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The Red Countess

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Hermynia Zur Mühlen

4. Feuilletons and Fairy Tales: A Sampling

Editor’s Note

Lionel Gossman

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1The following short stories and newspaper feuilletons, all translated by the editor, have been selected from among the hundreds published by Zur Mühlen because of the light they throw on her inspiration and motivation as a writer. Their themes and topics pervade her entire oeuvre: the injustice, violence, and cruelty of modern capitalist societies; the miserable lives of the poor and downtrodden; the way a patriarchal culture prevents women of all classes from developing into full human beings; and, not least, the tensions within her own utopian aspirations. On the one hand, for example, the conviction that it is a human responsibility, and especially a responsibility of the artist, to confront an ugly and unjust world and rouse others to confront and combat it, so that a better world may come into being; on the other, nostalgia for the beauty, peace, and harmony of the hortus conclusus, the protected childhood paradise that Zur Mühlen herself once knew in her grandmother’s villa in the little lakeside resort town of Gmunden. On the one hand, the writer’s moral responsibility to create a literature of combat, a littérature engagée (“We Have to Tell Them”); on the other, the temptation of estheticism, of excluding ugliness from one’s writing in order to create a manageable and esthetically satisfying imaginary world (“Painted on Ivory”). In her feuilletons as well as in her novels, Zur Mühlen suggests that withdrawal from the world of conflict and violence is not only immoral, but may result, for the artist, in an impoverishment of her art, and that, in addition, an individual who has shut herself off from the everyday world of passions and desires or who has been protected from it, is rendered defenceless against the world (“Death of a Shadow” — recognizably contemporary with the novel Unsere Töchter die Nazinen). One of the feuilletons seems to suggest, however, that any career as a writer requires sacrifice. To the degree that sympathizing and identifying with others is the condition of her ability to create fictional characters, the writer may find that her own life has been diminished as well as enriched by her capacity for empathizing and living vicariously (“A Secondary Happiness”).

2Like everything Zur Mühlen wrote, these short pieces are rooted in her own experience and that of her time. Thus, for instance, the three samples from the collection entitled Der rote Heiland, which was published soon after the First World War (the little dramatic scene that gave the collection its title, together with “Confession,” and “High Treason”), reflect the widespread pacifism, the revulsion against war, and the demand for radical social change in Germany in the years following the country’s disastrous defeat. “Miss Brington” and “The Señora,” both published in 1941, reflect the experience of exile. The former evokes the characteristically drab, run-down English boarding-house with which many exiles, who were accustomed to a very different kind of life, became unhappily all too familiar after fleeing Hitler’s Germany and Austria. At the same time, Zur Mühlen manages to transform the watchful, frugal, hard-working, and worn-out landlady, Miss Brington, who is always on the brink of falling from respectability into poverty, into a universal figure of emotional and physical deprivation and loneliness. “The Señora” dramatizes the dilemma faced by refugees, particularly those who happen to be writers in a language other than that of their country of asylum. Should they adapt to their new environment and risk losing the anger and indignation, the passionate opposition to tyranny that is the core of their identity, the most precious possession left to them? Or should they nurture their hatred and risk losing their humanity?

3To the feuilletons have been added two samples of the “socialist” fairy tales for which Zur Mühlen achieved a degree of international renown — one (“The Spectacles”) in a new translation by the editor, and one (“The Sparrow”) in Ida Dailes’ translation (considerably revised by the editor) for a collection of four of Zur Mühlen’s tales published by The Daily Worker Publishing Company under the title Fairy Tales for Workers’ Children (Chicago, 1925). A short essay by the editor on the fairy tale and its use for propaganda purposes has been included among the supplementary on-line materials.

November 2010

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