The World's Best Unknown Books
21 03 2014

Parent book: Adelheid Duvanel - Short Stories

Lions of Literature: Adelheid Duvanel (1936–96)

Gilbert Alter-Gilbert

Swiss writer and artist Adelheid Duvanel grew up in Pratteln and Liestal in the canton of Basel, where she spent her entire life. She has been compared with Swiss poet Regina Ullmann on account of the thematic threads of loneliness and depersonalization common to the work of both, and she has been associated even more especially with Swiss writer Robert Walser, with whom she shares many uncanny similarities, including the manner of her death. Following a stiflingly oppressive childhood, she graduated from an arts and crafts school and apprenticed as a textile designer. During various periods, she held miscellaneous clerical jobs and served as a fellow in an opinion research institute. As a literary artist, Duvanel was an intimist practicing a type of “twilight writing” with elements of magic realism, the gothic, the grotesque, and the conte cruel. She specialized in cryptic, very short narratives, in which distended time, exaggerated emotional states masked by the absence of emotional expression, and alogical, non-sequential plot progressions combine in contemporary fables of psychosocial displacement and acute alienation. On the temporal and mnemonic planes, Duvanel is Proustian; she is Kafkaesque on the psychological level; her metaphysic is one of melancholy and forlornity. She is Walserian by virtue of a calculated offhandedness and pervasive understatement tempered by a direct and honest perspective embodied by characters who might be described as clairvoyant misfits. The resulting blend of childlike wisdom, holy folly, and recognition by characters of their inability to alter circumstance or shed the roles they have been assigned by life lends Duvanel’s work a flavor which falls somewhere between that of Carson McCullers and Christian Morgenstern.

Born Adelheid Feigenwinter, to strict and unimaginative parents—a stuffy, stiff-necked magistrate father and a repressed and repressive Swiss Catholic mother—Duvanel felt unloved and closed off from society from earliest childhood. Hypersensitive and often bedridden with mysterious “illnesses,” Duvanel developed attachments to household objects and articles of furniture, later referring to her bed as a “surrogate mother.” She began to exhibit symptoms of “deprivation” and “restlessness” and became highly agitated when familiar domestic items were rearranged or discarded. Already as a child, Duvanel displayed a vague but general “dissatisfaction” with life and, by the time she reached puberty, she went mute and closeted herself in her room for days at a time. Psychotherapy and intermittent hospitalization ensued. She was characterized as “shy and withdrawn, uncomfortable in social settings” and “unresponsive.” She drew avidly and wanted to train in the visual arts, but was instead enrolled in a Catholic boarding school. At seventeen, she was sent back to Basel unable to speak. She was subjected to electroshock therapy and insulin therapy in an effort to “cure” her aphasia, and underwent further hospital stays.

At age twenty-five Adelheid contracted a humiliating marriage to the loutish Swiss painter Joseph Duvanel, an abusive cad who demanded complete subservience from women. They were “expected to earn money and maintain the domicile” while he devoted himself to his artistic endeavors. He forbade Adelheid to paint and destroyed her artworks. While vacationing with her in Spain, he abandoned her and their three-year-old daughter and took up residence with a new flame he discovered on the far side of the island where they were staying. He began to refer to his new love-interest as his “wife” and eventually engineered a situation in which he, Adelheid, and her rival all lived together in Basel. While the second “wife” went off to work to pay the rent, Adelheid was expected to keep house, cook meals, and look after both her daughter and the young son of Joseph and the third member of the triangle. This ménage a trois persisted until Adelheid divorced her husband in 1985. After the incident in Spain, they remained separated for three years during which she became destitute and was reduced to stealing bread and rummaging in garbage dumpsters for scraps of food. Adelheid hoarded hundreds of expressionistic, often nightmarish drawings she made with felt-tipped pens. She sometimes sold the drawings privately but never showed them formally. “Bouts of unidentified mental distress” caused her to repair to the psychiatric clinic repeatedly. She was strung out on sleeping pills prescribed for chronic insomnia and she suffered from such physical pathologies as hepatitis, gallstones, arthritis and a thyroid condition. Joseph Duvanel’s mistreatment extended to his daughter by Adelheid: he ordered the fifteen-year-old girl out of their home because she was an AIDS-infected drug addict; the girl became homeless. Supremely passive, submissive, and uncommunicative Adelheid was so upset by this event that she had to be hospitalized. She was so shy that, at one public reading, she explained she had come from the clinic and would return afterward. When she talked about her troubled marriage, she did so without affect, as if she were talking about a third party. Joseph Duvanel eventually killed himself…

Adelheid had started writing stories at the age of seven. In the Shadow of the Madhouse, her first published effort, appeared when she was nineteen. Shortly thereafter she contributed to the newspaper Basel Messenger under the pseudonym Judith January. Over the course of her career, she dabbled with alternatives, but unswervingly favored the short story form. Her spare, stripped-down narratives are evocative and metaphor-rich and can be savored line by line, like poetry. Sullen, sardonic, simultaneously wistful and gloomy, Duvanel’s prose miniatures are twisted fairytales featuring pixie depressives nurturing secret griefs. Like Heinrich Mann’s Three-Minute Novel, Duvanel’s micro-texts comprise highly condensed psychobiographies chronicling the dismal lives of the futile, the unwanted, the barricaded, the disappointed. Ranging from the quaintly pathetic to the obdurately bizarre, the eccentric losers and semi-autistic outsiders populating this fiction inhabit a spiritually stagnant netherworld of loneliness and lovelessness, silence and solitude. Duvanel delineates their poisoned existences with an aplomb simultaneously coy and gut-wrenching so that it’s difficult to tell whether they are genuinely naïve or artfully contrived. Extra-lucid snapshots of skulking marginals the stars in whose eyes have been replaced by kryptonite fragments, Duvanel’s grim madrigals may be considered as modern mutations of traditional Scandic-Germanic marchen. One critic has likened reading a Duvanel story to witnessing a “slow fall from a window.” Another notes that the typical Duvanel character has a “soul that is too big for this world” and, laboring against the insurmountable clutch of circumstance, continues to maneuver “on fatally unstable terrain lulled by the false sense of security of a sleepwalker.” Vaguely disturbing, like portraits of crying clowns, Duvanel’s psychically stunted and emotionally crippled characters seem unaware of their own vulnerability, and are stuck in Sisyphean ruts of arrested development.

Duvanel had a special gift for suggesting personality traits with a single, incisive line. She often painted entire word-portraits with strings of such verbal razor strokes, chiseling into high relief paper-thin but densely meaty cross-sections of the fictitious entities she profiled. Like Swiss cheese, these psychological tissue samples are riddled with holes for the reader to fill, and have the tenuity and elasticity of dream. In these strangely desolate vignettes, there is a pervasive mood of dreary irreality and cheerless reverie, motives are irrelevant, and absences are felt much more than presences. Occasionally, the ptomaine-tainted atmosphere is punctuated by pained or pensive monologues but, for the most part, Duvanel’s hermetic fables are devoid of dialog. Perspicacious to a fault while, at the same time, constitutionally taciturn, shrinking violet Duvanel, according to one commentator, relied on silence to “keep her in a kind of protective custody” which “shielded her from betraying her shameful fear that she was a nonperson, belonging nowhere.” Sadly for Duvanel if happily for literature, the damage and warpage she suffered in her own life, and the diffidence and resignation with which she responded, translated into a marvelous literary art made from the stuff of dead relationships, foiled ambitions, broken dreams, mangled aspirations and tepid hopes soured, curdled and turned to scorn. With wry cynicism, Duvanel limned the lives of her edge-figures in colors occupying a place in the emotional spectrum somewhere between pathos and desperation. The microscopic observation to which Duvanel subjects her characters further heightens the impact of her highly concentrated narrative distillates by magnifying molehills into mountains. Human wreckage who can find no haven from the isolation and fragmentation of their splintered existences, Duvanel’s “lost characters follow zigzag movements, which never lead to a way out” of their personal hells and psychic labyrinths. They long to reach something, but they exceed what they can grasp. Duvanel knew what it is to feel misunderstood, to feel lost. She knew the ache of heartbreak and hopelessness, the involuntary nostalgia for something never known, the catalog of psychic insults apt to trigger the defense mechanism of dissociative detachment and its correlative, the craving for social integration. Duvanel knew all too well the somber brittleness and the embittered fragility of all those traumatized by the mere fact of living. She oozed a glandular sympathy from her inmost core for the inarticulate, the “out of place,” for those robbed of dignity, those swindled by love. In part, Duvanel used literary creation as a mode of healing. She strove to purge her own demons but also, by cultivating a garden of effigies in the rarefied realm of artistic imagination, to offer sanctuary to those who might otherwise go unnoticed, and prevent them from being perpetually consigned to a limbo of suspended animation, ghostly figures who slip between the cracks of the dominant societal edifice. Flawed, frayed, famished for affection, Duvanel’s accursed characters, condemned to exist under “the sign of distress,” cry for their author to confer on them a “second innocence” of which they remain forever bereft.

By 1996, Duvanel was living in “abject poverty” with her terminally ill daughter in a one-room flat. Her looks had been lost to maturity: her hair had grayed and fell in dowdy clumps over her forehead and bespectacled eyes and she had put on considerable weight. She was candid about her mistrust of the benefits of psychiatry. After suffering a spell of memory loss and disorientation, she consulted a neurologist who told her she had experienced a nonspecific brain malfunction that would cause blackouts of increasing frequency and duration. She dreaded the prospect of spontaneously losing cognition, she couldn’t imagine being no longer able to write, and she didn’t want to live as a helpless invalid. One summer evening, she rode by public transit to a park on the outskirts of the city where she had played as a child. The following morning a horseback rider discovered her lifeless body snuggled up next to a tree. The circumstances of her death are somewhat ambiguous. Officially, she died of “exposure”: though mid-July, it was cold overnight, and she was considered insufficiently attired to weather the nocturnal drop in temperature. She had swallowed a handful of sleeping pills and, drug-numbed, fallen unconscious beneath the boughs of her arboreal comforter. Her mental state at the time is unanimously conceded to have been one of general hopelessness and despondency. Her income was negligible, her readership tiny, she was beset by a multitude of infirmities, and had previously attempted suicide at least twice. Though she had published over one hundred stories in ten collections—Wind Stories; Grace Period; The Missing House; Walls, Thin as Skin; The Glasses Museum; The Letter Girlfriend; Anna and I; When My Mother Hute—and had won a number of literary prizes, she said “I only depress people, therefore almost no one buys my books.” Several decades earlier, the body of her charmingly eccentric countryman, Robert Walser, was found one morning frozen in the snow, after he had collapsed and expired during one of his nocturnal peregrinations.