Three Prose Works

Once again, like a long-missing cat dropping a propitiatory dead bird at your feet to explain and excuse its absence, I return to justify my extensive blogging silence by presenting you with something I have been chewing on – my latest translation project for Rixdorf Editions.

Out today, Three Prose Works is a collection of pre-World War One fiction by the great German-Jewish writer Else Lasker-Schüler. Better known as a poet, here she builds whole worlds in prose, informed by Nietzsche, fairy tales, 1001 Nights, the Torah and her own early engagement with the creative life. The three works in question are each made up of interconnected stories. In The Peter Hille Book, we find the author herself (in the persona of “Tino”) travelling in schematic Germanic settings with “Petrus” (representing her mentor, arch-bohemian Peter Hille) in a series of short, lyrical sketches. In The Nights of Tino of Baghdad, Lasker-Schüler sends her avatar on a perilous, erotically charged journey through an imagined Middle East. Tino also features in several of the longer, more parabolic tales of The Prince of Thebes, now a warrior princess leading the charge in a tumultuous conflict; World War One would begin within just days of its publication. It should be noted that Lasker-Schüler herself never designated these three works as a triptych, but there are enough correspondences between the digressive tales to justify presenting them together.

Else Lasker-Schüler left Germany in 1933, never to return; she died in Jerusalem in 1945 but over the last few decades has been restored to her rightful position as one of the greatest German writers of the 20th century. It is an enduring mystery why she isn’t better known in the English-speaking world; I don’t honestly think my efforts will do much to change that, but engaging with her life and work has been hugely rewarding.

The afterword to Three Prose Works details the highs and lows of Else Lasker-Schüler’s extraordinary life, and there is more to explore on the Rixdorf Editions website, including the background to Svenja Prigge’s cover artwork, a profile of the figures to whom the writer dedicated the parts of Three Prose Works, Lasker-Schüler’s film treatment for a radical pre-World War One cinema project, a brief account of her great friend Senna Hoy, a Jewish bohemian anarchist who died in a Russian asylum, an exploration of Else Lasker-Schüler’s time in Berlin, where she spent over half her life, and her tribute to another Rixdorf author, Magnus Hirschfeld (oh, and just to drop another bird at your feet – for The Public Domain Review I profiled Hirschfeld and his ground-breaking study of early 20th-century queer life, Berlin’s Third Sex).

And from these pages you can explore Else Lasker-Schüler’s artwork, discover some unsettling historic parallels in an exhibition of her correspondence, accompany her to the Bauhaus in 1920, and admire her wardrobe through time. And if that sounds like too much work, you can always watch this video I put together, which gives you the essentials of her life in just three of your Earth minutes:

Finally, in the spirit of show, don’t tell, I offer this visceral and absurd extract from Three Prose Works. Taken from The Prince of Thebes, it tells of the first of three kings by the name of Abigail; the feminine name is typical of the play of gender, sexuality and other building blocks of identity throughout the three works, which together present as something like an Orientalist Orlando.

He was still in his mother’s womb when he became Melech. The Melech’s mother lamented because Abigail refused to be born. He lay secure in his mother’s sumptuous womb and snored so loudly that his slumber could be heard from the palace right across the river, all the way to the east of the city. The young Melech did not wish to be born. And Diwagâtme, his mother, outgrew the King’s cushion, and a room in the palace was upholstered for her great womb, and there she spread out day by day. The young Melech had now been dwelling in her womb for twenty years and refused to be born. The Melech’s mother then summoned one man from each group in the city to advise her. The most distinguished priest of the Jehovanites, one of the cattle breeders from both the red and yellow Adamites, and the dearest of the boys of Sabaoth who was to have been the playmate of her son Abigail. And the market square was hollowed out and padded with soft sheep fleece for Diwagâtme, for with her body in this state the mother of the stubborn Abigail could no longer stay in the palace, and so one midday it transpired, on the counsel of her medical advi­sor, that innumerable slave hands carefully carried her to her new position in the middle of the market square in Thebes accompanied by music from bagpipes and bells and drums. Abigail refused to be born. But one day his mother heard him utter a heavenly melody and it made her think of the Song of Songs of Solomon, yet she kept this new secret of her body from the city and even from those closest to her. Her son Abigail was no ruler but a poet; while she understood his desire to stay in that dark, untroubled night, to others it was an ever-expanding mystery. But the burden of this secret made Diwagâtme ill; shadows shrouded her shining eyes, and she became dumb with fear that one day she would weave her son’s poetic soul into an indifferent conversation, especially as her only joy was to hear her son’s Song of Songs. Nor did she wish to be touched by that little polity that formed around her body like an island, inspecting and taking measurements. The persistent Melech, however, kept living off the flesh and blood of his mother, and she felt most distinctly that he had a fondness for certain dishes, that he only versified when he enjoyed the sweet blood that came from his mother eating candied roses. But whenever the impatient citizens of the city approached his mother, he crept deep into his lonely, pounding home until that day when he kicked his mother’s heart into her ribs with great force and killed Diwagâtme. Then the matricide refused no more – to be born out of frozen night. Diwagâtme was buried, but he, her son, was set upon the throne in the palace. Abigail the First sat naked on the throne in his last skin, which was tender and new and pristine. And out in the wide world he was afraid – his hands kept searching for walls and the daylight hurt his eyes. But his citizens carried him on their shoulders throughout the city, throughout the land – their miraculous Melech! Abigail was handsome, each of his limbs rested; every tint in its proper place! All the daughters of Thebes were devoted to him; the long expectation in which the city had lived had left them with imploring eyes and parted, smiling lips, and in their hair they wore flowers with an open chalice for the butterflies. Yet Abigail crawled into the belly of every virgin and now longed only for the moon when it pounded round and tender in the sky. Then, early one morning, his palace caught fire, killing Abigail the First, the son of Diwagâtme who took to her grave the secret that her son was a poet. He stood and took a step and for the first time walked on his own two feet, the feet of a spoiled King which had otherwise reclined on the shoulders of his citizens. The palace was ablaze by the time Abigail noticed, whereupon he climbed down a column of the building, collapsed in a faint, and was trampled by a caravan still dreaming in the dawn. This was the end of Abigail the Late-Born of Thebes.

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