“Longing, life’s gravedigger. The only key that locks at night. Pain everywhere, right into the word. Therefore silence.”
– Nelly Sachs
In May 1940 Nelly Sachs fled to Stockholm aboard one of the last passenger flights out of wartime Berlin. She began a new phase of her life and work in a kitchen alcove in Bergsundsstrand, and twenty-six years later was awarded the Nobel prize in literature.
The Great Anonymous, a selection of previously unknown, partially autobiographical texts written between her arrival in Sweden and the award in 1966, casts a new light on the writer and her œuvre. Sachs’ mental health deteriorated with age, yet it was in exile in Sweden that she found her poetic voice. Since then her words have not ceased speaking aus dem Schweigen, from silence.
Epiphanies occur in libraries too. They may lack the faith healing characteristics of miracles and other hocus-pocus, but still, for anyone leafing through a writer’s unpublished legacy, wonders theoretically await on each page of the manuscript. Turn over and a revelation may be upon you.
A few years ago I was sitting in the special reading room at Kungliga Biblioteket in Stockholm. I was working on two books: an illustrated biography of Nelly Sachs and an annotated edition of her works written between the flight from Berlin in May 1940 and her death, thirty years later. I had gone through most of the material, including the papers from the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach and the Landesbibliothek in Dortmund. The biggest collection, however, is in Stockholm, where the writer’s literary estate was transferred after her death. What interested me in particular was the unpublished prose. Sachs did not write a lot of it, but in the years following her mother’s death in 1950 she produced a kind of hybrid text which she finally gave the name “Night Letters” and which contains everything from speculations on religious history and notes on grief and desperation, to lyrical reflections and musings on her own work, such as the drama “The Hair”. Sachs prepared the manuscript for publication, but decided not to have it printed – perhaps because it did not clearly belong to any one genre, or perhaps because it was too personal, verging on private.
On that morning in the special reading room I wanted to make sure I hadn’t missed any notes that might possibly be a continuation of “Night Letters”. Jottings here and there suggested that Sachs had held on to thoughts of prose until the mid-1960s. Among the papers was a typescript entitled “August 1962”. This was a clean copy of a longer, partially illegible document I had not yet made my way through. I examined the manuscript. It had probably been written in connection with one of the sojourns at Beckomberga mental hospital which marked the final decade of the writer’s life and which involved treatment for the advanced stages of paranoia. As I transcribed the lettering, at once sweeping and awkward, my excitement mounted. While I could follow the train of thought, it was impossible to predict what would come just few lines further on. The enjambments were drastic, the conceptual leaps echoed flight and metamorphosis. This was no text born of inner peace. The words wavered between insight and delusion. It was difficult to say where real-life circumstances gave way to Sachs’ imaginary universe.
In one passage she returned to a scene she had rendered in one of the few prose texts to be published during her lifetime, “Life Under Threat” from 1956. As a result of an incident during the second half of the 1930s, the details of which are not known, Sachs reportedly lost her ability to speak. She describes on a couple of occasions how her throat was knotted up for five days, and on another that her muteness lasted for three. The trauma also left traces in her poetry. Several poems deal with the loss of language. The narrator’s voice “flees” to the fishes, those loyalists of muteness — and in Sachs’ case most likely linked to the martyr on the cross. In the barely decipherable diary entry that is “August 1962”, she now turned to the dead:
I glow the words in the night to you my beloved. My throat was clogged with fear I was mute with dread. My name means scissors in Swedish written with airplanes on the sky the crossed knives on the crafts’ walls —
In drastic, almost elliptical imagery, Sachs associated her own name with what could only be the murderers’ sign. When I mentioned the manuscript to Margaretha Holmqvist, who did not know about it, she recalled an event which confirmed the image. During a visit she paid to Sachs at Beckomberga, in Bromma, the pair went for a stroll in the hospital’s proximities. Arriving at Runstensplan, they spotted the intersecting vapour trails of two airplanes in the sky. Sachs likely saw the beginnings of a swastika. But the sign was also of a pair of scissors, this instrument par excellence of separation — which in turn sounded like her family name to Swedish ear . . .
The image epitomised fundamental aspects of her imaginary universe. Even if life and work were separate entities — like scissor blades — they could not be kept apart. On the contrary, they shared experiences in a literal sense. The pair of scissors was at once the murderers’ sign and the writer’s signature. It betokened the fateful symbol emblazoned on flags, uniforms and airplane wings during twelve years of dictatorship, but as the emblem of separation it also recalled flight and the loss of near and dear ones. And at the same time the sign in the sky consisted of vapour that dispersed like smoke in the air. In its way, then, it was also an “epitaph written in the air”, to allude to the title of one of the cycles in Sachs’ first collection of poetry, In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Dwellings of Death) from 1947. In the clean copy of her manuscript, she returned to this thought. There she wrote:
To you my beloved I extend these words in the night. My name (Sachs — means scissors [sax] in Swedish) with smoke — a pair of scissors painted on the blue sky (above Runstensplan)
O you chimneys — — — — —
“O you chimneys” is the last line of the famous poem that opened the debut collection and, in a certain sense, the entire oeuvre. The lines of vapour Sachs saw in the sky on that day in August 1962 signalled the smoke which had risen from the crematorium ovens less than twenty years earlier and which, by a logic as tragic as it was paradoxical, would lead to the work that made Sachs famous. The Holocaust begot the poem, by means of a distinction that nonetheless reunited the writer with the dead. In the beginning were the scissors.
When Sachs died on 12 May 1970 — she was 79, and hospitalised at St. Görans sjukhus — she left us an extensive oeuvre consisting of a dozen or so books of her own, three anthologies of translated poetry and several monographs with translations of individual Swedish poets – along with a number of unpublished texts. In the cupboards and on the shelves of her one-room flat on Bergsundsstrand in southern Stockholm were poems, prose stories and dramatic poetry as well as excerpts from books she had read, diary entries, awards acceptance speeches, responses to questionnaires, and texts of a more private nature. Her literary estate comprises material from all phases of her oeuvre, from the first period in exile until the final years of illness and seclusion. Some manuscripts would later end up at the Literaturarchiv in Marbach, where they are now part of a collection named after a neighbour and close friend from Bergsundsstrand, Rosi Wosk. Other texts were sent as enclosures in letters. A few works are included in the estates of Walter A. Berendsohn, Enar Sahlin and other friends and acquaintances. But most of the material is in the Nelly Sachs Collection at Kungliga Biblioteket.
Most of the texts in this selection are from the latter collection, and almost all are previously unpublished. They make up a cross section from 1940 onwards — poetry, prose, drama. The title has been borrowed from a late, never completed play that deals with a theme central to the oeuvre: the loss of the beloved but unknown man that Sachs became acquainted with at a spa when she was seventeen and which she would later describe as “the dead bridegroom”. In some early poems from the 1910s this unidentified man is addressed as “Du” (you); in the years that followed he returned in the guise of the wizard Merlin, and after the liaison was resumed but subsequently broken off he is referred to as “the distant one” in a suite of unpublished “Songs of Farewell” from the second half of the 1930s. After Sachs had learned, in the winter of 1942-43, that the man had been killed (possibly on the Eastern front), she stylised him into the husband she would never have. Although she often pointed out that the Holocaust was the source of her writing, and later did not want to reprint or even make bibliographical reference to texts written during her Berlin years, parting was etched into her oeuvre at an early stage. One might even claim that if there is one theme that runs right through Sachs’ entire body of work, from the teenager’s late-romantic poems to the mature writings of the Nobel laureate, it is precisely parting. The trauma suffered by the seventeen-year-old presaged, at the individual level, what the Shoah would wreak at the collective level.
The erotic traits with which Sachs had at first depicted the beloved disappeared over the years. Instead he took on a dustless, almost superhuman character and became “the great anonymous”, who belonged in a dimension of existence that could only be reached through pain and suffering. A couple of other fragments of dramatic poetry — including “Invisible Work” — show how Sachs sought new forms for this motif that never ceased to captivate her, while the lyrical prose drama “Ice Grave” inverts the perspective and concentrates on the female character. The text was inspired by a discovery in the Andes that Sachs read about in the newspaper. On one of the many expeditions carried out in search of the Inca treasure during the years around 1960, an Indian girl was found frozen into the ice, “fresh as life and yet dead”. The transparent but impenetrable tomb became, for Sachs, a symbol of how loving longing could survive distance in time and space — a version of Snow White or the Sleeping Beauty, pictured in the scrapbook she had inherited from her mother and in which she often sought ideas for texts. The late poem “1825” turns the motif around. The text is based on the tragic life of the young Russian countess, Mariya Volkonskaya, of whom she had read before the first world war and claimed, in the postscript to her collected plays, that she had been seventeen years old when fate struck. (Volkonskaya had in fact been nearly twenty, while Sachs herself had been seventeen years old when she was left.) In a couple of newspaper articles she had cut out and brought with her on her flight it was reported that the countess had abandoned everything to follow her husband, the general and Decabrist Sergei Volkonski who had failed to overthrow the tsar and, following a trial, had been banished to Siberia. For Sachs, his young wife became a symbol of self-sacrificing love.
Other unpublished texts, such as the speeches at the award ceremony in Meersburg in 1960 and the Nobel banquet six years later, show how she built a world view founded precisely on the experience of parting and loss. The void that remained after the flight to Sweden came to form the origin of her oeuvre. In this connection, the three-page manuscript “Urpunkt” is of particular interest. The text is made up mostly of quotations from the writings of Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem. Setting out from Jakob Böhme’s words “the nothing is a craving after something”, which Sachs likely read in the context of the Holocaust, she tries to gain an understanding of the world after the catastrophe with the help of concepts borrowed from Jewish and theosophic mysticism. In Scholem’s annotated translation of the first chapter of Zohar, the preeminent document of the Kabbalah, she found a matrix which must have matched her own conception of creation:
The Urpunkt is an inner light whose purity, fineness and clarity isn’t measurable with any finite measurement, before an evolution became discernible. However, the evolution of this Urpunkt became a palace because the point was surrounded by a light which is [still] immeasurable due to its great clarity.
Sachs owned two copies of the book, and she made underlinings and comments in both, as well as pressing flowers between the pages. Anyone consulting the copy which is included in the literary estate at Kungliga Biblioteket will find that she made a prominent dot in the margin where the quoted passage begins — as if to mark the seed from which everything would grow. Literally.
All of the texts in this selection have been taken from Nelly Sachs, Werke, published 2010-2011 by Suhrkamp Verlag, in four volumes. (The annotations in this edition describe the background to individual works and also explore allusions, quotations etc.) Several of the translated texts are also commented on in the illustrated biography, Flight and Metamorphosis (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012); only the known or assumed year of origin is specified here. Warm thanks are due to Margaretha Holmqvist. This book is as much hers as it is mine.
Translation from Swedish by Tomas Tranæus
© Aris Fioretos och Ersatz Förlag, 2010
Aris Fioretos | Foreword 7
Selected Poems 15
Night Letters 49
Notes, Continued 81
Life under Threat 99
We Are All Meant 111
When in 1940 I . . . 114
Speech at the Nobel Prize Banquet 116
The Caterpillar 123
Ice Grave, or Where Silence Speaks 127
Dream Ballet Is Mimed 132
The Great Anonymous 141
Invisible Work 160
The Green Ballet 163