Beyond the veil

Anna Croissant-Rust

Dear ones,

I have neglected you horribly. You deserve an explanation and it is simply that with a day job and a small press the time left for other pursuits is approximately zero. Things have been especially busy of late in preparation for the release of my next two translations for Rixdorf Editions, which are published this very day. They are: The Beauty of the Metropolis, a rapturous study of the urban environment in general and Berlin in particular by architect and theorist August Endell, originally published in 1908, and Death, by a German writer with the perpetually inspiring name of Anna Croissant-Rust (1860-1943) who lived much of her adult life in Munich.

Released on the eve of World War One, Death is a cycle of seventeen stories in which mortality is very much present as a destination, indeed as a character. It is a wonderful book, lyrical and beguiling, full of light and passion and natural splendour along with the expected moments of morbidity. Just as remarkable is a book that the woefully neglected Croissant-Rust published in 1893, called Prose Poems. As the title suggests, this is an experiment in form but even more so in style, and the writer fearlessly employs avant-garde techniques that wouldn’t take hold until well into the 20th century, and maintains a tone of piercing intensity throughout. I thought it was important to acknowledge Croissant-Rust as a literary pioneer, so the edition of Death also includes Prose Poems. You can read more on both titles here.

And after such a long absence from your screens, the least I can do is share something of this bounty. Below are two excerpts from Anna Croissant-Rust’s English-language debut, one from each of the two titles in the edition. The author’s career was long and varied, but these books were companion pieces 20 years apart, a fact particularly apparent in these selections. While the forms clearly differ, transforming from free verse to evocative prose, the parallels in the setting, imagery and mood are striking, suggesting that the writer may have returned to the same source of inspiration.

Village Church

(from Prose Poems, originally published 1893)

It is only my footsteps that speak
in the cloister of the little church.
The cool silence holds me in its arms,
rocks me …
Twilight around the pews,
the red, blinking, drowsy flickering
of the chancel lamp before the altar,
swaying gently, gently.
Through the high windows a wall of storm in the sky
stands grim sentry.
It is as though the air were hung with dank veils,
the church air sleeping, oblivious.
Waves wash the nave,
flow sluggishly
silently
through the aisles,
breaking against the walls.
A little star aglow rocks the red light
over the waves.

Dormant,
silenced,
in sleep smiling
submergence.
Outside, everything outside.
But the darkness presses forward.
Not impetuously, with quick racing steps.
Compelled by the storm wall it glides softly
humbly
through the window.
Sadly almost.
It creeps over the pews,
from row to row
its thick silken gauze veils cling,
sweeping over the pictures,
it drags itself to the altar …
the church sleeps on.

The storm already holds sway at the windows,
which rattle and shudder under its blows.
A blow from the scourge, the lightning streaks
over the stooped back of darkness,
again!
Again! And with mighty gait
the thunder strides
across the roof.

The church dreams.
Outside, everything outside.
Now the first
restless
raindrops peck at the panes.
Pecking, pocking, harking,
knocking, roaring, quick, quick,
the twitching fingers of
the storm
hurl them against the wall and tear
at door and window
with impetuous hands.

Is it getting through?

Only the church banner dances
sluggish,
worldly, dreamy
around its bright red shaft and lifts
its glistening golden tassels.

Twitching flames break like shrieks
through the veil of twilight,
tongue at the dull white plates,
hiss through the windows.
Suddenly flaming
great, garish,
mocking,
snarling through the church
a slap in the face …

The church sleeps …
And again the rumbling
cry of thunder
over the dream of serenity.

And again sharp little tongues of lightning,
licking, scurrying,
titillating the darkness,
and again the voice of thunder,
but in haste,
dying away.

Outside, everything outside.

Only a few stubborn raindrops
still chattering away on the stones before the porch.
Jubilant,
the stream of sun shoots through the shivering mist,
green of young trees rejoices from the slopes,
a surge of light and scent and colour envelops me,
takes me,
carries me,
intoxicates me …
The church sleeps.
Outside, everything outside!

postcard

White Roses

(from Death, originally published 1914)

A midday torpor lies over the lake, the waves beat sluggishly against the shore. A heavy wall of clouds hangs motionless at the mountain peaks and the sun casts matt, sparkling spears over the deep grey-blue water beyond. A lonely barge rocks in the reeds where the large water fowl perch drowsily.

The convent shines white and bright on the shore from out of a wreath of linden trees, the little church almost submerged beneath the high treetops. Quiet and cool in its serenity, its windows gently clattering as the wind blows off the lake. That’s when a delicate scent steals through the open panes, for outside there is a white rose bush swaying back and forth. Pale sunlight slips through the leaves of the bush and dances slowly on the flagstones of the cloister amid the grey, cool serenity.

In one of the high-backed chairs below the image of the Redeemer sits a nun, her serene wrinkled face bent low; a bunch of white roses is resting in her lap with her hands folded above them in prayer. She is sleeping. The scent of the white roses! She is in her childhood home once more, beneath the rose bush that hangs from next door over the wall into the gloomy little garden; she stands on tiptoe and tries to reach the blossoms. But the branch keeps darting back, and she keeps on stretching to reach it yet she cannot. Her cheeks glow red with fervour – the neighbour’s roses are so beautiful, she must have them! Suddenly she sees a boy laughing between the branches. ‘Thief! Thief! Just you wait!’ In her shock she forgets to run away, she stands there and blushes. Oh, here comes a bunch of roses over the wall, right in her face; no more sign of the laughing boy.

In the cloister the dance of the pale sun flecks grows more intent, more colourful. A crackling roar passes through the bush, the wind rushes over the lake, blows against the windows, clattering them and shaking the roses … wave upon wave pounds the shore; the old nun keeps dreaming.

She’s walking demurely along the houses with her satchel, looking neither left nor right just like her mother taught her, but she knows he’s following her. Her little heart beats restlessly, her step quickens, there she is at her garden gate and the neighbour’s door is open.

How she got in there she doesn’t even know herself, but there she is, standing on the gravel path when a bunch of white roses flies over her head and lands at her feet. She goes to bend down, but then she sees the laughing face of the young student before her – four cheeks glow, four eyes shining, mouth presses upon mouth, the bunch of roses lies forgotten on the ground.

The pale sun flecks blur, clouds close in against the light, in the church it grows dark and the heavy wall draws nearer. The lake is now completely black with shivering showers running over its back and sending unsteady waves to the shore, the chains on the barge rattle and the water fowl take off with a shrill shriek.

The storm is coming. A jeering sound awakens in the mountain gorges and brays over the lake. It rears up high, falls back, rears up once more. The heavy cloud comes towards it, lower and lower as though wave and cloud were becoming one.

Then it bursts. Like a hiss the lightning darts through the grey storm and the thunder runs and rolls against the cliffs. The nun keeps dreaming.

She is standing under the rose bush with a white rose in her hand. He is holding her in his arms and kissing away her tears with a laugh.

‘What is there to cry about? In a year I’ll be back to get you. Take this white rose – it will redden when I return and then you will be my bride.’

The storm races around the walls and roars in the tips of the old linden trees, strike upon strike of lightning hisses down casting sudden light into the gloom of the cloister, thunder and echo join hands, swallow their voices; the old nun keeps dreaming.

The waves drone on the shore, the foam sprays and sputters in the storm, the hail pelts. A bolt of lightning – the little church entirely aglow – she awakens. All is shining light and beauty, the storm looses a whole shower of white rose petals over her, the roses are in bloom!

It is summer time, how the sun blazes! It flashes again, the petals in her lap glow.

He is coming! He is coming! There he is in radiant youth! She spreads her arms, her eyes close against the brightness, her head sinks to her breast – and slowly she slides to the ground.

Oh, the scent of the roses!

And the storm continues with its jeering song, the thunder crashes, and from the roof of the little church a blazing flame waves in the stormy night.

 

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5 comments

  1. MEL

    Hi James. It was so great seeing a new Strange Flowers post in my e-mail today! Thank you! Coincidentally, I was watching the “last” Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown episode last night which featured Berlin and it occurred to me how great YOU would have been as a featured guide. btw, I’ve purchased two copies of Berlin’s Third Sex since it was published on Amazon b/c I’m in the states. I look forward to these new releases!!! Don’t be a stranger!!!

  2. Not heard of her before, thanks for sharing

  3. Honey Harrison

    Thank you James. I love your website.

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