‘Who is this Hieronymus anyway, for God's sake? And who are we? What do we have to do with each other?’
In 1917, the world appears to be tilting on its axis. Accustomed certainties are no more, alliances are forged and just as soon abandoned. In the first of seven thematically related stories, we meet reform-minded German eccentric Hieronymus Edelmann on a Spanish island, where he leads a crocodile around on a leash and lures his compatriots to a precarious guesthouse. His motives are opaque, but one of his schemes is a correspondence association which appears to be an analogue chat room. Elsewhere we find the ‘polished little man’ who moves in truly mysterious ways and may in fact be a group delusion; a séance that turns into an illicit affair across dimensions; and a band of travellers overawed by the occult power of their luxury luggage – consumers possessed by their possessions. The surreal scenarios of The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe remain vivid and unsettling a century later. With dry humour and a profound sense of the uncanny, ‘bohemian countess’ Franziska zu Reventlow diagnoses a world in feverish transition. This is the first book by Reventlow to appear in English, in an edition that also features three short stories by the author and an extensive afterword.
Born to the north German aristocracy, Franziska zu Reventlow (1871-1918) grew into a rebellious adolescent and abandoned her family once she achieved her majority. She spent the rest of her life in pursuit of total liberty – artistic, social and sexual – and became one of the most magnetic figures of Munich around 1900, when it was a dynamic centre of arts and letters and avant-garde notions. In the city’s bohemian circles she was both avid participant and astute commentator. Revered by her admirers as a ‘heathen Madonna’, Reventlow raised her illegitimate child alone, supporting herself with translation, satirical articles and even prostitution. She moved to Switzerland in 1910 but was unable to escape recurring patterns of illness and poverty, and died following a bicycle accident at the age of just 47. The five books Reventlow issued in her lifetime were all autobiographical to varying degrees, while posthumously published letters and diaries bear further witness to a life lived with bravery, integrity and passion.
[T]he ten stories in the collection, of which seven are loosely connected, are hybrids, hovering between genres and styles, ultimately remaining unclassifiable, with a whiff of the parabolic Kafkaesque riddle about them. Showing a wry and understated sense of humour, some might perhaps best be described as surreal travel tales, sharpened by a satirical gaze and a finely developed gift for evocative details.
—Anna Katharina Schaffner, Times Literary Supplement
Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe, with its unconventional plot twists, carnivalesque characters, and existential concerns, will likely appeal to fans of both canonical writers like Kafka and Camus, as well as contemporary authors João Gilberto Noll and Can Xue.
— Tyler Langendorfer, Music & Literature
I hope that The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe was as an irresistible title in 1917 as it is now, published for the first time in English as a darkly elegant book, itself also difficult to resist. A bonus is the translator’s long and informative Afterword, which provides valuable insights into the author and her work ... It is to be hoped that she and other writers from this fascinating and tumultuous period will receive a new welcome in ours.
— John Howard, Wormwood
My favourite story in this vein is that of The Belligerent Luggage. In it, an expensive set of luggage seems to resent being owned by a group of impecunious travellers, and conspires to ensure that, item by item, it is lost or stolen along the way. Lighthearted as this may be, anyone who has ever felt the weight of the material universe, when one thing after another (after another) goes awry, will enjoy this story.
— Lizzy Siddal, Shiny New Books
FROM THE AFTERWORD
While the First World War is reduced to noises off, the book vividly expresses the feverish anxiety of a world in violent transition. Most of all, it displays a profound understanding of das Unheimliche, the uncanny, which Sigmund Freud would address in his essay of the same name after the war. One key aspect of the uncanny very much apparent here is the person, creature or object – or hybrid thereof – that simultaneously compels and repels. We find them at large in a world subtly at odds with normality.
The uncanny may overlap, but is not to be confused with, the paranormal, although that too features in the book. Schloss Husum must have been a fertile breeding ground for the young writer’s dark imaginings. Venerable 19th century writer Theodor Storm was a family friend, and on his visits sometimes told ghost stories to Fanny and her siblings, scaring himself so much in the process that he had to be accompanied to his room. Reventlow’s letters and diaries record vivid and disturbing dreams. At times she appears to have had visions even in waking hours, intense and distressing. Much of this atmosphere survives in this late work. Alongside these interlocking themes, there are two further factors that bind the stories together. The first is movement – constant flux, a sense of ‘normal’ life provisionally suspended, the hazards and rewards of travel. The settings are spaces of temporary occupation or means of conveyance: hotels, resorts, spa towns; ships, trains, coaches. ‘Stations and hotel rooms – I am so happy,’ as the first-person narrator says in Reventlow’s earlier From Paul to Pedro. ‘An inestimable feeling; being neither here nor there, but simply away’.
The second factor is the use of the first person plural throughout; the word ‘we’ or ‘us’ figures in the first sentence of all seven stories and in four of them it is the first word. This has an unnerving effect, as it seems to assume a prior knowledge of this ‘we’ (the characters) that we (the readers) cannot possibly possess. We are immediately on the back foot. Reading further, we discover the composition of this ‘we’ changes from story to story, although sometimes it remains undefined. In ‘The Polished Little Man’, the group is expressly specified as five strong, but only four are described. The narrator is occluded to invisibility and this unknowable void at the very heart of the narrative exerts a disconcerting power.