It's difficult to begin any discussion of German Surrealist Unica Zürn's work without first acknowledging the ongoing personal terror that was her life. Hers was a life spent under unending torment, beginning with acts of sexual abuse inflicted by her brother and ending a short 54-years later when she jumped out of her apartment window, an act that she would foreshadow directly in her writing years before. Her ongoing state of clinical depression and trauma can be felt in the space and language of her writing, which she seemed to wield in mortal fury, pressing back all of the horror and anxiety into a mode of work that is full of fury, almost physical, destructive, and as beautiful as it is severe.
Zürn was born and raised in Berlin-Grunewald in 1916. She was employed as a secretary during World War II by the Universum-Film-AG, a film corporation consolidated by the Nazis and used for the creation of propaganda films. Unaware at the time of the true nature of Nazi enterprises, Zürn was horrified when she later learned the full scope of what she had been involved with. It was a shock that would haunt her for the rest of her life, imbuing her work with a continuous sense of self-deprecation and loathing, ongoing schizophrenia-inspired visions of death and hell. Her personal life following the war continued just as darkly: she would marry and have two children, only to eventually be divorced, and lose custody of the children due to her escalating mental trauma. Later, after remarrying the surrealist painter Hans Bellmer, she would undergo multiple unprofessional abortion procedures, resulting in lasting physical and emotional complications. The final ten years of her life were spent in and out of psychiatric hospitals, suffering ongoing depression and bouts of hallucination, during which she received treatment from the same psychiatrist as Antonin Artaud. She would attempt suicide multiple times before her death in 1970.
And yet despite her ongoing mental issues, Zürn's vision as an artist could not have been more pronounced, definitive, a product of great will under duress. Zürn wrote and drew prolifically throughout the second half of her life. Among her surviving body of work (she was known to destroy some of her own pieces in fits of rage) are poems, drawings, paintings, prose, and perhaps her favorite form of exploration, anagrams. Like other surrealists, Zürn loved the idea of automatic writing, finding meaning or even just visualizing shapes of sound from games of wordplay. As a result, her writing often slips into fugue-state passages which intermingle with the more personal themes she became concerned with—childbirth, sexual awakening and damage, death. In the end, she became an important part of the surrealist movement alongside her friends Max Ernst and Man Ray, and for me remains one of the more vital of those, given her penchant not just for sublime associations of the uncanny, but for the natural madness of it, the unwillingness to separate the brutality of life from its bizarreness.
The most recent translation of Zürn's work into English is a slim novella released this summer, The Trumpets of Jericho. Like much of Zürn's prose, it bears direct resemblance to her actual life—in this case obviously labored with Zürn's complicated history of motherhood—and yet its clear, if intentionally macabre, perspective is but a gateway to a world of feverish serial nightmare. The narrator, a woman for some reason stranded alone in a tower haunted by ravens and ghosts, is pregnant to the point of sickness, unable to feel anything but loathing for the "bastard, whom I hate with all my strength." The narrator's description of her desire to end the life of the child inside her before it begins, or at the very least to force it out of her prematurely, is harrowing and full of certain pain, but so evocatively written that you can't help but be drawn through.
"He who has sucked all the strength from my flesh and bones day after day for nine months," Zürn writes, "he will die slower than a snail can move, limpingly covering a thousand-mile trail. And I will ceremonially pack his tattered, bloody remains in seven different packages and send them to my last seven lovers. Maybe he is equally the son of all seven? Since these men could only sire a single son." One can see in the sonorous playing of Zürn's phrasings how even these blackest ideations of her imagination are played out.
Unfortunately for the child, even after the narrator induces birth by pulling it out of her womb by hand, the world that he is born into is no less treacherous. The mother wants to bury the baby alive, but is "too tired to climb down the 88 steps" to leave her tower, and anyway there's almost nowhere left that she could carry on the act, seeing as "our Earth is mucked with corpses." All that is left, then, is to be subject to the mother, and her unending series of plague-like visions, strings of horrid daydreams, as she lies around "motionless in my own filth." Simple acts like getting up and cleaning the blood off their bodies become monstrosities of the narrator's imagination, incurring flashing descriptions of the death dreams that she feels and awful voices that she hears. Each sentence that occurs to her triggers further awful tableaus of imagination, like dreaming while awake, under which both she and the child seem to disappear as the book continues piling on one fugue-plagued scene after another.
We then, as readers, become dragged on into the hell itself. Gorgeous, if sickly, descriptions bearing imagery and ideas such as finding Satan stuffed and put on display in a museum, unseen figures drowning in ashes, laws against praying, murder of animals, altogether bleed into a monologue that is as dazzling in expanse as it is unnerving in effect. Philosophical snippets become amputated in gibberish, prophecies of death and anguish lopped off in mid-vision and veered over into cubist-like images that offer nothing but their own beauty, then are gone. Zürn controls the helm like a hellish little conductor of black symphonics, from which even the act of creation is no release. "Are you thoroughly bored by my story?" she interrupts herself. "I promise you, I'm as bored as you are while I'm writing this. If you scratch your head right now, you might catch the Moloch under your fingernail."
Perhaps that's part of the point here: there is no release. As wild and transgressive as Zürn gets, clearly speaking from a place unchained by necessary logic or certainly anything like hope, it is solely the masterful mechanics of her writing, the dervishes of images that could be found absolutely nowhere else, that keep us going. Zürn denies nothing from admission, no black whim not invoked and splayed out, then just as quickly again abandoned, left behind; which in a culture as precious as ours has become, and surely in spite of itself, could hardly feel more alive.
Buy Trumpets of Jericho here.
Follow Blake Butler on Twitter.