The Weimar era may be more renowned for German artistic production, but the Wilhelmine era—1890 to 1918—was perhaps a time of even more wildly prolific, path-breaking artistic creation. The Berlin-based publishing house Rixdorf Editions publishes translations only from that era, and its most recent release is Death, a bold work of prose by Anna-Croissant Rust, translated with skill and sensitivity by James Conway.
Widely respected and published in her day, Croissant-Rust is now largely forgotten, even in Germany. Her output varied as much in its style as in its quality, but she is worth remembering as a gifted formal innovator who paired lyricism with a keen sense of structure. She spent her youth and much of her adulthood in Munich, and was an important figure in the Münchner Moderne (a late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century artistic movement best known in English for the Blaue Reiter group), and a founding member (the only female member) of the Gesellschaft für modernes Leben (Society for Modern Life), an important literary club that promoted naturalism.
Death is a series of brief vignettes published in 1913 whose main characters all (you guessed it) die. In this volume, Rixdorf has also appended a collection titled Prose Poems, which was published two decades before Death, in 1893. These prose poems are fragmentary and highly emotional pieces that capture the tumult and sublimity of nature. Scenes coalesce in moments of pure lucidity:
Grey is the sky.
The little pond looks up at it like an eye glazing over, lacklustre, dull.
(“Autum Days on the Rhine”)
A few snowflakes tumble past the window, forlorn, lost. The white tower of Egern casts a sunlit glance over the lake, its bells begin their shy peal – winter Sunday morning.
These scenes are often driven along by fragmentary exclamations by the narrator, sometimes identifiably female, Croissant-Rust or a doppelgänger, expressing longing or joy or terror. Exclamation points abound:
Give him back to me!
Do you remember?
Never? … !
Their effect is meant to be rousing and occasionally it is. Some of the prose poems feature a tragic or supernatural storyline—in “Dream,” she even meets what today we would call zombies (“They had little shrunken hearts in their hands, and held them out to me”). Some aspects of Prose Poems have aged better than others—apostrophes to the seasons and personifications of forces of nature (e.g., a male storm that literally ravages the countryside) require more effort for today’s reader to appreciate. These anthropomorphic elements are used to inject drama into scenes that would otherwise seem impersonal, of too large a scale for human emotion. The most mature prose poem, “Wasteland,” is a carefully balanced tour-de-force of nostalgia, of the attentively observed life of a particular place and people’s relationship to it.
Croissant-Rust’s style is often praised for being unvarnished and forthright, but minimalism it is not. By merely bucking the expectation of female floweriness (sometimes in exchange for melodrama), she seems to have been ascribed an austerity that does not quite fit the reality of her works. Both Death and Prose Poems include many lush descriptions of nature, vertiginous emotional episodes, richly textured depictions of human life, and rapturous praise for the great forces of the universe, be they life and death or the seasons.
Early in her career, Croissant-Rust wrote in the naturalist style, a movement that arose around 1880 and persisted into the twentieth century. Naturalism stood for the precise depiction of human life and the world, often focusing on the grim details of poverty and human suffering. Writing about Croissant-Rust’s naturalism in the context of drama (she was also a playwright), Sarah Colvin notes in Women and German Drama: Playwrights and Their Texts 1860–1945 that the types of themes that were the focus of naturalism were often congruent with women’s domestic lives, elevating female care-taking experiences that once would have been thought unsuitable for literature. Croissant-Rust’s early works followed this mold, and she was sometimes criticized for being excessively negative—here naturalism was a double-edged sword because such negativity was seen as particularly unbecoming for a woman.
One of the more irritating features of criticism about Croissant-Rust—as pervasive in German as it is in English, in her time as today—is that it often affirms her talent by proclaiming how unlike other women writers she was. Colvin says: “In all cases the woman playwright is seen as the exception to a rule, and specifically as a phenomenon that crosses the bounds of gender. She is therefore in need of explanation or rationalization by critics. The quickest and easiest way to explain away dramatic creativity in women is to cross-assign the writer to the proper, male, gender category: to redefine her as a ‘masculine’ woman.” (Mea culpa: At an event at which I discussed Croissant-Rust with Conway, I heard myself affirm she was “one of the boys.” She was, of course, not; we never are.) In fact, we might easily read the “intensity” or “passion” of Croissant-Rust’s writings as a particularly female access to or mastery of emotion; and as noted above, naturalism opened up high-brow literature to particularly feminine themes, which Croissant-Rust addressed. In other words, her development and output were categorically female; they were also categorically the work of a gifted artist, and in this sense their bare, irreducible achievement is as distant from the sentimentality of “women’s literature” as it is from the chattering hordes of male poseurs whom she outshone. Such work always stands in its own light.
Croissant-Rust later distanced herself from her early naturalistic works, blaming their harshness on the “aura that enveloped all of us at the end of the eighties and beginning of the nineties,” which she (paraphrased by Bernhard Setzwein) attributed to the “naturalistic dictates of the time.” As her career progressed toward Expressionism, Croissant-Rust did not exactly abandon naturalistic approaches, but rather blended them with elements that are mythical or romantic. Though the two approaches may seem contradictory, in fact they work hand-in-hand to heighten the emotional effect of Croissant-Rust’s work—the sketches in Death being a perfect example.
Termed “an expressionistic gem,” Death’s hushed tone makes each story a tiny temple dedicated to the inevitable drama at life’s end. Often comprising only the last moments of each figure’s life, these stories are intense and unflinching spiritual investigations of dying as an experience that unfolds in life. Death is also a portrait of a society—like a medieval dance of death mural, it depicts people of all stations, urban and rural, old and young, male and female. In “Industria,” Croissant-Rust sketches the oppression of the factory floor before an accident:
The workers in the low, hall-like rooms are bathed in sweat. All day the sun has been beating down on the roof and making them limp, now in the muggy night they drearily drag themselves through the smothering air beneath the weight of sleepless hours. Row upon row of machines. All around there is a dull stomping, a quick thrusting and wheezing, a perpetual up and down of the heavy pistons; the wheels turn with a light whistle, and little lights skip and sparkle from the blinking metal cylinders and rods in the glare of the electric lights.
The atmosphere is as taut as the belt of a whirring machine, and like a machine, it is purposeful. As Bernhard Setzwein notes of her late work, “The stories are no longer bleak depictions from their first line, black on black; instead they slowly build their sense of menace, seducing the reader with an apparently cozy, droll narrative style, which then unavoidably veers toward catastrophe.” Careful, observant depictions of domesticity, poverty, the inner lives of characters, and natural landscapes create a kind of springboard from which the introduction of mythical-spiritual Death (as a beautiful woman or grim reaper, for example) can work its greatest effect; her naturalistic description is like crystal clear water before a gust of otherworldliness sends ripples across the pool. In “The Corn Mother,” a feverish child living on a farm sees death making its way toward her through her everyday surroundings:
Oh, she well knows who is coming wandering through the grain now. The corn mother! Her robe is purest gold and full of glitter and swathed in veils, she looks like a grey and white glittery shadow, says the old nanny, but only Sunday’s child, born with an invisible coronet can see her…She is already quite close. So large and so splendid, her golden hair like a gleaming glow about her head. She bends down toward the sick child who slowly sinks to her knees, bends forward, shivering with fever, but still she tries to look up into the glaring, sharp brightness until her eyes grow tired, so tired, and the little white body sinks into the grain.
In this case, death not only appears in an everyday context; it is of that context, made of the grain that is the family’s livelihood and environment. It is, in effect, the uncanny, in which the familiar is made strange. One of Croissant-Rust’s strengths is how quickly and deftly she builds up this familiar vision of life in each of the vignettes before unsettling it with the strangeness of death.
Conway’s afterword provides much excellent background information on this now-forgotten writer, but unfortunately tends toward the hagiographic. (This is the danger of being publisher and critic at once.) This is regrettable, because his afterword is probably the best overview of Croissant-Rust’s work available in English. Most problematically, Conway makes strong claims about Croissant-Rust’s formal innovations that obscure the genealogy of her writing. On Death: “Anyone unfamiliar with the earlier work might have assumed that Croissant-Rust had taken inspiration from the Expressionists who had arisen in recent years, rather than from herself”—as if, like a cartoon rabbit pulling itself by the ears out of a magician’s hat, she had invented Expressionism avant la lettre, then later inspired herself to take up the style again when it happened to be fashionable. And: “The style to which Prose Poems might have been assigned had not yet been invented”—in fact, prose poetry was a well-mined style being explored by many in her immediate vicinity and their predecessors—Detlev von Liliencron and Otto Julius Bierbaum being two examples.
We can say with fairness that her tremendous technical skill and bold but judicious instincts enriched and matured the genre. Wolfgang Bunzel, whose monograph on the history of the German prose poem dedicates a sub-chapter to Croissant-Rust, identifies her contribution: “Gedichte in Prosa aims entirely at the utmost compression of literary expression, which up to that point had been reserved for poetry. The author carries out a targeted exploration of the terra incognita between verse and short narrative prose.” The adjectives “utmost” and “targeted” are significant here; their restriction is what makes the praise substantive. Innovation is not creation ex nihilo, as much as we love to tell ourselves fairy tales of complete originality; the people we remember as innovators tend to be people who were listening to the discourse of their time and trying to do what all their peers were trying to do—the difference being that innovators make innovation work where others fail. This is why we remember Croissant-Rust as a great writer; she had a raw, unalloyed talent that cannot be entirely correlated to particular achievements or innovations.
Amanda DeMarco is a writer and translator. In 2018, she received a fiction-writing grant from the city of Berlin. Her criticism appears regularly in venues such as the Wall Street Journal and the Times Literary Supplement.
Banner Image: Photograph, “Dead Rose,” by Elery S. Oxford.
 See Wolfgang Bunzel, Das deutschsprachige Prosagedicht: Theorie und Geschichte einer literarischen Gattung der Moderne (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2005); specifically on Croissant-Rust, see 177–188. Bunzel points to the larger historical factors that drove toward a widespread interest in prose poetry at the time: “The fact that naturalism first took note of this area as an untapped borderland owes to the dominance of epigonic Gründerzeitpoetry, which had completely automatized the formal signals of poeticism, particularly devaluing the visual markers that once functioned as the unmistakeable criteria for differentiation between ‘poetry’ and ‘prose.’ This is ultimately why Max Halbe could postulate the existence of a ‘prose poetry’: if it were possible to represent ‘prosaic’ contents in verse form, then there must logically also exist poetry in ‘prose form’” (180).