, became the only place she could actually go to as a Jewish person in flight from nazi Germany.

He also explains who Peter Hille was, a bohemian and charismatic writer with followers who formed a group known as the Neue Gemeinschaft (New Community) and other characters were also members of this group. When these works were written they would have been recognised by contemporaries, but for those who, like me, are not familiar with the German writers of this time, the Afterword was particularly enlightening for its overview of the writers, the literary and artistic movements of the time, and the biographical details of Else Lasker-Schüler’s life.

Though described as prose works, these texts are poetic and highly visual depictions; they make me think of commentaries on vast tapestries, extending from one wall of an enormous mediaeval castle (or some other grand building in some time quite different from ours), to the other. The language, so rich in metaphor, must have been challenging to translate, and James J. Conway is to be congratulated for the vivid imagery and the sweep and flow of his translation. He also has an excellent website at strangeflowers,  where he explores the lives and work of many writers and artists living in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th century.

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