Beyond the Alps: The Forgotten Legacy of Three Swiss Writer-Travelers
The impulse to travel or live abroad emerges from two sides: the push and the pull. The thrill of the road, the exoticism of foreign climes, the famous back alleys of an old town, the spurring of a lover who finds small hotel rooms and incomprehensible menus "romantic," and myriad other reasons lure the traveler out of his or her humble home. The push factors are often easier to categorize -- the shipwreck of personal circumstances or the deadly weight of routine stand as enough reason to get out.
Consider Switzerland. "In Switzerland they had brotherly love. They had 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." Orson Welles's famous words from Graham Greene's screenplay for The Third Man. Greene, an intrepid traveler in his day, may have penned the ultimate word about Switzerland. But before he could cut the Alpine country down to size, three Swiss writers had already taken to the road, found wilder climes, told the tale, and, in two of the three cases, died in absurdly mundane fashion.
The three women in question -- Isabelle Eberhardt, Ella Maillart, and Annemarie Schwarzenbach, each born in Switzerland, each finding their inspiration in other lands, each writing in the first half of the twentieth century -- served both as counterexamples to Greene's claim and as proof that for the country's thinking daughters, nothing mattered more than leaving. The three pioneering travelers visited lands that would shine on the most daring adventurer's passport, clashed with governments and political crises, and diverged from convention at just about every turn. And for all that, in writing about it all, they managed to produce something that, while maybe not as well known or, hell, as enduring as the cuckoo clock, is certainly more exciting.
"Despite all their faults and the complete obscurity they live in, the most insignificant Bedouins are far superior and far more bearable than the imbecilic Europeans that poison the country with their presence." -- Isabelle Eberhardt, Journaliers
Eberhardt's image drifts across the past century like a phantom. A polyglot with ties to at least four different nationalities, an autodidact with a distaste for civilization, a European woman who disguised herself as an Arab man and took lovers unabashedly, a bastard child and ultimately an orphan, Eberhardt was not an easy figure to pin down. But in the books she left behind, one finds a passionate, intelligent, and Romantic traveler who constantly, as Paul Bowles titled his translation of her work, sought oblivion.
Eberhardt was born in Geneva in 1877. The sixth and last child of Nathalie de Moerder (née Eberhardt) -- she a Russian of German origin who had left her Russian general husband for an aristocratic Ukrainian, Isabelle's eventual, illegitimate father -- Isabelle grew up in a household full of inspiration, raised among revolutionaries. She was taught French, Russian, and a plethora of ancient languages, and allowed to dress up as a boy. Her father bought a chalet outside Geneva that became a haven for foreign "students" from the fringes of the West -- Greece, Armenia, Tunisia, Turkey, Russia -- who wanted to remake the world in socialist or anarchistic fashion. Meanwhile, Isabelle's half-siblings fled the house one by one to join the French Foreign Legion, get married, or desert the Foreign Legion. Isabelle relished the writings of Pierre Loti, Eugene Fromentin, Lella Zeyneb, and Lydia Pashkova, the last a globetrotting Russian who, like Eberhardt's mother, married a Russian general, and who inspired both Nathalie and Isabelle with her tales of the Orient.
This inspiration led Isabelle and her mother to visit Algeria. The two moved to Bône (modern-day Annaba) and converted to Islam. This trip then took a tragic turn that would launch Eberhardt's career: her mother died. After seeing her buried there, Eberhardt took off on a horse for Tunisia, disguising herself as an Arab man, Mahmoud Saadi. She basked in the world she would love, live, and die in, hidden in plain sight.
Eberhardt's Journaliers starts with her back in Europe, hard up for money, facing down her mother's debts, and dreaming of a return to North Africa. "Who will give me back the silent nights, the lazy rides across the salty plains of the Rir'h oued and the white sands of the Souf oued?" she asks from Sardinia, where she is holed up with a lover. She plots out future trips and books from Geneva while spending a "Russian summer." Arabic and Russian phrases dot her otherwise French writing. So does her mother, the white spirit, always watching. Europe is Eberhardt's "land of exile," and she manages to escape at last and return to Algeria, first to Algiers and then to the east of the country, most notably El Oued.
In the small, Saharan city, Eberhardt finds religion -- joining the Quadriya sect of Sufi Islam. She finds independence, saying, "I am far from the world, far from civilization and its hypocritical comedies." She found love when she met Slimene Ehnni, an officer in the colonial army. "Alas, my soul has aged," she says. "It does not delude itself anymore and I can't do anything but smile at the dreams of Slimene's young soul, which might not believe in eternity, but at least does in the infinite life of earthly love." In much of Eberhardt's writing, she dons the charming guise of a youth who is convinced of her lost youth, dramatic in her wisdom. Her mood swings from spiritual ecstasy to gloom and depression and she broods on death often, forever expecting some early end.
But as dramatic as her prophecies were, they also proved accurate. She first had a brush with the other side in January 1901, when a member of a rival sect attempted to assassinate her, an event that reads like an Algerian gang hit a century later.
Suddenly, I received a violent blow on the head followed by two others on the left arm. I re-lifted my head and saw in front of me a poorly dressed individual, a stranger to the group, who brandished a weapon above my head that I took for a club. I got up quickly and jumped towards the far wall to grab a saber of Si Lachmi. But the first blow had fallen on the top of my head and dazed me. So, I fell on a trunk, feeling a violent pain in my left arm.
Somehow, Isabelle recovered physically, mentally, and spiritually. She endured a period of what she called "incubation," where her soul could grow through the pain and idleness. She held no feelings for her would-be assassin except a profound pity. The most significant and painful outcome from the affair came at the resulting trial, where she was exiled from colonial Algeria (while her assailant was sentenced to twenty years of labor). To return, she had to wait for and then marry Ehnni.
It only took three more years for the prophecy to be fully achieved, however. After returning to the country and eventually finding work as a reporter and journalist for various French-language newspapers, in which she caused controversy with her espousal of anti-colonial views, Eberhardt fell sick in Ain Sefra, a small town near the Moroccan border. For a traveler and lover of the Sahara, Eberhardt found death in a most ironic fashion: lying ill in bed, she was overtaken by a flash flood in the desert town. She was twenty-seven.
Eberhardt's work -- none of which, aside from her journalism, was published during her lifetime -- quickly built her legend. The collection of short stories, travelogues, and journals was scant, but, when attached to her compelling biography and tragic death, gained attention and established her as a key voice of Algerian-French literature until World War II.
The meta-story was great, but Eberhardt's writing itself was in its early stages, still working through stereotypes and overly classical tales of forbidden love, revenge, and exoticism. In Amours Nomades, for example, she begins with "Amara the Convict," about a recently freed murderer who vows to kill again if he crosses the family who killed his horse. "The Portrait of Ouled Nail" follows a woman who married too young, falls in love with another man, and then loses him to the South and mourns as he forgets about her. Eberhardt wrote like a knowledgeable and sympathetic outsider, but one not yet able to fully inhabit her North African milieu. To use the old Borges formulation, her work on the Arab world featured a few too many camels.
And despite that, her writing not only showed potential but at times lived up to it. In the last story of the collection, "The Paradise of Waters," she tells of a vagabond hallucinating on his deathbed. He dreams of water, "beneficent water, blessed water of delicious dreams!" He goes mad at the steady drip from one of the gutters outside. He laments that no one in the world thinks of him, no one suffers from his suffering, and then quickly reproaches himself. "To be alone, that's to be free, and freedom was the only happiness accessible to the vagabond's nature... a great peace, melancholy and sweet, settled into his soul." Moments later, that soul leaves his body and flees for the eponymous paradise. Eberhardt, with taste, precision, and an understanding of the madness of sickness and the vagabond, ultimately nailed the prophecy of her death she had so long been working on.
"I am glad that I left home when I was young and followed the wake of the subtle Ulysses, glad to have lived the sea and the desert instead of helping father to air the silky softness of the deep sealskins, to value the bunches of ruffle-tailed silver foxes or by trying on the latest modèles de Paris -- glad I accomplished most of what I set out to do: once and for all I know how short-lived the joys of vanity are." -- Ella Maillart, The Cruel Way
Were one to choose one woman, from this article or the world at large, to emulate, Ella Maillart would be a great choice. A writer, traveler, athlete, enlightened soul, and possibly an insufferably perfect companion, Maillart lived a life of accomplishing what she wanted to do, no matter how unusual or difficult that task was.
Maillart was born in 1903 to a stoutly bourgeois family, and spent the rest of her life living it down. Spurred by the horrors of World War I and her father's threat that if Ella didn't work for him, her only recourse would be marriage, she fled into a life of adventure. She founded a field hockey club and became captain of the national team, sailed around Europe as a sailor for hire, taught French in Wales and English in Berlin, competed against sixteen men in the 1924 Olympics in single-handed sailing (taking ninth), and found no end to her available paths or abundance of talent.
Nevertheless, she grew restless. All these feats, achieved before she hit twenty-five, were in or based around Continental Europe. Her thoughts turned East. "Ever since I could think, I thought, 'I have to go to Moscow, the Russians living in unforgettable times,'" she wrote. So, with help from the USSR consulate in Paris, the ostensible aim of studying Soviet sport and film conditions, a Russian grammar book and an émigré cab driver, and $50 from Charmian London (Jack's widow), she got on the train from Berlin to Moscow. Parmi La Jeunesse Russe was the immediate result.
This trip and book set the tone for much of the rest of Maillart's life and career. Writing was never her strong point; she tended toward extensive, unadorned documentation that often highlighted her anthropological interest of the places she traveled and the people she met. But if anyone could get away with recounting her travels in rote fashion, it was Maillart. Between her adventurous spirit and her knack for getting herself into unique situations, she never had to do much embellishing to make her stories entertaining.
Maillart begins by finding a room in Moscow with Countess Tolstoya, daughter-in-law of that Tolstoy. She joins a rowing club and gets thrown on the top team despite, "not having a month of training behind me like the others," nevertheless holding her own. She frolics with teammates on Sparrow's Mount below the university and mingles with citizens in stolovayas, the good comrade's cafeteria. When she tires of Moscow, she heads for the Caucuses with a mountain-climbing group, the born and bred Alpinist usually leading the pack.
Maillart also leads herself into an unfortunate encounter between a sheepdog and her leg. As she and a companion bandage the wound, she's faced with a choice: continue the hike to and past the peak, a thirty-three-kilometer march, or turn around and give up.
Yes, the others could do nothing for me. One must count only on oneself... A few steps... Only daring to put weight on my toes, as my calf muscle has been suddenly shortened. But if I could make four steps I can do double that, and then double that!
I will continue.
Maillart's book came under criticism when released in 1932. The Soviet Union was still viewed as both an enigma and an ever-present threat in that tense period in history. Maillart is to some degree a credulous visitor; she is impressed by the sheer magnitude of the country's industrializing and modernizing ambition. The vibrancy of the youth she meets charms her. And she cannot hide her disgust for the double-chinned men and blabbering women she meets on her return to the West. But this criticism missed two points: first, that she was far more concerned with the marriage customs of the Svanes or the technical jargon rowing coaches used than she was about the political situation; and secondly, that she wrote plenty of cracks into this pristine picture. She tells of a friend at the rowing club (and a potential suitor, perhaps) who laments that he can't travel until the end of this five-year plan. She conspiratorially reveals a cinematic trick in Eisenstein's Potemkin. And she keeps her wits about her: "Are you a member of the Party," an awkward friend asked her. "No, Betty, I'm a dirty bourgeoise." Once her friend believes her, she asks, "So, are you one of those who doesn't work?"
Maillart's not working continued through many more journeys. There was her grand solo trip to Turkestan (chronicled in Turkistan Solo), her trek across the whole of China with Peter Fleming (Forbidden Journey), and her drive from Switzerland to Afghanistan in 1939, just before War engulfed Europe.
The Cruel Way recounts the last of these audacious undertakings. The idea of two people driving directly through Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan to land in Kabul of all places would impress the most badass Marco Polo wannabe; doing it with eighteen horsepower, on gravel and sandy roads, and with pre-modern border controls and customs (in all senses) veritably boggles the mind.
While Maillart's observations on the various places they visit and the people they see are on point as always, the central drama of The Cruel Way belongs to Maillart's companion, Christina. A fellow Swiss writer and a recovering morphine addict, Christina agreed to go with Maillart to escape, "this country where I no longer find any help, where I made too many mistakes and where the past weighs on me too heavily." Maillart, older and sturdier, tries to nurse her along, hoping to crack her desire for suffering and pain. "First I must discover why again and again she chose the complicated, cruel way of hell." But Christina relapses several times en route, and Ella wears down under her burden. The two manage to make it to Afghanistan successfully, but their relationship frays and suffers.
"You puzzle me," says Christina at the end of their trip, "I don't understand how you love me."
"I don't know myself," Maillart responds, "but I think I now see very clearly something great in you. Is it perhaps what people mean when they say they love someone 'in God'?"
Worn out from the trip and eager to avoid Europe during the war, Maillart stayed in India for the next five years, studying with spiritual gurus and writing. After the war, she moved back to Europe. She would spend the last fifty years of her life between her home and South Asia, frequently visiting or leading trips to India, Tibet, and Nepal. She'd outlived most of the push factors that thrust her out of Switzerland, and Maillart found endless reasons to keep traveling. She died in 1997, at the age of ninety-four, in her home in Switzerland.
"I have tried to live in Persia in every way. I haven't managed it. All around me, I saw people who were just trying to live too. They fought the same dangers, and as long as the dangers were real, everything was fine... Some day, you roused yourself, but how long would it last? Because then came the moment of intangible danger: moral resolutions could no longer be made, and pulling yourself together no longer worked." --Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Death in Persia
If Eberhardt is the mysterious rider in the night of this group and Maillart the wise woman on the mountain, Annemarie Schwarzenbach is the tragic heroine. Despite achieving the most fully realized and accomplished oeuvre of this group, she struggled all her life with addiction, identity, and depression. Her life was, like Eberhardt's, cut short in implausible fashion. She traveled across many of the same countries as Maillart; indeed, she is Christina in Maillart's The Cruel Way, the pseudonym forced on Maillart by Schwarzenbach's mother.
Schwarzenbach was born in 1908 to an upper-class Swiss family. As a child, she bore the weight of her mother Renée's force; the elder Schwarzenbach had always wanted to be a boy, and dressed Annemarie as one into her teens. Annemarie too sought to reject her bourgeois upbringing, but the maternal dominance in her life was not as benevolent a force as in Eberhardt's writing. Schwarzenbach sought to throw off these reins, even as she needed her mother's protection, weeping for her at times.
The first step Schwarzenbach took to break free from this orbit was to move to Berlin in 1931. She had met two of Thomas Mann's children, Erika and Klaus. The Mann children were forceful influences on Schwarzenbach politically in espousing antifascist causes, as fellow writers, and as open homosexuals, encouraging Schwarzenbach to pursue her own, similarly aligned desires. They also introduced her to morphine, a habit that, combined with Schwarzenbach's penchant for depression, would challenge her for the rest of her life.
Schwarzenbach launched her writing career from Berlin. She first published Freunde um Bernhard (Schwarzenbach, unlike Eberhardt and Maillart, wrote in German), and then further established her reputation as an original writer with Lyric Novella. The book was a modernist spin on the classic scenario of a boy pursuing a pretty woman in forlorn fashion. The writing is swirling and mildly obscure, weaving through the dark alleys of Weimar Berlin. Sibylle, the woman our protagonist pursues, is also a curious one, a Cabaret performer, "like a Gothic angel except a trace more boyish because of her narrow hips." Sibylle uses the protagonist, has him drive her places and buy her drinks without ever conceding on the romantic or sexual fronts. And then there is the bombshell for the time, Schwarzenbach admitting upon publication that, "the hero was not a hero, not a young man, but a young woman." It's no wonder that the book, published in Germany in 1933, did not achieve the success it merited.
Between the political turmoil building in Europe, her own personal struggles, and a riff that emerged between her mother and the Manns, Schwarzenbach had every reason to leave. After a few continental trips, she began traveling to Iran, often working as an assistant on archaeological digs. The country's vastness and overbearing sense of inertia accorded with her frame of mind all too well, leading to some of her most profound and acclaimed work, including Das Glückliche Tal and Death in Persia. She even married while in Iran; her husband, French diplomat Claude Clarac, was gay as well. She also traveled to the U.S. and the Soviet Union, building her reputation as a journalist and photographer while covering social and political issues, and continued to write as an anti-fascist activist in Europe.
It was only after a morphine-related breakdown and subsequent recovery that Schwarzenbach received and agreed to Maillart's proposed Afghanistan trip. All The Roads Are Open, the collection of newspaper articles and essays Schwarzenbach wrote on the trip, provides an interesting contrast both to Maillart's account of the trip and to Lyric Novella and Death in Persia, Schwarzenbach's only other works that have made it to English to date. Likely due to the intended commercial audience, Schwarzenbach writes much more hopefully. She is no less inquisitive than Maillart in her writing, whether in recounting the hitchhiking soldiers they picked up at the Iranian-Afghani border or wondering whether the mayor's daughters she dined with resented wearing the chador in public. But even here, her doubts come to light: in "Chehel Sotun," not published at the time (the name comes from a small Persian palace meaning "forty pillars"), she muses on Persia, Asia, travel, and writing:
I told myself I'd never return to Asia -- let Afghanistan remain a name... It seemed just as clear to me that I would never pick up a pen again, fill a page with writing. The profession seemed too onerous, a perpetual mirror of our unredeemed existence, which I was also so loath to accept and endure. Over and over again to meet the morning hour anew, the day, the ever-estranged world, to touch them and wring one word from your stricken heart -- and know: this will not last, this is the moment of parting, already forgotten. But, still exhausted and blinded by pain, you must set off again, and who will make it worth your while? Is it worth the effort?"
She ultimately did not have the time to answer her questions. After returning to Europe in the wake of this trip in 1940, she visited America again, eager rouse the American war effort. Instead, she roused Carson McCullers -- who became enchanted with her older, more worldly peer, writing of her "She had a face that I knew would haunt me to the end of my life... There was a look of suffering on her face that I could not define" -- fell into a difficult relationship with a Baroness, and attempted suicide. After an arduous hospital stay, she left the U.S. and traveled to Portugal and then the Belgian Congo, reconciled with Carac in Morocco, and returned at last to Switzerland. There, she met death no less absurdly than Eberhardt, dying from complications related to a head injury she suffered falling off a bike. She was thirty-four and left behind a formidable if incomplete body of work, one her mother continued to control and repress long after Schwarzenbach's death.
The literary legacy of these three writers has not been especially enduring. Eberhardt was, as mentioned, widely popular in the French-speaking world up until World War II, and had her work translated in a number of languages, including at last English in the 1970s. A French film about her life came out in the 1990s, and a burst of reissues emerged a decade ago, marking the centennial of her death. Schwarzenbach was largely forgotten in Switzerland until the late 1980s, at which point she became something of a touchstone for European bohemians and hipsters, leading to the recent publication of her works in English for the first time. Maillart's legacy has been the most enduring, perhaps in part because she lived longer and in part because some of her works were written in English; The Cruel Way too is to be reissued this year.
It's difficult and fruitless to discern whether or not the trio "deserves" to be better known. Maybe it's better just to say that in an age where travel seems both hopelessly easy and terribly regimented, and travel writing seems to be an exercise in triviality and needless bravado, there exist three examples of how to travel boldly and humbly, and how to give oneself over to living to tell the tale, or to die trying.