Jarmila by Ernst Weiss

“It’s a bitter-sweet thing being the slave of a woman.”

Jarmila by German author Ernst Weiss was recommended to me by Pechorin’s Journal . Doubtful I would have found the book without Max’s recommendation. Anyway, the book is from Pushkin Press and that means it’s a gorgeous little edition  that’s a pleasure to own and to hold. I don’t know how Pushkin Press is faring in these difficult economic times, but they certainly publish some interesting titles and produce unique, quality books.

So now to the novella: My edition runs to 96 pages, 85 of which are the story itself, and if you are familiar with Pushkin Press editions you will know that these are not full size pages. So let’s call this a novella.

Jarmila is a rather strange story. It’s one of those tales within a tale, and after finishing the novella, at first I spent more time thinking about the narrative structure than thinking about the story itself. Perhaps this is because I recently finished Les Diaboliques, 6 short stories by Barbery d’Aurevilly, and five of the six stories had the same narrative style.

Anyway, back to Jarmila: a love story from Bohemia and more about its narrative style later.

Jarmila is set in the 1930s and the story begins with the narrator embarking on a journey from Paris to Prague in order to  “purchase thirty tons of average grade Bohemian apples” in the hope that this transaction will clear some pressing debts. Discovering that he’s left his watch behind, the narrator purchases a replacement–a seemingly trivial yet significant event as it turns out. The watch proves to be less than accurate–a fact that frustrates the narrator. Is it pure chance or fate that he meets a toymaker who offers to mend the watch?

The two men sit in an inn while the toymaker mends the watch for the narrator, and as they sit and drink, the toymaker tells a strange tale of adultery & murder involving Jarmila, the rapacious, luscious wife of a much older, well-to-do feather merchant. 

Jarmila‘s clever structure–the tale within the tale–allows the author, Ernst Weiss to create a complex tale in a comparatively small space. The toymaker’s torrid, tragic tale is effectively telescoped, and yet its very brevity makes its style and the vivid use of motifs that much more powerful.  The excellent afterword written by Peter Engel states that Jarmila’s central motif is the watch, and since the story begins and ends with the watch, there’s no argument on that score. I was fascinated by the motif of feathers; illicit sex in the feathers (incredible imagery here), the toymaker plucking all the feathers from his wooden birds, and then Jarmila, with a fat goose between her thighs as she plucks it clean. This last image somehow reminds me of the fate of the doomed toymaker. Just like a goose, he’s squeezed between Jarmila’s thighs and consequently plucked of every single thing in life he values. Here’s a quote:

Bohemia, surely, boasts the most beautiful geese of any country. Here they are not fed, as in France, on fish waste. In the summer they are set free on the grassy meadows, later on the fields of stubble, and come autumn they’re fattened indoors in a manner both refined and cruel. Alongside the beautiful, powerful, now-white creatures,  I noticed others apparently ailing, stripped of all but their large wing feathers. Their breasts, their underbellies, were naked, unkempt, reddish-grey, and they didn’t march with the same cockiness and confidence as their healthy comrades; they waddled slowly, timid and fearful, and steered clear of humans, flapping their wings and starting up a furious cackling whenever they glimpsed one. I asked a fellow passenger what lay behind their strange behaviour. He didn’t understand me at first, but then he smiled and replied:  “You try being flayed alive, having every single hair pulled out one by one, being throttled and squeezed all the while between a pair of knees! I’d like to see you then! And the same procedure ever year!”   I then learned  in detail how in most parts of Bohemia geese are plucked alive each year thereby producing the heavenly, light, downy feather which made sleeping amongst the plump, snowy-white pillows of my Prague hotel such a pleasurable experience. Yet the goose not only provides feathers, but also skin, fat, meat, stomach, heart, liver and blood! Virtually every part of it is eaten.

If you think about it, even the toymaker’s semen is put to use.

Jarmila is an amazingly visual story, and again that’s due to credit of skill of the author who manages to create an incredible tale, very visual, full of motifs in about 85 pint-sized pages. I’m a fan of noir, and so as odd as it sounds, this tale with its emphasis on the inescapability of fate hit some disquieting chords for me. The story got under my skin, and now I can’t get it out of my head.

The afterword includes details about the author, Ernst Weiss, and friend of Stefan Zweig. Weiss, who was jewish, left Berlin after the burning of the Reichstag, and committed suicide in Paris in 1940 as the Wehrmacht entered Paris. The death of Weiss reinforces the idea that it seems impossible to definitively quantify the destruction wreaked by Hitler.

Translated by Rebecca Morrison and Petra Howard-Wuerz.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Jarmila by Ernst Weiss

  1. Brilliant isn’t it? Just masterful. I’m glad you liked it. For me, it really lingered in the mind, unpacking after I finished. It’s amazingly dense for something so easily read.

    Nice point on the semen.

  2. The whole goose motif was very unsettling. The way those poor half plucked animals staggered around until they were used up–the internal organs, and even the skin. Then I thought of the toymaker equally squeezed and plucked between Jarmila’s thighs. Such a horrible image.
    But yes, a brilliantly constructed gem, and its cleverness takes a while to sink in (well it did for me anyway).

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