RILKE WROTE that “it is a tremendous act of violence to begin anything.” The poet was tangentially connected to the circle of friends and artists that orbited Unica Zürn, a largely forgotten German Surrealist writer and artist born in 1916 whose work, whose very life and death, was seemingly dedicated to the truth of Rilke’s declaration.
Wakefield Press has published a newly translated Zürn novella, The Trumpets of Jericho (1968), which opens by describing a woman’s nightmarish labor as she births a misshapen child. It is a situation that immediately teaches the reader how to understand not only the book, but Zürn’s life. She writes that the baby “bores his small finger down into my heart and clings tightly to it, like a person might cling to the tautly stretched rope of his gallows.” This description, one of Zürn’s many shadowy mirages, establishes her unsettling psychic proximity to both birth and death while revealing an aversion to the most traditional of female roles, motherhood.
Though her work incorporates aspects of fairy tales, Zürn never strays very far from early cruel reality. Her mother’s suicide occurred when she was just a child, and her fiction suggests that she grew up in various states of trauma.
After a divorce in which she lost custody of both of her children, Zürn moved to Paris to live with surrealist Hans Bellmer, becoming his model. Translator Christina Svendsen, in her introduction to Jericho, cites Bellmer’s famous “portrait” of Zürn in the 1958 edition of the journal Le Surréalisme, même as an example of the movement’s misogyny: “Photographed from behind in the nude by her partner, the artist Hans Bellmer, her torso is so tightly wrapped in twine that the string incises her body, making her appear inhuman, a formless slab of meat.”
While today it is almost instinctive to write off Bellmer’s photographs as sadistic — reducing women to barely recognizable as human beings — it is also worth acknowledging that he challenged the possibilities of artist and subject, something that Zürn must have noticed. Much like Bellmer’s famous twisted dolls, Jericho’s curiosities lie in psychological entropy, in disrupting sexual roles and questioning the norm through acts of contortion. But unlike Bellmer, who contorted bodies, Zürn’s writing contorts expectations.
Like many other women in the Surrealist movement, Zürn moved from muse to artist, turning to drawing and writing as a way to refuse this disfigurement. By beginning her novella with a disturbing childbirth, she subverts a role that many male Surrealists sought in their femme-enfants: virginal, erotic goddesses who were framed firmly within the margins of traditional beauty.
Throughout much of her adult life, Zürn suffered from depression and experimented (or self-medicated) with drugs, including psychedelics. In 1960 she was institutionalized after experiencing hallucinations. It is now believed she suffered from schizophrenia, something explored in The Trumpets of Jericho, which might be considered a kind of (anti)catharsis — one that chooses to plunge directly into her repressed desires, into her many darknesses.
And so the beginning passage reads more like an exorcism, immediately placing us into the personal Hades that is Zürn’s tale, a slim volume of mythic proportions. Hers is a world where uncles give birth to daughters through their heads, where angels of blackness are embraced, where the narrator confesses her normally repressed thoughts — which include killing her newborn child — atop a bell tower full of ravens and bats. The novella takes place in a certain limbo, at the torn seam between verisimilitude and disbelief. There is no definite sense of setting. Time frames fold into each other. Her perspectives freely switch between first, second, and third person, past and present tense, making any sense of agency scarce. Some of the novel is set in Howthewhere, a faerie land where “the world seemed much bigger when one looked over one’s shoulder at it.” The mayor of this town is a madman who preaches “in praise of usefulness,” what our narrator calls a sin.
The novella, published originally in German two years before her death, is populated with dark fairy tales that blur the line between the fictional and the biographical, exploring the feminine psyche and complicated sexualities at vertiginous altitudes of the imagination. Her visions shift through The Trumpets of Jericho like planchettes over Ouija boards, drifting in and out of childhood memories tainted by the war:
The winters always follow faster upon one another. Time storms hurriedly away and I don’t want to follow it anymore. Stars sink and in the meantime drunken toads eat and drink my thinking-stone. Stars are nests of light and sink into the nest. As a child, I was given to reconnoitering, recognizing. Now I have been led for years by gloom into the blackness. Do you know it? Pairs of eyes dead full of time look earnestly across the border between being and nothingness.
Jericho is a companion piece to André Breton’s Manifestoes of Surrealism (1969), a treatise against “the agonizing question of possibility.” The book joins two other Zürn works that have been translated into English, The Man of Jasmine and Dark Spring, the latter a fantasy-memoir some compare to The Bell Jar — like Plath, Zürn was hospitalized with mental illness and committed suicide by defenestration. But more importantly, these poet-novelists share a compulsion with the hidden potential in words, the chance of revelation through confusion.
There is a language of living, a certain syntax in the way we live our lives, and Zürn’s is a syntax of anxiety and depression. Many sentences beg to be read aloud, like, “Trembling tones, weave the death dance once more in a sweet spring rondo of life.” Or, “Your voice murmurs in my ear like a small, warm, swarm of bees.” Then there is the harrowing way she describes her unhappiness: “deafening and shattering, like a long song of summer-children.”
Zürn’s somber fantasia at times can seem painterly, its textures evocative of fellow surrealist Francis Bacon’s visceral canvases. Interestingly, her own drawings, three of which accompany the text, contrast with the fluid quality of her prose — they are largely angular, monochrome ink works that have less emotionality. And yet they also serve the text, offering bold arteries and veins that trace the inner workings of her hallucinations. Encouraged by Bellmer, Zürn practiced a method known as automatism, in which renderings are left mostly to chance as the artist lets the pen move, through an exercise of subconscious thought, on the paper’s surface. This was thought to be a kind of remedy for “hysteria,” a word fraught in its very etymology with misogynistic connotation and one obsessed over by the surrealists.
The unconscious gesture of automatism is transposed to text in Jericho through the use of anagrams, which Zürn experimented with as a means to explore the hidden metaphors in language. It is, both linguistically and psychologically, a conscious unconsciousness, used as a way to unlock a deeper creative truth. As is often the case in art, what seems like a restraint for the artist ends up liberating the imagination. “Water-clock,” “ink-thunder,” and “word-murder” are several of the many intriguing verbal splices wrought from her anagrams that are pointed to in Svendsen’s introduction. (Unfortunately, it is impossible to discern where other anagrams might surface in the text, as translation renders them invisible.) And so although some of the writing’s bewitchment is inevitably lost in translation, it is the price we must pay in order to witness language that still feels, more than four decades later, quietly miraculous.
Torqued by alliteration and rhyme, Zürn’s prose forgoes traditional meaning while reaching for a fevered rhythm, one that is easy to get lost in. The Trumpets of Jericho will reward those who abandon the hope of linear narrative early on. One should approach Zürn’s prose as you would a song — it eschews logic as it navigates the phantasmagoria of Dali-esque dreamscapes, which prove surprisingly evocative and inviting in their intimacy.
During the Nazi regime, Zürn worked as a dramaturge at Ufa, Germany’s largest film studio at the time and one that, like the others, underwent Nazification. The films made during the ’30s and ’40s were typical of the time, mysteries and musical comedies shaded heavily with political propaganda. Her brief time at Ufa is a biographical detail that stands out because of how dissimilar her writing is to the studio’s output. Ufa built its films during the Nazi years on persuasion, something Zürn understandably avoided as a writer. She prefers to place a knowing trust in the reader. “I promise you, I’m as bored as you are while writing this,” she confesses halfway through the book, which is also spangled with rhetorical questions (“Do I dream? Have I changed so much?” “Can’t you remember anymore what you used to laugh about?”). If Zürn’s voice is insecure, it is at least certain in its ambivalences.
Svendsen’s commentary notes that learning of the Nazi concentration camps scarred Zürn throughout her life, and indeed her imagery feels haunted by the Holocaust. But she rinses her folktale in a dark humor. “If I were a poet,” the narrator says, “I would describe my outrage at life with living, hand-wringing words.” By merging the corporeal with the ethereal, Zürn’s writing transcends l’écriture féminine, becoming a kind of postwar fable that simultaneously attempts to fabricate and reveal.
For instance, halfway through the book we are introduced fleetingly to a young, cheerful girl named Ruth. She is from the same neighborhood in prewar Grünewald where Zürn spent her girlhood, and where Ruth spends her time reciting poetry and playing word games. It quickly becomes apparent that Zürn is most likely writing about herself. “If things had gone right, I would have married her,” she writes, “but she died from a dangerous operation when she was a young girl.” Marrying Ruth would have been to wed her own fractured selves, to create the equivalent of an artist’s exquisite corpse. To feel the joy of youth. Zürn’s narrator yearns, hesitantly: “Let the stillness ring into the pale water: I am you.” The startling and simple beauty of those three syllables — “I am you” — is easy to miss. Yet they are able to articulate so much in so little, a skill owed no doubt to Zürn’s experience with verse but also to Svendsen’s translation. She has done an admirable job preserving the musicality of Zürn’s writing, able to convey mood without sacrificing meaning.
“O Winds, thousand brothers, let me pass away in your breath,” Zürn intones in the final sentence of the book. The line recalls Breton’s famous phrase from his 1928 novel Nadja: “… with the end of my breath, which is the beginning of yours.” The words feel whispered in both cases, as Zürn’s requiem for the self is bookended by birth and death. If the act of beginning is inherently violent, the act of ending is one of grace. As in the biblical Jericho, Zürn’s walls have fallen. The walls of reality, of language, of the womb — and, during the book’s strongest passages, the fourth wall between writer and reader — are torn down. The dust does not settle. Beyond these walls, Zürn’s prose marches aimlessly on in mourning, helplessly spellbound.
Read more LARB pieces related to mental health and illness here.