#RivetingReviews: Fiona Graham reviews LEBEN VERBOTEN!, DIE EINGEBORENEN VON MARIA BLUT and DIE VERGIFTUNG by Maria Lazar

THE RETURN OF MARIA LAZAR, THE WRITER NAZISM WROTE OUT OF HISTORY

‘One wonders why and how this work could have escaped notice for a whole century’, mused the Frankfurter Allgemeine’s reviewer when Maria Lazar’s 1920 debut, Die Vergiftung (‘The Poisoning’) was republished in 2014. Much the same can be said of all the literary output of Maria Lazar (1895-1948), the Viennese novelist, poet and playwright whose Jewish background, socialist sympathies and anti-Fascist stance brought her frequent rejections in the 1930s. It is certainly hard to understand how so vivid and passionate a voice could have been effaced for so long from the canon of German-language literature. We owe a debt of gratitude to Albert Eibl, the driving force behind Viennese publishing house Das vergessene Buch, for restoring Lazar’s novels to their rightful place. 

Although Lazar attempted to deflect anti-Semitism by adopting the Scandinavian pseudonym ‘Esther Grenen’, the political circumstances of the 1930s conspired against the publication of her major novels. Leben verboten!, written in 1932, appeared only in an abridged translation, as No Right to Live, in 1934. Extraordinarily, its publication in German would have to wait until 2020. Die Eingeborenen von Maria Blut (‘The Natives of Maria Blut’) was not published in its entirety until 1958. The new edition came out in 2015. This January 2023, a dramatised version was performed for the first time at Vienna’s Burgtheater.

Why should we read these novels today? The simple answer is that they are both highly entertaining and disturbingly relevant in an era of populism and political unrest. Leben verboten! tells the story of Ernst von Ufermann, a patrician Berlin banker whose business is on the rocks by 1931. He is about to fly to Frankfurt to beg a business associate for support when a pickpocket pilfers his wallet and passport. Shortly afterwards Ufermann learns that the plane he missed has crashed and that the passengers’ burnt corpses are unidentifiable. He is faced with a choice: He could go home to his wife Irmgard, but his generous American life insurance policy makes him worth more dead than alive; the insurance will save his firm and fund the ailing Irmgard’s sanatorium visits in perpetuity. So, Ufermann decides to lie low, and an encounter with a shady character who needs a courier with a false identity to take a mysterious package to Vienna gives him the perfect opportunity to disappear. This novel has the suspense of a thriller, a strong sense of time and place (especially in the Austrian settings), and sharply drawn characters ranging from the once-smart Rameseder family who are trying to keep up appearances, to Professor Frey, the Jewish criminologist who foresees the moral degradation to come.

While Leben verboten! depicts big city life during the Depression and on the cusp of Fascism, Die Eingeborenen von Maria Blut paints a picture of rural conservatism in the same period. It is set in an imaginary ‘Austrian Lourdes’ whose Marian cult lucratively combines religion with tourism. After the closure of the nearby canning factory, locals are now putting their trust in a pseudo-scientist who claims to be able to harness ‘space energy’ for industrial purposes. At the same time, a ‘wonder doctor’ attracts patients from all over the country to the area. A young girl emulates the Catholic mystic Therese Neumann, while her brother’s dreams of being a new Messiah are channelled into Nazism. As the village celebrates its seventh centenary, violence erupts.

Both novels examine the social conditions under which political extremism, intolerance and scapegoating can thrive, an issue as pressing today as in the 1930s. Both are polyphonic, using dialogue, internal monologue and stream of consciousness to represent a large cast of memorable characters. Though the themes are serious, humour and wit abound. It is high time (a personal plea from me, as  a translator) that we recognised Maria Lazar as the gifted stylist and prescient social commentator she was.

Reviewed by Fiona Graham

An English-language edition of Maria Lazar’s poems is coming out later this year. Contact Kathleen Dunmore (Maria Lazar’s granddaughter) at tredragon2@btinternet.com. Maria Lazar’s collected works and papers are in the Austrian Archives for Exile Studies, Literaturhaus Wien.

LEBEN VERBOTEN! (Translation funding guaranteed via New Books in German)

DIE EINGEBORENEN VON MARIA BLUT

DIE VERGIFTUNG

By Maria Lazar

Published by Das Vergessene Buch (dvb) (2020, 2015, 2014)


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Fiona Graham’s translations from German have appeared in Quest: Stories of Journeys from Around Europe, Books First, No Man’s Land and The German Riveter. Her translation (from Swedish) of Elin Anna Labba’s awardwinning Herrarna satte oss hit, chronicling the forced displacement of the Northern Sámi people, is due out with University of Minnesota Press in 2023.

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