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Relics in the Dark: Unica Zürn and Victoria Benedictsson in the Antikvariat

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1.

In the first stages of starting a dissertation, or any sort of large project, there’s a sense that you need to read everything related to your topic. Or, more correctly, that you should already have read everything related to your topic. This, especially for those dealing with more literary topics, often results in a hoarder-adjacent desire to collect and purchase as many “might-be-relevant” books as possible. This anxiety to accumulate (and also, eventually, to read) is in a little bit of tension with the fact that graduate students (at least in the US, where I’m based) don’t, for better or worse, receive sufficient funds from their institutions to support such kinds of accumulation. This is especially problematic when you (an American graduate student with the level of stipend that comes with) are living in Denmark, where books are as expensive as they get.

One possible solution I’ve been exploring of late to try to ease this tension of my perceived need to acquire a ludicrous amount of books and my actual financial state is the Antikvariat, or used book store. For the avid bookworm, these places are dusty little slices of heaven. Stacks and stacks of peeling, leather-bound volumes. A faint but charming aroma of mildew and rot. Maybe, if you’re lucky, multiple levels or rooms, connected by rickety, twisting staircases. I’ve been traveling a bit throughout Europe recently, and each place I go, I make a list of these places, as well as an accompanying list of the books I’m hoping to find, so that I eventually might be able to surround myself with some lovely, dusty volumes which, hopefully, will provide also some inspiration. But each of these trips, I’ve come up short. This is because my dissertation deals with literature written by women, and because your typical Antikvariat doesn’t sell very much literature written by women.

The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, an umbrella organization which represents 1,800 rare and used book dealers across 34 different countries, was formally incorporated in 1948 in Copenhagen, where the organization has also just held its most recent annual meeting. Started in Europe, the ILAB was founded “with the aim of establishing new hope for international peace through open markets, to foster friendship and understanding, and to counteract the animosity and suspicion engendered by World War II.” Today, its goals are more explicitly oriented towards the market of global capitalism: “to uphold and improve professional standards in the trade, to promote honorable conduct in business, and to contribute in various ways to a broader appreciation of the history and art of the book.” This more recent mission statement, especially, prompts the question: what and who constitutes the book’s “history” and “art”? And, related, what kinds of ideologies might be submerged in these enchanting and purportedly peace-making quarters?

One possible way to start to answer these question is to point out that the Antikvariat is and has from its inception been, from bottom to top, an institution more or less exclusively run by (white) men. Since the ILAB’s establishment in 1947, only two women have been president or vice-president (the organization elects presidents and vice-presidents biannually). The prestigious list of “Patrons of Honour” (which includes Umberto Eco and Denmark’s Prince Henrik) includes only one woman (alongside her husband), and a quick scan through the website’s extensive directory of booksellers reveals that the large majority of owners of these institutions are also men. It’s perhaps telling that the league has a Father (Menno Hertzberger), but no mother.

The networks of power extend beyond these figures of authority as well, and the fact that the ILAB and its individual bookshops are run by men isn’t necessary enough to result in the dearth of literature written by women inside them. Other relevant factors might, for instance, include the sources of the books stocked here (the old libraries of university professors and the intellectual elite, now past) and, since these are businesses after all, the desires of the clientele. Put differently, a large majority haven’t been reading and still don’t really want to read books written by women. The Antikvariat, along these lines, might be seen as a kind of carefully curated net, which catches, recycles, and recapitulates the detritus and treasures alike of a given culture. And, as these processes of curation and lineages of taste progress through generations, they help canons to form and crystallize. As we browse through these charming shelves, we too recognize and reaffirm the books we already know and the canons of literature we have been taught or learned one is supposed to know. And at the same time, we forget, or fail to learn about, all the others.

2.

One such forgotten, or at least difficult to find, work is a short story called “From the Darkness” (1988) by the Swedish author, Victoria Benedictsson. There are only two characters in this story: an illuminated nameless blond man, who rarely speaks, and a woman, Nina, whose disembodied voice recounts, from a darkened corner of the room, a few reflections to a mostly silent interlocutor. This is how the story begins:

Victoria Benedictsson

“The room was veiled in darkness. Life’s commotion could be heard from the main streets of the city and settled like an accompaniment under the deathly oppressive silence that prevailed inside. Through the grating in the tall iron stove, the coal fire shone without illuminating anything, only shedding a compressed glare over the lower part of a blond man’s face, which against the surrounding darkness seemed to be illuminated from within—fashioned from a glowing, transparent red metal.

In the curtained corner beside the stove, the darkness was even denser, and nothing could be glimpsed within it. Everything had disappeared into the gaping abyss of the shadows. But out of the abyss something emerged, something—when an inkling of light fell upon it—that seemed to be a chaise longue, and a sensitive person would have been aware in the hollow-eyed darkness over the headboard of an acute eye and a lurking, unnaturally intense ear.

‘There is a diseased spot in my brain,’ said a voice from the darkness, speaking slowly, with a melancholy monotony and a contralto’s timbre. ‘It formed when I was still a child, and this is what has grown. Everything that hurt and oppressed me has rested its barb on this single spot; now its covering is soft and all resistance is broken.’

The man remained motionless, but his deep-set, wise eyes gazed compassionately into the darkness from which the voice emerged.”

This diseased spot is part metaphor and part metonymy for the speaker’s sex, a mark she claims to have borne with shame and disgust since her early childhood. She recounts the many ways this spot has developed and deepened through, for example, her experience of her father’s contempt for women (“My father did not hate women…he despised them”) and her perception of his realization that she was not a boy, as he would have hoped, but in fact a girl (“Then I saw it in his eyes, something that broke me, something that has forced me to the ground ever since, no not forced me but made me collapse the way an empty rag collapses—because of its own nothingness”). Each compounded tale reiterates this perceived sense of worthlessness or powerlessness, of her collapse into the nothingness of the female sex, the final product of which seems to be the character’s current entombment in this dark and secluded space with this mysterious man. As she concludes in the story’s last lines: “To be a woman is to be a pariah who can never rise from her caste. Being a woman has been my life’s curse” (71).

All the while, this blond man appears to be listening, “compassionately,” but does not say very much, although the illumination of his mouth seems to project an authority to speak onto him that is denied the speaking woman. The first time he speaks, about halfway through, his words might ring disturbingly familiar to the modern female reader, as Nina attempts to relay her childhood perception of the emotional burden of living as a woman: “’I cannot understand that a child could have such intense feelings…And I wonder if you are not exaggerating a bit—in hindsight’” (66). The second and last time he speaks is also, subtly, an attempt to dismiss or silence this woman: “’It torments you to speak,’ said the man, and his voice was drenched with compassion. He took her hand once more and kissed it gently, almost humbly, without a word.” Such passages, which highlight this man’s generosity, throw into question the position and attachments of the third-person omniscient narrator, who seems, like Nina, to admire and possibly adore this man, much in the same way that she describes her attraction to her father as a child. The hatred and fury of the story is thus directed, importantly, not at the men who would be seem to be, at least to some extent, the cause of it, but rather towards this female sex and even more so, inwards towards the female protagonist and her “diseased spot.” Woman then—another of thoughts still all-too-familiar more than a century later—become also, if not mostly, to blame for their dejection and misery. This is perhaps why the man, at the end of her story remains inert, impotent: “Her words ended in a tearless whisper. It was dark. The man’s face was no longer visible—and he had nothing to reply” (71).

The diegetic relationship between the nameless man and this woman clearly mirrors—or presents a later iteration of—the early and formative relationship between the woman and her father. Both men are posited, simultaneously, as objects of love and desire, sources of envy, and also as (though neither the woman nor narrator explicitly makes this leap) the possible generators of female despair. Both of these relationships present a mere two of many possible though ultimately parallel versions of the rapports possible (then, and to a certain extent, still now) between men and women. The figure of the father—of a male caretaker, at once compassionate and distant—in particular, seems a particularly salient model or metonym for the gendered structures of power and kinship to which women—and especially the female author—are continuously subjected.

***

In Unica Zürn’s much later short novel, Dark Spring (1967), another work difficult to find in Europe’s extensive network of antiquarian book stores, gender difference is also first figured through a vaguely eroticized father-daughter relationship. Dark Spring is written from the perspective of a young girl, who recounts her first experiences of sexuality and mental illness. Or at least “mental illness” is the term used on the back-cover of the English translation, likely an interpolation of Zürn’s own struggles with mental illness at the time that this novel was written: Zürn believed she was schizophrenic—a diagnosis that has since been debated by medical professionals and scholars. The moments of melancholy which the English-language editor deems the result of “mental illness” could also, alternatively, be read as a natural reaction to the sexual trauma, parental neglect, or recognition of larger societal conditions, which the novel more explicitly narrates. Indeed, when you read enough literature written by women, you learn that the lines between what qualifies as mental illness and what might be the result of local and structural oppression are more than a little blurry.

Unica Zürn

The narrator’s first recognition of such structures of difference and oppression occurs within the novel’s first pages:

“The first man in her life is her father: He has a deep voice and bushy eyebrows, curving beautifully over black smiling eyes. His beard scratches when he kisses her. He smells of cigarettes. His boots make a creaking noise and his voice is dark and warm. His show of affection is passionate and amusing at the same time. He teases the little thing lying in its cradle. From the first moment on, she loves him. On the occasion of her birth, he returns home from the battlefront. The first impression she has of him remains profound and unforgettable. She prefers him to the women who usually surround her. His smell, his powerful large hands, his deep voice!” (35)

As in Benedictsson’s short story, this young narrator clings to the strength and warmth seemingly emitted by the father figure—in both cases, more an abstract archetype composed of disparate masculine parts (a deep voice, a scratchy beard) than a realistically-embodied or mimetically present character. (Mother figures, importantly, are conspicuously distant or absent in both stories). Later, however, as she sits at her father’s feet, this sense of boundless admiration and subtle attraction shifts into an awareness of the structures that enable this kind of worship:

“She sits down beneath his desk in the dark and caresses his polished shoes. She observes him in the same way she observes all the people in the house. So there are men and women. Their activities differ. In her bedroom, when she is supposed to fall asleep, she studies the panes in the window. Looking at how the two lines intersect in the shape of a cross, she thinks about man and woman: The vertical line is man and the horizontal line is woman. The point where they meet is a secret. (She does not know anything about love.) The men wear pants, the women skirts. She learns what is hidden underneath those pants when she observes her brother. What she sees between his legs when he takes off his clothes reminds her of a key, whose lock she herself carries in her lap. She discovers the purpose of the two sexes, as all children must. When she is alone and unobserved, she searches for instructive illustrations in her father’s library. She discovers the encyclopedia, and she discovers the anatomical drawings that resemble herself and her brother (38-39).

As in Benedictsson’s “From the Darkness,” the father-daughter relationship serves as an introductory example and model of sexual difference, as well as a precursor for the subsequent and unending sense of powerlessness the protagonist will experience in the face of the other sex. As in Benedictsson’s short story, a few other possible trajectories of male-female relationships are presented: the brother mentioned above rapes and then threatens her to keep quiet; a doting classmate writes her love letters (“I love you! Forever yours, Eckbert.” (76)) and she quickly loses interest; and an attractive older man (her first love) ultimately rejects her. The narrator is only twelve years old by the point of the novel’s disturbing conclusion, but she has already learned what it means to be a girl and what it will mean to be a woman—enough, in any case, to know that she doesn’t want to continue on. As for Benedictsson’s Nina, this young girl’s sorrow seems perhaps less a result of the violence directly inflicted on her than the recognition of the impossibility of any kind of relationship with a man that might transcend her sex or sexuality (“Is there nothing but kisses? Embraces? And that which her brother did to her? Is that really all there is?” (79)), and the loneliness which this fact portends. This is perhaps why the men, in both stories, often become objects of admiration and envy rather than hatred, of which, again, women are always the object and subject.

3.

Both Benedictsson and Zürn committed suicide. Benedictsson slit her throat with a razor multiple times, apparently while looking into a hand mirror, in a hotel near Kongens Nytorv in Copenhagen (many assume that the conclusion of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie is a reference to this). Zürn jumped out of the window of a sixth-floor apartment in Paris (an act prefigured in Dark Spring). Both of these deaths are often put into the context of their biographies and the autobiographical elements of their work—which is usually to say their potential mental illnesses and their romantic relationships with often better-known and more widely read men. Benedictsson had an affair with the Danish literary critic, Georg Brandes, and some have suggested her suicide was a result of some combination of heartbreak and his rejection of her literary work. The window Zürn jumped out of belonged to the surrealist artist and writer, Hans Bellmer, who had tried to cut ties with her some months before. In Dark Spring, suicide is presented as a kind of radical alternative, a possible escape from a world dominated by heteronormative sexuality. In this novel, this possibility is allowed to linger and remain, a conclusion without circumscribed continuation. But, for both Zürn and Benedictsson, this attempt to escape isn’t afforded the same possibility; it is immediately circumscribed, swallowed, and then, for the most part, forgotten by the very hetero-hegemonic matrices both authors attempted to articulate and fight against in their writing.

I haven’t quite worked it out yet, but it seems to me that some relation exists between the gendered systems of power and oppression that both Zürn and Benedictsson, and so many other female authors, have attempted to articulate in their works, their eventual suicides, which inevitably end up conceptualized and consumed by the male-dominated canons, which they, in their work and lives, tried so hard to escape, and finally, the impossibility I’m facing, many decades later, of unearthing their stories out from among the thousands of volumes that fill Europe’s many antiquarian book stores. It’s a common refrain in many places—not least Scandinavia—that feminism is something of the past—a relic. We’re not living in the 1950’s anymore. Or rather, in Benedictsson or Zürn’s times. But relics of the things which make feminism necessary of course live on in many forms and in many places. Even in those that seem most likely to harbor refuge from all of these structures of domination, with their dusty, peeling spines and twisting staircases. Isn’t, indeed, the epitomic graying older man who owns the Antikvariat exactly the kind of endearing and knowledgeable father figure we encounter in Benedictsson and Zürn? A patient listener, who nevertheless (unable to locate a single copy of anything written by Zürn through his network of antiquarian contacts in Berlin, for instance), in face of all the darkness and silence and history recounted and forgotten by the books within these walls, ultimately is left with “nothing to reply.”

Victoria Benedictsson, Ur mörkret. Forlaget Geelmuyden.Kiese.

Unica Zürn, Dark Spring. Translated by Caroline Rupprecht. Exact Change: 2000.

https://www.ilab.org/eng/ilab/Why_ILAB.html

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