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Images by Swiss Literary Archives
When the German photographer Marianne Breslauer first encountered the Swiss writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach in Berlin in the early ’30s she was overcome by her androgynous beauty. The photographer had this to say about her muse: “She had the same effect on me as she had on everybody: this strange mixture of man and woman… She corresponded to my image of the Angel Gabriel in paradise; an angel, an archangel. Not at all like a living being, but like a work of art.”
Annemarie Schwarzenbach with two dogs, date and photographer unknown. (Swiss Literary Archives)
Breslauer’s portraits of Schwarzenbach remain among the most striking images of her oeuvre, and led to the revival of interest in Schwarzenbach’s literary work in 1987, nearly half a century after the writer’s untimely death at the age of 34. A prolific writer and journalist, Schwarzenbach published half a dozen books as well as hundreds of articles and photo-reports during the brief span of her life.
Annemarie Schwarzenbach in Malans, Switzerland, 1938. Photographed by Anita Forrer. (Swiss Literary Archives)
Born in Zürich in 1908 to a wealthy textile magnate father and a domineering aristocrat mother, Annemarie Schwarzenbach revealed her defiant, wayward spirit from a young age. When she was eight, she had her long hair shorn off and began dressing like a boy after noticing her parents’ favouritism towards her younger brother. She studied in Paris and Zürich, obtaining a doctorate in history, but had her heart set on becoming a writer.
Annemarie Schwarzenbach with a binoculars on a wooded slope, Elburz mountains, Iran, 1935. Photographer unknown. (Swiss Literary Archives)
The non-conformist qualities of Schwarzenbach’s writing is evident even in her earliest literary work, written at age 21—a novella entitled Eine Frau zu sehen (Looking at a Woman), one of the first portrayals of female desire for another woman in German-language literature:
Annemarie Schwarzenbach in a swimsuit, Barcelona, Spain, 1933. Photographed by Marianne Breslauer. Marianne Breslauer's photograph is displayed with the kind permission of the Fotostiftung Schweiz. (Swiss Literary Archives)
Looking at a woman: only for an instant, for the fleeting interval of a glimpse, to lose her again, somewhere in the shadows of a corridor, behind a door I cannot open—looking at a woman, and at the same moment sensing that she too has been looking at me, her searching eyes dwelling upon me, as if we should soon meet at the threshold of the unknown, at this dark and melancholic border of consciousness...*
Annemarie Schwarzenbach sitting in car with cigarette, USA, circa 1936-1938. Photographer unknown. (Swiss Literary Archives)
Rebelling against the ideological and lifestyle strictures of her family, Schwarzenbach moved to Berlin in 1931, where she nurtured close friendships with the progressive cabaret actress Erika Mann and her brother the writer Klaus Mann—children of novelist and Nobel Prize Laureate, Thomas Mann. She also immersed herself in Weimar Berlin’s thriving and uninhibited gay and lesbian scene; it was during this time that she developed a life-long addiction to morphine. According to her friend, the actress Ruth Landshoff, Schwarzenbach “lived dangerously, drank too much, and never went to sleep before dawn.” Thomas Mann himself described her as a “ravaged angel”.
Annemarie Schwarzenbach on the Eiffel Bridge in Girona, Barcelona, Spain, 1933. Photographed by Marianne Breslauer. Marianne Breslauer's photograph is displayed with the kind permission of the Fotostiftung Schweiz. (Swiss Literary Archives)
Schwarzenbach proved, however, to be more than just another wild debutante of Weimar Berlin nightlife. She became an inimitable style icon and a literary iconoclast whose writing resists rigid categorisation, seamlessly traversing genres of fiction, essay, memoir, and journalism. She also actively supported progressive intellectual life, helping Klaus Mann to fund the anti-fascist literary review, Die Sammlung.
Annemarie Schwarzenbach looking at ancient remains in Sant Cugat, Spain, 1933. Photographed by Marianne Breslauer. Marianne Breslauer's photograph is displayed with the kind permission of the Fotostiftung Schweiz. (Swiss Literary Archives)
When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, the cultural freedom and political pluralism that had characterised the Weimar Republic was summarily destroyed. Many artists and intellectuals had no choice but to leave Germany. For Schwarzenbach, it was the perfect time to embark on journeys of adventure and self-discovery, attesting to Walter Benjamin’s observation that “travel questions our bourgeois habits: it is a conscious or unconscious way of performing an inner revolution”. And so she travelled—to Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, and beyond—a part of the world that more or less corresponds to the list of countries targeted by travel bans in our own time.
Annemarie Schwarzenbach writing in her notepad on a Roman column, Sant Cugat, Spain, 1933. Photographed by Marianne Breslauer. Marianne Breslauer's photograph is displayed with the kind permission of the Fotostiftung Schweiz. (Swiss Literary Archives)
Between 1933 and 1939, Schwarzenbach travelled four times to Persia (present-day Iran); she gathered her observations and thoughts in one of her most evocative books, Death in Persia (Tod in Persien). The melancholy that suffuses the book is palpable from Schwarzenbach’s opening lines: “This book will bring little joy to the reader… This is a book about errant ways and its subject is despair.” Schwarzenbach’s prose is especially poignant in her vulnerability towards the human condition, her descriptions of landscape mirroring her existential anguish:
From left to right: Margot Lind, Annemarie Schwarzenbach and Inge Westendarp in Sils, Switzerland, 1936. Photograph by Marianne Breslauer. Marianne Breslauer's photograph is displayed with the kind permission of the Fotostiftung Schweiz. (Swiss Literary Archives)
Where should we turn? All around us is utter desolation—basalt-grey rock faces, leprous yellow deserts, dead moon valleys, chalky brooks and silvery currents in which perished fish drift upstream… Not even the passing of night and day penetrate our consciousness although the day is bright and shadeless and the night is lit with cold stars.**
Annemarie Schwarzenbach in Sils-Baselgia, Switzerland, 1938. Photographed by Marianne Breslauer. Marianne Breslauer's photograph is displayed with the kind permission of the Fotostiftung Schweiz. (Swiss Literary Archives)
In the second part of the book, Schwa- rzenbach recounts her ill-fated love for Jale, the daughter of the Turkish ambassador in Persia, an infatuation perhaps not unlike those who were captivated by Schwarzenbach herself, like the American novelist Carson McCullers, who remembered her as having “a face I knew would haunt me for the rest of my life,” or French novelist Roger Martin du Gard, who once thanked her for “walking upon this earth with the beautiful face of an inconsolable angel.”
Annemarie Schwarzenbach in Persepolis, Iran, 1935. Photographer unknown. (Swiss Literary Archives)
*Translation by Pauline Fan
**Translation by Lucy Renner Jones
Annemarie Schwarzenbach with camera and cigarette in front of a house, Malans, Switzerland, 1939. Photographed by Anita Forrer. (Swiss Literary Archives)
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