Translated by James J. Conway
Reviewed by Lizzy Siddal
Countess Franziska zu Reventlow was born into the German nobility, and lived in the castle at Husum in Schleswig-Holstein, where none other than Theodor Storm, writer of the beloved but ghostly Schimmelreiter (Rider of the White Horse/Dykemaster, depending on which English translation you read), used to tell her scary bedtime stories. A rebellious little miss, she broke with her family in early adulthood and went to live in Munich, the bohemian magnet of Germany at the turn of the 20th century. Fanny, as she was known, soon found herself mixing with the likes of Thomas Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke (who was an admirer of hers) and other luminaries of the German literary and artistic scene. She made a meagre living as a writer and translator. As the estrangement with her family was never healed, she needed to support herself and her illegitimate child. She never apologised for her son’s existence, given that she was a firm believer in and practicer of free love. In fact, she became the grande dame of bohemian Munich in the early 1900s. Reventlow’s lifestyle anticipated the freedoms of the Weimar Republic, which she didn’t live to see, as she was killed in a cycling accident in Switzerland four months before the end of the First World War.
What is to be expected, then, in this collection of short stories, published in 1917? Stories typical of the various literary movements of the time: for example naturalism, decadence or expressionism? Or something as original as the woman herself?
Perhaps the leashed crocodile featured on the front cover provides an answer. It makes an appearance in the title story, not as some fetish image or surreal metaphor, but as a fantastic occurrence that the reader is asked to believe is possible. There’s plenty of this, much of it rooted in the uncanny, as in the sense of that which simultaneously attracts and repels. In this Reventlow is reflecting the early 20th century fascination with spiritualism. Though, I will say, often with a light touch. Her stories contain sufficient rational grounding, if you will, to keep the reader wondering if she really is describing paranormal circumstances.
In The Little Polished Man a group of travellers are joined by the eponymous figure on multiple occasions. He is accepted until such time as the group realise that no one outwith their party is aware of his presence. At which point events take a strange disconcerting turn, and their unnamed visitor disappears. Is this simply coincidence? Is the little polished man simply a group delusion? Could he perhaps be a ghostly presence harking back to those bedtime stories with Theodor Storm?
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.
The stories are mostly written in the first person plural by an anonymous narrator who is part of the travelling group, part of the ‘we’. This could be Reventlow herself, for as the extensive afterword, written by the translator James J Conway makes clear, these stories were inspired during Reventlow’s own extensive bohemian travels.
Many stories feature the classic outsider, an external who joins the group, only to upset the status quo. The little polished man is of this ilk. So too is Mr Otterman, whose unexpected presence at a swimming lake triggers a most unfortunate series of events. The title and opening story of the collection, however, contains a neat reversal of this trope.
We came across him – Hieronymus Edelmann that is – on a Spanish island, where he had been up to no good for years.
What a first sentence! Doesn’t it make you what to dive right in? Hieronymus Edelmann is waiting at the harbour to greet new arrivals, who he sends on to The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe. Upon their arrival, these travellers discover that Edelmann isn’t quite as noble as his name suggests, and that the guesthouse is nothing but a two-storey shack that is sinking into the ground. Still they stay and Edelmann’s purpose becomes clear. Instead of being the catalyst for division and strife, Hieronymus Edelmann wants to bind the group together into a mysterious association, the Flame Federation, and by means of a strange influence (more suggestions of otherworldliness) they all acquiesce. The spell unravels somewhat when he goes to buy himself a crocodile (as you do), at which point the travellers decide it is time to leave. Easier said than done – that’s when the fun really begins …
In addition to the seven stories that made up the original Guesthouse collection, the Rixdorf edition contains three others. The Elegant Thief is another in the ‘we’ travellers mould. It tells of a matchmaking attempt gone wrong. The change of register in the final two stories is quite extraordinary. Ill is a first person narrative; its contents the thoughts of a terminally ill woman. So authentic is this, that I don’t think I’ve read anything as simultaneously discomforting and moving. The premise of the final story, Dead, is that the consciousness lives on, following the body’s demise. The young man in question is aware of what is happening around his corpse. Worse still, he can hear what others think of him … and it’s time for a few home truths!
I thought this a strong collection with clear thematic ties and structures holding the stories together. To be honest, I could have done with less occult flavouring. Nevertheless I thoroughly enjoyed plots, characters, wry humour and some excellent storytelling. If Rixdorf Editions choose to bring more Reventlow to the Anglophone market in the future, I’ll be happy to read it.
Lizzy blogs at https://lizzysiddal.wordpress.com/ where she recently co-hosted German Literature Month which takes place each November.
Franziska Zu Reventlow, The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe, trans. James J. Conway (Rixdorf editions, 2017). 978-3947325009, 142pp., paperback.
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