Category: Fiction/Sketches – Paperback: 151 pages – Publisher: Persephone Books – Source: Kirkstall Bookshop, Leeds
First Published: 1983 in German, 1992 in English
Originally Published As: Wenn du geredet hattest, Desdemona in Germany / Translated By: Eleanor Bron
A surprising (but very useful) chance find in a secondhand bookshop last month, this was my first read for German Literature Month. The subtitle gives a feel for the book’s structure, ‘Eleven Uncensored Speeches of Eleven Incensed Women’ but it was flicking through the book and seeing the range of women included that led me to buy it. Though we tend to be suspicious of anger-driven texts here in England the variety of speakers included here and the humour throughout make for a very interesting read.
I was a little worried I wouldn’t know who some of the German women included were but luckily in the English edition each woman’s chapter is prefaced with a mini-biography to set the scene and background detail is given in each speech. In fact, you could easily read any of these speeches without knowing who the woman was beforehand.
So what are these women incensed about?
Well, Sappho is angry that the beautiful young women she has been training in music, poetry and philosophy are leaving her island to be married to brutish, stupid men with nothing more than strength to recommend them. The terrorist Gudrun Ensslin is contemplating suicide in her prison cell and hurling abuse at the prison guards for trying to stop the revolution she wishes to bring about. The religious leader Martin Luther’s wife Katharina skilfully argues points of theology with him in between wishing there were less hangers-on at their dinner table respectfully taking down his every word because sometimes he’s wrong… and she is struggling to feed them all day after day.
The Virgin Mary prays in the wilderness and sounds far older and more lonely than you might imagine. The fictional Effi Briest, Theodor Fontane’s variation on an Emma Bovary theme, discusses her ruined marriage and disgrace with her old, deaf dog Rollo. In medieval Avignon Laura is dying of the plague and is angry that Petrarch who loved her so violently and wrote such beautiful poetry for her has fled the city in fear of his life:
‘You don’t pick the figs, Petrarch, you just look at them, think about them, praise their sweetness and their bloom. Was I the fig that was ripening on the tree and now grows rotten and falls?’
I’m really surprised that this book doesn’t appear to be at all well-known. Each short piece (most are 10 pages or less) has a real sense of place, time and personality and all the pieces make for entertaining or thought-provoking reading. The issues discussed – religion, love, sex, betrayal, death, growing old, legacy – are timeless and several characters offer startling viewpoints that catch the reader off-guard: the first speech in the book is the prostitute Megara suggesting that the women of Athens shouldn’t go on a sex-strike to try and prevent war but should try to tire out their lovers so much they can’t face leaving their beds.
Apart from being an entertaining read in its own right this translation is by Eleanor Bron, an actress who put some of the speeches into a stage show, and it really does seem perfect for a stage production, teaching in drama classes, using in English Literature or History lessons about lost women’s voices etc. Every woman in here has been described, analysed and spoken for by a man for centuries and Brückner has perfectly captured the moment where the need to speak and be heard might have bubbled to the surface.
While Bron’s translation is a little clunky in places, a couple of repetitions of jarring words like ‘canny’ and a few colloquial phrases that didn’t quite belong, I think she’s honestly captured the spirit of the pieces and the flow of Brückner’s text.
If you see a secondhand copy of this one and are interested in plays, lost voices or just looking for sharply funny vignettes fuelled with earthy emotions, snap it up.
The women included are:
Megara speaking to Lysistrata about the futility of a sex-strike
Katharina Luther speaking to Martin Luther about theology, their marriage and him being wrong occasionally
Laura speaking to Petrarch about poetry, beauty and death
Christine Brückner speaking to Fraulein von Meysenbug about idealism, Utopias and women’s rights
Sappho speaking to her female students about love and the prospect of marriage
Christiane von Goethe, Goethe’s wife, speaking to Charlotte von Stein, Goethe’s muse
Gudrun Ensslin speaking to her prison guards about revolution, terrorism and the world she was trying to create
Effi Briest speaking to her dog Rollo about her failed marriage
Desdemona spending the last fifteen minutes of her life speaking to Othello in their bedchamber
Mary speaking to God about their son
Clytemnestra speaking to Agamemnon after killing him
Buy the book: Book Depository