It's time we had a little talk about Death – the forthcoming English-language debut by late 19th/early 20th century German writer Anna Croissant-Rust which I translated for Rixdorf Editions.
Perhaps we should start with the author's highly unusual Franco-German name. She was actually born (1860) as Anna Rust in the Palatinate, then part of the Kingdom of Bavaria. But in 1888 she married Hermann Croissant – descended from French Huguenots – and added his name to hers. Bonus fun fact: Anna’s mother-in-law was called Philippine Croissant.
As remarkable a name as it is, even the bookish German of your acquaintance is likely to draw a blank if you mention it. Anna Croissant-Rust sold relatively few books while she was alive and posterity hasn’t been much kinder. And until now, she was one of a large number of women writing enthralling, groundbreaking works in German at the time who have never been translated into English: Maria Janitschek, Elsa Asenijeff, Laura Marholm, Ilse Frapan – to name just a few.
In 1890 Anna Croissant-Rust became the only female member of the Society for Modern Living, a group of forward-thinking Munich-based writers largely associated with the Naturalist movement. But she was already thinking further forward than her male colleagues, and certainly beyond Naturalism. One of her most contentious early works was ‘Wedding’, a tale that relates a bride’s terror of imminent deflowering with pre-Freudian psychosexual frankness; the issue of the journal in which it appeared was promptly banned from sale.
Throughout the early 1890s, Croissant-Rust published works that read like they were conjured from the future, breaking down forms well before ‘breaking down forms’ became a thing in the early 20th century. She was out on her own, fusing free verse and fragmentary narrative in an intense emotional register, but these experiments met with little more than bewilderment at the time. And by the time other writers (usually men) were creating similar work, Croissant-Rust's pioneering work was forgotten. I thought it was essential to highlight Croissant-Rust’s dazzling formal innovation, so the forthcoming Rixdorf edition is actually two books in one: Death, as well as the early book Gedichte in Prosa (Prose Poems). The original publication of Prose Poems (1893) is set in Fraktur, which just highlights its uniqueness. You would struggle to find anything else from this time in the old font – which had defined the look of German books since the dawn of movable type – that was as fearless, as avant-garde, as this. In fact you really have to jump ahead to the pre-WWI Expressionists to find anything comparable.
By the time others had caught up, Croissant-Rust’s thoughts were turning to Death. Based on the medieval danse macabre, or Totentanz, Death (1914) finds the Grim Reaper scything through a selection of unfortunates in a cycle of 17 stories. In 'Corn Mother', for instance, it comes to a sick child as an apparition from local lore (related to the 'corn dolly'), in 'Shadows' it appears to be a young woman's own beauty which snuffs out her life, in 'The Bird' it's, well, it's a bird, but the fact that it apparently plucks a man from a cliff and tosses him into a valley suggests this is no normal winged creature. Even in these short tales there is space for mystery and ambiguity. And there's surprisingly little morbidity, in fact if anything it’s a celebration of life and colour and light. Especially light. If nothing else, Death is a thesaurus of the effects of light.
The original 1914 publication (Der Tod) was a bibliophile edition of 800 copies with illustrations by Willi Geiger showing Herr G. Reaper at work; Geiger was later defamed as a ‘degenerate’ artist by the Nazis. My first reading of the book was a revelation; suddenly not translating it was simply not an option, and later encountering the electrifying originality of Prose Poems merely confirmed that I had to try to bring this largely forgotten writer to a wider readership. Hopefully I have preserved something of the wonder I found in the original. Now that the book is here in Cara Schwartz's beautiful cover I am extremely proud that Death will be available through Rixdorf Editions on 21 May. I can't wait for you to read it.