Wedding (Anna Croissant-Rust)

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Presenting a previously unpublished translation of a banned short story by Anna Croissant-Rust

In 1891, early on in her career, German author Anna Croissant-Rust (1860-1943) published a number of remarkable short works. Blending prose and poetry, disregarding taboos, she was pushing at the edges of the permissible in both style and subject matter. In August she pushed right through, with a contribution to Moderne Blätter, the journal of the Munich-based ‘Society for Modern Living’ of which Croissant-Rust was the sole female member.

‘Wedding’ was a vivid insight into sexual anxiety in which a marriage ceremony is rendered as something akin to a ritual sacrifice. Croissant-Rust describes a young bride exposed to the leering gaze of the wedding party, her fear of imminent deflowering projected into imagined dialogue. Here we find the hallmarks of the writer’s most audacious work that would culminate in Prose Poems (1893) and reappear in Death on the eve of the First World War – lights, colours, flowers, the agency attributed to inanimate objects, instants distilled to their emotional essence through a filter of acute psychological perception.

But the intimations of sexuality were too much for the authorities, who confiscated the edition of Moderne Blätter in which it appeared. As the author herself related, it was given to three trainee lawyers to read, who were then asked if the story had aroused them; when they replied in the negative the issue was cleared for sale once more. It was at least a marketable episode, and as the issue returned to newsstands it bore a banner announcing the confiscation.

With its fearless avant-garde style and pre-Freudian insights, ‘Wedding’ confirms Anna Croissant-Rust as a vital yet undervalued exponent of early Modernist literature.


Wedding

A psychological study

The bride’s coupé stops at the church door, the long, stark row of black coaches forms a dark line on the sunny, whitish street.

A tingling curiosity passes through the crowd. It orbits above their heads, a fever in their hands and feet and a gawking in their eyes; softly, softly it steals through the silk upholstery of the coach and creeps into the matt white bridal bouquet with its sweet, sensual aroma of Malmaison roses, myrtle and orange blossom.

It peers out from the blossoms, a yellowish gaze with flickering red, it eyes the bride –

The bride!

She is overcome by quaking, she recoils in apprehension and fear of the yellow-reddish brute gaze that lurks there. The coupé door is now wide open, the church steps dazzling in the sunshine, boastful in their ingratiating covering, crimson, soft, submissive, while solemn plants peer expectantly from the dark church door, tall and green, with light flickering over the earnest admonishment in their leafy twigs. The stiff satin of the bridal train rustles busily and waves over the coupé footstep, billows haughtily over the supplicant runners and moves inside the church, grave and worthy.

White satin, white tulle surges soft and shy around maiden cheeks drained of colour, sultry scent of roses brazenly dominating the orange blossoms, while the myrtle remains stiff and incorporeal. The stiff white myrtle wreath is set firmly in her hair.

White the walls, white the flowers, myrtle and orange blossom …

A shudder runs through the young bride.

She sees the reddish-yellow brute gaze lurking all about, squatting in the church pews, grinning from the side aisles, nodding from the alcoves, waiting at the altar.

And it gets redder, it shimmers and glitters, it sits in the eyes of the men, comes toward her, closer and closer, it sticks to her dress, runs over her face, her breasts … she feels as though her dress has fallen away, her white body naked, standing there in the church sullied and soiled, under the green, stiff plants, in the constant glittering light. White the blossoms, white the satin …

Are they all looking at her? All of them?

Oh they know that today, only this day is she still a virgin; they grin, they mock, they laugh, pointing at her naked body …

Her mother sits in her firm-fitting silk dress, she sees her as though through a mist, but from the mist she beckons …

She beckons and steps forward, her right hand an obliging, inviting gesture directed at her child. She smiles sweetly.

‘Please, I insist, come closer everyone, you all know that today, today is the day, you know, you know the day when one wears white satin and myrtle because … well’ – and here she giggles, and now thick tears are running down her face, but again she laughs – ‘closer, please, look at my daughter the virgin for the first, second, third and last time. This very day she will give herself to her husband. In due form, with all due honour – a good match. But tactfully, not straight after their wedding; a banquet, a honeymoon, the first stop is in …’ her voice drops to a murmur, she retreats to her misty circle.

‘Money! So much money it cost,’ her father puffs behind her, wiping the sweat from his brow and twirling his top-hat in his hands, ‘but she has my blessing, it’s all fine and above board,’ and then he leers at her, leers at her friends.

Restlessly they encircle her, with garbled laughter, hot heads and beating hearts … what? In their eyes, too, the reddish-yellow brute gaze begins to smoulder, to spark …

The young bride looks at the floor, she shivers, her hands clutching the flowers, maliciously rises the sweet and sultry scent of the orange blossoms.

Next to her, touching her, a black tailcoat of the most elegant cut. The dull sparkle of silk lining, patent leather shoes tittering pretentiously, a stiff collar, white, dazzling and haughty, wreathed by a white tie. The wax head with its stiffened moustache and singed hair smiles with unceasing vapidity beside her.

The yellowish-reddish gaze steals over him to her, this spark – can he not see it?

The young bride is shaken by quivering. Like cold, slimy mud it runs down her body, soiling, staining, defiling.

Are the flowers not wilting in her hand? Is the wreath not falling from her hair, are the lights not going out? Is it not getting darker, darker?

But from out of the darkness comes bright, weaving sunshine. Breeze-ruffled flowers, swaying green leaves.

And a sunny, surging joy in her heart, calling hot and shy.

Another’s hand holds hers with the strength and joy of youth, two eyes shine, shine, call to her.

And no one about.

Flames ignite in her heart, shy, shivering little flames, flaring, flickering, increasing in constant ardour.

Two arms hold her tight, sheath upon sheath falls from her body, in chaste purity her body shines, inundated with hot sun. Soft, hesitant sounds of joy in her ear, resounding, exulting cries, she feels herself being carried away, bedded, engulfed – alone, alone!

The sound of the organ, women’s voices, a circlet presses her finger, skipping gleams of light, arms that press her, moist, fat, sucking lips meeting hers, a flaccid mouth pressing against hers, kisses, kisses … yellowish, reddish flashing gaze, the beast, the beast!

Her train rustles over the flagstones once more, the weary, mocking scent of flowers all around, mist, unsteady grimaces all about, a hand supports her and the silk upholstery creaks reluctantly under its dual burden.

Ah, ah – a note of redemption; the wax head stretches and yawns, his left hand on the scrunching silk, he bends toward her … white the blossoms, white the satin …


‘Wedding’ by Anna Croissant-Rust was first published in German as ‘Hochzeitsfest’ in Moderne Blätter, no. 22 (29 August 1891). First book publication in Lebensstücke: Ein Novellen- und Skizzenbuch, Dr. E. Albert & Co. in Munich, 1893.

This translation © 2018 James J. Conway

Death by Anna Croissant-Rust (incl. Prose Poems), tr. James J. Conway, is available through Rixdorf Editions.

Beauty in the metropolis

Ephraim-Palais

Ephraim-Palais

Berlin-born architect and theorist August Endell issued his most important text, Die Schönheit der großen Stadt, in 1908. And this year brings not only our English translation of this title (The Beauty of the Metropolis) but also an exhibition currently running in Endell's hometown that takes the name and content of the book as inspiration. Where the text drew numerous examples from the German capital in its celebration of the urban environment and the aesthetic riches it has to offer, the exhibition focuses on canvases capturing views of a city that has had numerous qualities ascribed to it, but rarely ‘beauty’.

On a bright, cold day with Siberian winds strafing the Spree (this was a while ago, you will note) I made my way from Jannowitzbrücke station to the centrally located Ephraim-Palais, a bijou Rococo palace originally built for the jeweller to the court of Frederick the Great, although deconstructed and reconstructed in the 20th century. The close identification of location and subject matter was confirmed by two works that offered views of precisely the route I had just taken, from differing historical perspectives.

The exhibition takes us from the Biedermeier era to the early 2000s, or as the subtitle has it ‘Berlin images from Gaertner to Fetting’, i.e., from someone you've probably never heard of to someone else you've probably never heard of. This is something of a misdirect, as the show actually offers work by the far more recognisable likes of Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka and Jeanne Mammen. Wisely the pieces are grouped thematically rather than chronologically, but the selection sticks almost exclusively to oil on canvas, with no etchings, drawings or other works on paper. And no photography, although as I note in the afterword to The Beauty of the Metropolis, it is arguably in this medium that Endell’s vision of a citizenry in full aesthetic possession of its urban surroundings is most compellingly realised in the present day.

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Extracts from The Beauty of the Metropolis adorn the walls of the show, and both the work and its creator are at home in these surroundings. It wasn’t his building or design works that first brought Endell to public attention, but a rousing piece of art criticism published in 1896, entitled Um die Schönheit (On Beauty). It addressed a major exhibition in Munich that year, in which doughty offerings by seasoned academicians appeared alongside explosive new experiments in form and theme. The text announced Endell as a new and original thinker, one who proposed a radical submission to aesthetic input:

But those who learn to give in to their visual impressions completely, without associations, without secondary objects of any kind, those who just once feel the emotional impact of forms and colours, will find them to be an inexhaustible source of extraordinary, unimagined pleasure. And the moment when the understanding for these things first awakens should be an event in every person’s life. It is like an intoxication, a madness that comes over us. The joy threatens to destroy us, the profusion of beauty to suffocate us. Those who have not experienced this will never understand visual art.

These ideas in turn informed his perception of the city a dozen years later when he wrote The Beauty of the Metropolis. Certainly the variety of experience of which Endell speaks in the book is reflected in this selection. Sharing the same feverish, pre-World War One period with Endell’s text is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s well-known Nollendorfplatz, which depicts a relatively new district as the meeting place of almost irreconcilable axes of motion, while Ludwig Meidner’s desolate images of building sites show the city simultaneously claiming yet more of its sandy environs for itself.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Nollendorfplatz 1912

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Nollendorfplatz 1912

There are, it has to be said, a few works evidently selected for their affinity with the theme at hand, with artistic excellence a secondary consideration. Conversely, other artists are exposed in a new light. Jeanne Mammen's images of demi-mondaine city-dwellers may be familiar, but here she is represented by an unpeopled image of a church (thought to have been executed in the late 1930s), rendering the scene in a way that didn't at all conform to the Nazis' approved styles. And while I was dimly aware of the work of Impressionist Lesser Ury from reproductions, here they appeared as a revelation, one that brought Endell’s words vividly to mind. The most thrilling and evocative was a nocturnal study of the Landwehr Canal, and Endell’s depiction of this waterway in The Beauty of the Metropolis could be a transcription of Ury’s image (which unfortunately doesn't reproduce well):

The thick treetops prevent light from making its full impact. The quiet buildings rise darkly behind the shadowy clouds of the treetops. The gas lanterns seem like points of light attracting cabs and automobiles; a fine, blinking web of stars spreads out above this dark mass. The smooth, turgid water is completely dark, and this silent, spectral mirror below reflects the gentle life of the night above, shimmering at the passer-by.

Lesser Ury Abend am Landwehrkanal 1889

Lesser Ury Abend am Landwehrkanal 1889

Night takes on a far more sinister iridescence a century later in Wolfgang Peuker’s imagining of the (old) Chancellery, a scene populated solely by outsized martial statuary at the entrance of Hitler's intimidating lair. This is a rare retrospective view, with most artists sticking to their own eras, as seen in Louise Rösler’s deceptively festive Marsden Hartley-esque study of Kurfürstendamm on the eve of the Second World War, and Karl Hofer’s desaturated view of the bombed-out city after its conclusion. Konrad Knebel’s Straße mit Mauer (1977) is one of numerous works to depict the divided city in the Cold War, but while it depicts the Berlin Wall itself, its perspective magnifies the adjacent apartment blocks with the odd effect of reducing the barrier to the status of an almost incidental plane. Meanwhile Stefanie Bürkle’s Weinhaus Huth (1995) brings us forward to the redevelopment of the post-reunification era. Here skeletal concrete behemoths dwarf a tenacious remnant of old Berlin in the form of the eponymous building, almost the last original structure left standing on or around Potsdamer Platz following wartime bombing and the construction of the Wall.

Perhaps the most surprising work here is Oskar Kokoschka's Berlin, 13. August 1966. For one, I had no idea Kokoschka was still active in 1966 (and was further surprised to discover he lived until 1980). Not just that, the work was created at the behest of Axel Springer, and depicts the view over East Berlin from the top of the publisher's new high-rise, built right on the course of the Wall. Springer’s conservative, staunchly pro-American tabloid provocations would soon make him one of the bogeymen of West Germany’s ’68 generation, so it is all the more unusual to find him here in association with a survivor of the Weimar avant-garde.

For anyone familiar with Berlin, it is difficult to avoid trying to identify locations and individual features, but here – again – Endell is way ahead of us. It is not the metropolis that we should be seeking, but the beauty within it:

But only in our present era have we slowly begun to realise that form and colour do not derive their beauty from the object, that there may indeed be a beauty that is not even perceived in the object when we observe it for purely practical purposes, and that it is only artistic vision that confers upon the object the beauty that resides in form and colour, independent of all material relationships.

Die Schönheit der großen Stadt continues at Museum Ephraim-Palais, Berlin, until 26 August 2018

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Wish you were hier

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As well as using old postcards in our artwork, we have recently started using postcards to make... postcards. Specifically, a series of art cards offering variations on original motifs of German postcards from around the beginning of the 20th century.

Why?

Well, one of our central aims with the whole Rixdorf Editions project is to introduce a combination of time and place largely unfamiliar in the English speaking world (Wilhelmine Germany) and show how it was actually a crucible for progressive thought that exerted an unacknowledged influence on later eras from the Weimar Republic to the present day.

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Taking original imagery from the time and cropping, blowing up and amplifying the colour symbolises this process by liberating the latent Modernism of the age. There are the dots seen in close up which foretell everything from Pointillism to Pop Art. There are the mismatched colour registrations and their evocative suggestion of new and dynamic graphic realms. And even when (actually especially when) catering to mass market tastes, there are surreal juxtapositions of imagery.

The first series of eight cards is called 'Landscape', referring to both the format and the subject matter, with the source material depicting scenic splendour throughout Germany from Heligoland to the Bavarian Alps. Some of the original cards were photographs, some illustrations, some a strange amalgam of the two.

Anyway, it's just an experiment for now. We'll be including a selection of postcards with each online order until we run out.

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Back in black

We've had some highly gratifying feedback since the first two Rixdorf titles were released to the world in November 2017, but one thing that people never fail to mention is the artwork by designer Cara Schwartz. So with our next two titles imminent we thought we'd give you an insight into how these designs came about, what we're aiming for, what we're drawing from.

Publisher/translator James J. Conway and designer Cara Schwartz at the Rixdorf Editions launch, Berlin, November 2017 (photo: Hilmar Schmundt)

Publisher/translator James J. Conway and designer Cara Schwartz at the Rixdorf Editions launch, Berlin, November 2017 (photo: Hilmar Schmundt)

Let's start with our logo. The basic shape is a hexagon or – perhaps – a cube awaiting illumination to reveal its depth. The 'R', in the old German Fraktur script, is taken from the original first edition of one of our first titles, The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe (Das Logierhaus zur schwankenden Weltkugel, 1917), specifically the surname of the author, Franziska zu Reventlow, rendered here as F. Gräfin (Countess) zu Reventlow. Introducing Reventlow to an English-speaking readership is one of our proudest achievements, and we're just as pleased to have her as a guiding presence in our identity.

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For the book covers, the idea was for the imagery to reflect the times in which the original books emerged (approx. 1890-1918) while avoiding pastiche. Series identity was key; it had to be readily apparent when looking at any two Rixdorf titles that they belonged together. And we wanted to have black backgrounds, partly because they look awesome, partly to reflect the idea of things appearing out of the dim past, much like the books they adorned were emerging from ill-deserved obscurity. The era in question was also the first golden age of postcards, and it is largely to this form that we turned for our graphic elements, having gathered hundred of examples from Berlin fleamarkets.

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Our English edition of Reventlow's book is a good example of how we incorporate postcard art. One of the most arresting sequences in the collection comes from the title story, in which a reform-minded German eccentric leads a crocodile about on a leash. To represent this we found an old postcard from an establishment called the 'Restaurant zum Neuen Krokodil', which was a stone's throw from Frankfurt's main station, and bagged its scaly mascot for ourselves (incidentally, Google Street View reveals that the building is still standing although the ground floor is now occupied by a branch of the drugstore chain DM). Curiously, the name also echoes the guesthouse of the original German title. For the arm reaching in enigmatically from the side we used a New Year's greeting postcard; Cara diligently removed the snowflakes from the original. And she also suggested that – just this once – we break our self-imposed right-hand margin for the cover text; the word 'teetering' is teetering over the edge. The 'stamp' seen on each cover, another allusion to postcards, record the time and place that the original was written and/or published, in this case 1917 in the Swiss town of Ascona where Reventlow lived for the last eight years of her life.

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Berlin's Third Sex by Magnus Hirschfeld was a far more challenging work to represent graphically. It covers so much ground – gay men, lesbians, transvestites, transsexuals, prostitution, the demi-monde, high society, nightlife, domestic harmony, law enforcement, blackmail, moral codes. How to get all that in one image? The short answer is you can't, so we decided to lightly recontextualise an example of the era's incredibly extensive and diverse courting imagery. For one half of our happy couple we simply substituted the head of a soldier in the emblematic 'Pickelhaube' helmet. This might seem glib, but in fact Hirschfeld's text reveals that incidents of gay men taking up with obliging soldiers were far from unknown in the era (although full disclosure: they were generally not in drag).

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For our forthcoming translation of August Endell's The Beauty of the Metropolis, we tried something a little different. Picking up on the text's reference to 'the street as living entity' we turned this around to make a living entity composed of streets. The connection between the human body and the urban environment is hardly unprecedented ('heart/lungs of the city', 'arterial road'). The body in this instance is an anatomical diagram from a handbook of medical remedies entitled Pfarrer Heumann's Heilmittel, while the streets, parks and waterways are taken from a 1900 map of Berlin, the city referenced throughout Endell's book. Visible in this section are the Tiergarten, the River Spree and the Landwehr Canal, all of which find mention in the text.

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Finally, for Anna Croissant-Rust's Death we returned to our postcard collection. As with the other examples here, the original artist is sadly uncredited. We changed the orientation of the postcard image, but decided it was strong enough not to need any additional elements. As well as the obvious association of death and flowers, and the trope of death as a romantic partner, the image also recalls the motif of joined hands sometimes seen in old mourning jewellery. But which is Death? Is the deceased being pulled up or down? You decide...

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Prepare yourself for Death

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.

Anna Croissant-Rust

Anna Croissant-Rust

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.

A page from the original 1893 edition of  Gedichte in Prosa  ( Prose Poems )

A page from the original 1893 edition of Gedichte in Prosa (Prose Poems)

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 cover of  Der Tod  ( Death ), 1914

The cover of Der Tod (Death), 1914

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.

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