The bohemian countess and her foster fatherland

Germany has never truly appreciated the writer born 150 years ago today in Husum as Countess Fanny (later Franziska) zu Reventlow. You won’t see her face on stamps, stumble on a six-part series about her on Netflix, or find a handomely endowed foundation in her name. But the indifference, as a recently discovered essay shows, was mutual. Written at the height of World War One, it is a cold reckoning with the writer’s homeland which offers a powerful warning from history – a warning against heedless nationalism, manufactured hatred and the rush to conflict.

If Reventlow is undervalued in Germany, she is almost completely unknown in the rest of the world, but her story offers no end of hooks. She was possibly the most liberated woman of the early 20th century, her heroic self-determination putting her decades ahead of her time. Her life and work – the two are profoundly connected – offer passion, sex, scandal, intrigue, tragedy, bravery, beauty, humour, war, family feuds, fancy titles and some fearlessly original answers to the question of how to fill that tricky period between birth and death. How have we overlooked her for so long?

My first written encounter with the countess came over ten years ago, in these pages. In 2017 I translated the fifth and final book Reventlow published in her lifetime, The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe (Rixdorf Editions) which – somehow – was the first of the author’s works to appear in English, a century after her death. In the process of introducing her to a new readership I spent a lot of time in Reventlow’s company. Reading through her fiction as well as her astonishingly candid letters and diaries, hunting for her first editions, sifting through the secondary literature, visiting places where she lived – she became as real to me as many people I have encountered among the living. Her spirit rises from the page undimmed by time. She was determined to engage as deeply with life as any woman or man of her era, and refused to fall back on self-pity when that engagement brought her to her physical and material limits, as it not infrequently did.

Fanny (later Franziska) zu Reventlow was born to an aristocratic line on 18 May 1871 shortly after the formation of the German Empire and was expected to go into the family business of doing nothing in particular amid decorous surrounds. But the rebellious young countess went off-script at an early age, electrified by Ibsen and his evisceration of polite, hypocritical society, and Nietzsche’s vision of what might replace it. And so at 21 she cut most of her family ties and fled to what was then Germany’s most progressive city, Munich. This was the time when the Bavarian capital hosted the most adventurous practitioners of arts and letters the German Empire had to offer, “the most singular, the most delicate, the boldest exotic plants,” in the words of Thomas Mann. The bohemian district of Schwabing was a veritable hothouse of strange flowers; every Mann and his dog passed through “Schwabylon” at some stage. Between 1890 and 1920, this district produced an outstanding progressive heritage.

Reventlow’s affairs had made short work of her first marriage; she was never overly fussed about fidelity. She paid her own way, often close to penury as she wrote satirical articles, translated French literature, painted decorative glassware, even turning, on occasion, to prostitution. The beautiful “bohemian countess” counted the poet Rilke among her admirers, and offered the men in her circle plenty of scope for erotic projection; they could revere her as a Heathen Madonna or a Whore of Schwabylon as their compulsions dictated. But Reventlow’s pressing need for freedom, freedom at any cost, freedom from even the lax bonds of bohemian courtship meant none of them could detain her for long. She could never have been a trophy wife, a chatelaine or – God forbid – a muse. When she gave birth to her illegitimate son Rolf in 1897, she refused to divulge the identity of the father. It is possible she didn’t even know herself.

But to Reventlow, the child was all. She had been a stranger to parental affection even before she broke with her family, but she worshipped her own dear “Bubi”, the one constant in a life otherwise distinguished by temporary lodgings and fleeting lovers. He can be seen in photos from the Munich era, a happy moon-faced boy atop the shoulders of bearded revelers at some boho blowout or other. Fearing her “sapling” would be “stunted” by the militaristic schooling of the day, Reventlow educated Rolf herself.

In 1903 Reventlow issued her first novel Ellen Olestjerne, a barely encrypted account of her own life to that point. Around this time she found an eccentric form of domestic stability, a shared household with lover Bohdan von Suchocki and writer Franz Hessel (the “Jules” of Jules et Jim by French author Henri-Pierre Roché, another of Reventlow’s lovers). At one point she took to the road with Suchocki and Rolf, who but for a moment would remain her only child. That “moment” is perhaps the darkest chapter in her life, a passage of unanswerable sorrow which she committed to her diary in remorseless detail.

Having fallen pregnant to Suchocki, Reventlow goes into labour while the trio are in Tuscany. Through appalling pains she gives birth to a girl.

Still-born.

The loss is calamitous, but Reventlow can’t understand why the pain won’t abate. Unknown to all, including the mother, Reventlow is carrying twins. Another girl is born; they name her Sybille. The child struggles, they do all they can. Rolf sings softly in her ear, “Little Sybille, keep living, little Sybille, keep living…”

The child dies the next day. Reventlow captures “Sybillchen” in a drawing.

Reventlow’s medical condition was precarious both before and after this terrible episode, worsening and worsened by her perilous material circumstances, but she continued to travel throughout Europe whenever health and funds allowed. She was that rare thing for the age: an independent woman traveller, but one who carried a revolver. Just in case.

In 1908 came a curious episode which both foretold the global calamity to come and highlighted the stark contrast between Franziska and her own family members. Her brother Ernst arrived in Munich to deliver a lecture as an advocate of “Pangermanism”, a movement that aimed to unite all of German-speaking Europe, one of the numerous strands of far-right nationalism that would later feed into Nazism. Franziska attended, summoned by some residual blood obligation. The subject of the lecture, as the countess incredulously related, was “war – war in general, a lecture subject like any other, like ‘Rococo Style’ or ‘Dances of Antiquity’”. Ernst found little support for his thesis that war was not only unavoidable but beneficial, and soon the siblings broke off contact entirely.

In 1910 Reventlow moved to Switzerland, and there her long pursuit of an arrangement that would bankroll her liberty came closest to its goal. With friend Erich Mühsam as an intermediary she entered into a curious marriage of convenience with an impish drunk. He was both a Russian national and a Baltic German aristocrat who was expecting to inherit a fortune, but the scheme went south. Reventlow captured the episode in winningly ironic style in her novel The Money Complex, amid a productive period that also brought forth works addressing her relationships with men (From Paul to Pedro), and her time in bohemian Munich (Mr. Dame’s Notes).

Reventlow was in neutral Switzerland when the First World War broke out, but she soon returned to Munich to undergo an operation. She felt entirely alien, and not just because she was now officially Russian. While never politically minded in any conventional sense, she was repelled by the nationalist fervour which had gripped the country in her absence, a perplexing group delusion at once festive and martial. Suddenly the ordinarily Anglophile Germans were claiming ancestral hatred of the British, French dishes were struck from restaurant menus. The fever even engulfed Thomas Mann (although Mann, it has to be said, was capable of holding highly contrasting political views within a very short period of time, if not simultaneously). The war-hungry crowds were driven by their belief in a “German miracle”, a short, thrilling war in which the Kaiser’s forces were assured victory. It would be an adventure, a carnival, as though one of Marsden Hartley’s Berlin canvases of parading battalions were suddenly invested with purpose and virility rather than just pageantry and spectacle.

A few years ago Reventlow’s 1917 essay “L’envers du miracle allemand” (“The Other Side of the German Miracle”) was found among the papers of Henri-Pierre Roché (the “Jim” of his own Jules et Jim), and published in a German edition as Die Kehrseite des deutschen Wunders. It is a scathing piece that reveals the depths of Reventlow’s disquiet. “The atmosphere of what had once been the freest, most joyous, most anti-Prussian, most cosmopolitan city in Germany, the friends, opinions, tastes, views – nothing of that remained, neither freedom, nor joy, nor anti-Prussianism, nor reason, nor fine spirit.”

Reventlow quickly saw through the popular fiction of a blameless Germany. “I have never found my former compatriots more distasteful than then, when they arose and were all, as one, in complete agreement with the grand notion of defending the threatened fatherland against a whole word of foes”.

This visit, as well as the perspective of time and distance, prompted her to consider her identity. “I didn’t feel as though I were in the house of my father, rather the house of a foster father, who had raised me without offering affection or even love”. For a woman with such troubled relationships with the male members of her family, it was a charged analogy. Naturally she also reflected on her brother Ernst, who had become a prominent journalist; his alarming views, once fringe, were now mainstream.

While Germany had officially come together as a political entity in the year of her birth, Reventlow claimed this “famous German solidarity doesn’t exist and never has existed” and that instead they had merely become “Prussians by coercion”. “And that is what they call ‘the German miracle’, Prussian militarism imposed upon a nation of lackeys who are accustomed to obey without reflecting on what they are told and blindly running off wherever they are sent.”

While Reventlow was a foreign citizen resident in a neutral country, she had skin in the game. Flesh and blood, in fact. Her moon-faced boy was now ripe for conscription, and in April 1916 he duly received his papers. While Rolf was sanguine, even mildly excited by the prospect of active duty, his mother was beside herself at the idea that he might become just one more casualty of the senseless and seemingly endless war. Rolf was posted to the Western Front, and returned traumatised by the horror and futility of it all, as well as the appalling treatment meted out by the officer class. He now shared his mother’s determination that he should find a way to exit the conflict.

Much of Reventlow’s 1917 essay is occupied with her attempt to get Rolf away from the army and safely into Switzerland. It was a complex, dangerous operation which played out in the town of Konstanz, a German exclave on an otherwise Swiss stretch of Lake Constance, where Rolf was permitted to take leave and see his mother in a border station. The town was lousy with spies, and even the maids in Reventlow’s hotel listened in on her conversations. The countess offered the authorities her own espionage services which would provide a plausible cover as she planned Rolf’s escape over the heavily fortified border, racing against the deadline of his return to the front. She hedged her bets by enlisting assistance from a band of anarchist smugglers.

Wondering if she would ever see her son again, or if he would die in a hail of German fire, Reventlow anxiously killed time on the Swiss side of the border. Following a failed first attempt, Rolf simply took a row boat at the port of Konstanz like any other day-tripper, although still in his uniform, and kept rowing toward Swiss waters. But what he thought was a fishing boat ahead of him was in fact full of German soldiers. They opened fire, but rowing as fast as he could he finally made it unharmed to the Swiss shore, and into his mother’s arms. The episode brought Reventlow a flurry of late renown, and newspapers were particularly intrigued by the contrast between the countess and her reactionary brother.

Reventlow’s war was over, but she knew what was to follow. In 1917 she issued the compelling and stylistically radical set of short fiction, The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe. While she rarely addresses the war directly, its presence is felt in the vivid sense of violent transition that suffuses the seven inter-related tales. In the title story, German eccentric Hieronymus Edelmann presides over a mysterious imperilled guesthouse on a Spanish island, where he leads a pet crocodile around on a leash; his sworn enemy is not coincidentally a Frenchman (with a pet anteater). Edelmann enrolls the guesthouse residents in a “correspondence association” which brings together geographically disparate members with shared interests, and they are soon buried under a flood of messages. Another story, set in “a neutral spa town”, is full of wartime anxieties, mutual suspicion and an attempt to maintain relations that transcend nationality.

The insight is acute; Reventlow puts Germany on the couch, and the prognosis for her analysand is alarming. The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe is a work of near visionary premonition. In the doomed lodgings Reventlow offers an elaborate allegory for the old European order, depicting its extinction which she wouldn’t actually live to see. Her remarkably succinct expression of the uncanny anticipates Freud’s famous essay on the subject, which only appeared after the war. Her “correspondence association”, through which physically scattered members are drawn together through texts expressing their range of preoccupations, is essentially today’s social media (Reventlow even predicts our inability to cope with the ensuing deluge of information).

The intensely idiosyncratic style (consistent use of the first person plural, the persistence of irrational forces) is also ahead of its time, anticipating Surrealism, or at least magic realism, all delivered with dry irony. But the surprise is how little Franziska zu Reventlow distends her points of inspiration; Hieronymus Edelmann, for example, is a relatively faithful portrait of a cousin (although she added the crocodile).

In 1918 Reventlow began a novel she would never finish: The Suicide Club. Not that it reflected her own attitude to life; as difficult as it had been, she would never have elected to bring the curtain down prematurely on an existence of such operatic scope. Instead her end came like one of the twists in her fiction – absurd, uncanny, unforeseen. On 25 July 1918, as Germany was hastening toward ignominious defeat in the last summer of hostilities, Reventlow fell from a bicycle. She died during an operation the next day.

7 comments

  1. Fascinating! Thank you

  2. William Thirteen

    James, i just wanted to express my high praise of your translation of ‘The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe’ for Rixdorf Editions. While translation must always be a fraught task, you have acquitted yourself very well. The prose is luminous and captures the wonder and the menace of the time. I have been reading the stories aloud to the wife at bedtime. I’m looking forward to digging into the remaining Rixdorf offerings which I find perfectly pocket-sized and pleasantly bound. I am considering giving them as gifts to my friends – if only they weren’t such ingrates…..

  3. E. Gillmor

    Another fascinating post. Thank you.

  4. Mel

    What happened to Rolf after his mother’s untimely death?

    • Well even before Franziska died he had an illegitimate child of his own when he was barely 18 I think. He joined the SPD party (centre-left) and left Germany when the Nazis took over, he ended up in the Spanish Civil War, then Algeria where he was interned for being German, then returned to Germany after the war and resumed working for the SPD. He was married three times; his second wife Else was responsible for collecting Franziska‘s letters and diaries and issuing an anthology of her work.

      • I‘ve seen an interview with him in old age; if I remember correctly he was rowing a boat on a lake in Munich. He always spoke very fondly of his mother. He died in 1981.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: