I was first inspired to read Schwarzenbach by Mathias Enard’s book Compass which mentions this often neglected and overlooked journalist, novelist and traveler. Lyric Novella is set in 1930’s Berlin among the unsavory, underground world of theater halls and bars. The unnamed narrator is a young man who has become obsessed with a stage dancer named Sybille; each night he watches her perform and then waits to have drinks with her and sometimes he drives her home. He thinks he is in love with her—he even calls it a love affair–even though they have never had a physical relationship and Sibylle does not return his feelings. The narrator’s obsession with Sibylle wears him down to the point of exhaustion and illness. What I found remarkable is that he never articulates his feelings for Sibylle—we have no idea what he sees in her physically or mentally—and yet he can’t break away from her. He is clearly a lost, lonely, naïve young man who just wants to belong to someone or something.
The narrator eventually escapes from the city to the country where he tries to forget Sibylle and once again to take up writing which he seems to enjoy. The author spends a great deal of time on contrasting descriptions of city versus country and autumn versus spring. But a change of season and scenery do not cure him of his malady: he is clearly unhappy with his own life and is feeling lost—fleeing to a another place, no matter how different, doesn’t fundamentally change what is going on inside him. In the translator’s preface, Lucy Renner Jones points out that the young narrator’s struggle reflects the author’s own guilt, struggle and repression of her sexuality. After the book’s publication, Schwarzenbach even admits that she meant her narrator to be a young woman and not a young man. The translator’s concluding words provide keen insight into the author’s background and mindset and as a result the themes she explores in Lyric Novella become clearer:
Schwarzenbach’s real-life restlessness and constant travelling was undoubtedly a flight forward from her mother’s control. She too, like the young man in Lyric Novella, spends her life fleeing and trying to find solace, often in foreign places and nature. Chaste and in solitude, the young man in Lyric Novella writes about the story of his failure dare to love Sibylle openly, however, peace eludes him and he turns to loathing himself ‘because I have no obligations.’ Removing himself from his obsession does not remove the obsession itself but leads to another kind of torment. The paradox of Schwarzenbach’s obsessive travelling throughout her life was that it represented the promise of freedom and being in control, by literally putting herself in the driving seat. But, much like the narrator in Lyric Novella, she had her emotional turmoil packed in her luggage.
This short book has piqued my interest in Schwarzenbach’s life of wanderlust and solitude. I also have a copy of her non-fiction book All the Roads are Open which I will try next.