Die Vergiftung (“The Poisoning”, 1920) reads like a box full of family pictures. We are taking them out randomly, one by one, and some disembodied voice is describing the pictures to us in a strange way: instead of focusing on the recognizable objects in each photo, she is blurring their contours and their materiality in a mosaic of lights and colours.
The novella centres on 20-year-old Ruth, who lives in Vienna with her mother and two older siblings. They belong to an upper-class family who has seen better days, but strives to keep up appearances. And Ruth is angry. She is angry at her mother’s domineering personality; at her uncle Gustav wasted opportunities; at her brother Richard self-righteousness; and at her sister’s Martha superficiality.
Ruth is having none of it: she cuts through the family façade, and feels suffocated by its moral and intellectual narrowness. Ruth cannot abide by its hypocrisy and double standards. Her father died when she was a child, just before he was about to complete a great project; her uncle Gustav, a multitalented man who could have become a great artist, only made it to a drawing teacher at a middle school, and is now considered the family’s fool; his sister, Ruth’s mother, squandered her talents by marrying very young – “Mother makes us all unhappy because she can’t be happy.”
Everyone suffers under the ‘poisoning’ influence of the domineering mother, everyone is trapped inside a ‘poisoned’ life that doesn’t feel authentic, and everyone becomes more or less a ‘poisoning’ bully. Ruth tears off the curtains and exposes not only the poison, but the process itself of being poisoned.
She tries to escape her family by taking walks alone in the suburban gardens as often as possible – but she always comes back, like a dog on a leash. Like Irmgard Keun’s Gilgi (1931), your Ruth eventually crosses some of the prevailing moral and class boundaries, but, unlike Keun’s protagonist, she is trapped inside a self-fulfilling prophecy: Ruth cannot feel anything other than disgust.
Such as in Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher (Die Klavierspielerin, 1983), yours is also an exploration of a dysfunctional mother and daughter relationship framed as a criticism of patriarchal values; but, unlike Jelinek’s protagonist, for whom violence acts as a twisted form of resistance, your Ruth’s rebellion drowns in a quicksand of (self-)disgust. While Jelinek offers us a mordant satire that revels in ugly language, your take on the subject is more symbolic, and perhaps a tad too precious, diluting the violence in a profusion of adjectives.
The story is told in a fragmented, unchronological way, through a repetitive flow of short sentences that seem to follow a hammering rhythm. It reminded me of Clarice Lispector, with her way of hiding something primeval behind a flurry of language. The book is narrated in third person, in 13 chapters that read like interconnected stories full of gaps – as if you were using objects to describe internal landscapes, or using words to describe a place outside language.
The story seems to be less about recognizable people and objects than about their colours or their blurring effect, as different levels of reality slide seamlessly into one another. There seems to be a locked door everywhere; or perhaps it’s just an invisible door that exists only inside Ruth’s mind: „Eine braune Holztür, glatt, mit vielen dunklen Flecken. Eine Tür wie sie überall ist, überall ist. Eine Tür –“ (“A brown wooden door, smooth, with lots of dark spots. There is a door like this everywhere, everywhere there is a door. A door“).
The book begins and ends with Ruth seeking and turning away from a much older secret lover – a chemist who might or might not have been her own mother’s lover; a lover who might or might not be Ruth’s biological father; one who might or might not be drugging her, and who might or might not have raped her. “I think now we have nothing more to say to each other”, she says to him – or to us, her readers, as the book abruptly ends.
Who is being poisoned, and who is doing the poisoning? The domineering mother, the rebellious daughter, the secret lover, early 20th century Viennese bourgeoisie, all of the above? And what exactly is the poison? The stifling family values (or lack thereof), the claustrophobic society, the sapless love relationship, the older chemist’s ever-present vials, a family facade that is about to collapse, or everyone’s hostile emotional dependence on each other? “Du warst die Phiole für mein kostbarstes Experiment. In dir habe ich mich selbst experimentiert.” (“You were the vial for my most precious experiment. In you I experimented myself.“).
The highlight of the book for me was the nightmarish sequence where, under her mother’s influence, Ruth is admitted to a sanatorium. Tied to the bed, she undergoes a forced operation – it may be some kind of treatment for ‘hysteria’, as a way of subduing the rebellious daughter; it may be an abortion; it may be just a dream, a figment of Ruth’s imagination. We don’t know.
The operation is carried out in the presence of the mother: “Sie ist in einer Welt, in der sie noch nie war. Sie muß einmal Ungeheures erlebt haben. Aber hier kann man davon nichts wissen.” (“She is in a world where she has never been. She must have experienced something tremendous once. But you cannot know anything about it here.“). Who is saying this, and about whom is it said? Who is behind the pronoun “she” here: is it the mother? Or Ruth? Or both? Is the mother in the room, or just inside Ruth’s mind? Is she finally inside her daughter – a place she has never been before? Are they finally meeting inside an impossible place – in a nightmare? Who is killing, and who is being killed? Is the death of the child a perverse doubling of the death of the mother? As Ruth’s uncle had said, „(…) die Menschen sind alle Mörder. Aber unsere Nächsten […] das sind unsere nächsten Mörder.“ (‘‘…people are all murderers. But the people next to us […] these are our next murderers.“)
Perhaps we are thrown inside Ruth’s stream of consciousness as she experiences some form of dissociation. Perhaps someone is throwing family secrets out of the closet. Perhaps we are just taking blurred family photographs out of an old box, one by one. Some images recur throughout the photos, and we wonder what they might mean. Perhaps they don’t mean anything.
“Ruth dachte: Er nimmt mir alles. Alles. Aber er hat eine wohlgefüllte Geldbörse in der Tasche. Kupfergelb, silberweiß, blaue Scheine. Nur die Rosen soll er nicht nehmen, die Rosen nicht. Wenn er wirklich danach greift ‒ Sie war umgeben von einer schwarzen, kochenden Masse. Und erstickt griff sie nach dem Brotmesser auf dem Tisch und schleuderte es ‒ Ein Kreischen, ein Stoßen ‒ Sie war allein in ihrem Zimmer. Von der Straßenlaterne strömte weißgelbes Licht herein. Aber der Zorn tanzte noch in kochend schwarzen Klumpen um sie herum, würgte die Kehle, machte ihre Hände gierig. Sie fuhr hinein in die blassen Fensterscheiben. Mitten durch. Aus ihrer Handfläche quoll es langsam heraus, dunkelrot. Sie war ganz ruhig. Aus immer mehr Stellen heraus, immer mehr. Das Blut fiel zu Boden, langsam, in dicken Tropfen. Und ihre Augen wurden satt. Da waren irgendwo heiße, durstende Glieder, die sich zur Ruhe strecken konnten. Und ausgekühlte Marmorbäder. Und verlöschte, grellrote Lichter. Zu ihren Füßen lagen viele Münzen. Kupferne, silberne, goldene. Die rollten nicht mehr durcheinander. Die lagen ganz kalt, eine über der anderen. Und das Blut fiel zu Boden, langsam, in dicken Tropfen. Und das Geld fraß das Blut.” – Maria Lazar, Die Vergiftung