IN THE BEGINNING: OBSESSION

Jon Frankel
Mar 17, 2015 · 6 min read

Like most obsessions my current project, the life and works of Marianne Hauser, had inauspicious beginnings. The headwaters lay in late September of 2014, when a friend sent me the link to a website called Writers No One Reads. It was a fascinating website with some strange authors I had never heard of, a few that I had. One was a guy named George Milburne, who wrote a novel in the 30’s about a town as seen through its catalogues called Catalog. I found that in my library, and took it out, but it remains a curiosity on my shelf of to be read books. And there was Marianne Hauser. The book mentioned was Prince Ishmael (1958), which is currently out of print, but was in print as recently as the late 90’s, when she was with Sun and Moon Press. Douglas Messerli, founder of Sun and Moon and current publisher of Green Integer had intended to publish her collected stories. She published two new novels with Sun and Moon: Me and My Mom and The Memoirs of the Late Mr. Ashley: An American Comedy. But Sun and Moon went belly up for reasons unknown to me and not discoverable with cursory Google searches. Anyway, that is getting ahead of myself. Once in the grip of obsession past and present are in a swirl of enthusiasm, a gale of psychic impulses and contrary winds that drift and blow about. Anyway, I took Me and My Mom, Shootout With Father (FC2), The Collected Short Fiction of Marianne Hauser (FC2) and The Talking Room (FC2) out of the library, because I was curious. The Talking Room interested me most, a novel written in the 70’s, about the pregnant child of lesbian mothers. That seemed really wonderful and off the wall, as it was described as a book of voices overheard by the protagonist/narrator, 13 year old B. These books sat on the pile at home, on my living room radiator. That pile has a lot of poetry on it. Hobsbawm’s essays on history. Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. The book I was reading and adoring was Louise Bogan’s Blue Estuaries.
Columbus Day weekend rolled around and the semiannual Friends of the Library book sale. As usual I got on line at 5:30 and waited until the doors opened at 8, when I and the other mad bibliophiles stormed the aisles in search of that bon bon of bookery, the impossible tome, the unicorn, the Loch Ness monster of novels or rose books, or mathematics or what have you. I did my usual route, starting with poetry, and then a ransacking of the hardcover shelves for books on my list, a crumpled piece of paper that starts out in an orderly, alphabetical notation of authors and ends in last-minute remembered scrawl. The last author I expected to find was Hauser. But there it was: The Talking Room, on the trade paperback fiction shelves. It was the only chill I felt that day. I knew I had to read this book.
I had other things to read: I was reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch. And then I started Great Expectations. I’m a slow reader. As fall turned to winter bad business took me to NYC, where I passed the time on the subway between the Upper West Side and Brooklyn with the Collected Short Fiction of Marianne Hauser. And these stories were incredible, beautifully written, surreal, funny. The introduction, written by a woman in her nineties, celebrated masturbation among other things. Fall turned to winter, Christmas passed. Finally the 19th century bricks worked their way through my system like a peccary through an anaconda. I read The Talking Room, and experienced an explosion of love. This was the most amazing book! It was profane, mean, funny, and so true. Its method, its style, and its story were perfect. Who was Marianne Hauser? I wanted to know.
There was no Wikipedia article. There was no website. There was an online biographical entry written by Larry McCaffery’s partner, Sinda Gregory. There was an online obituary/review by her one time publisher Douglas Messerli. I found an interview she did with McCaffery for The Mississippi review, and later collected in Some Other Frequency. And there was the University of Florida Archive, where her papers are kept. On that website I found a number of interesting things: a digitized 47 page autobiographical manuscript, with hand-written corrections, and a mention of her son, Michael Kirchberger, who donated the papers.
I decided to buy all of her books online. I ordered editions of Dark Dominion (1947), The Choir Invisible (1957), Prince Ishmael (the original 1963 edition), Me and My Mom, Mr. Ashley, and Shootout with Father. The books arrived. The Choir Invisible was inscribed and signed by the author. I felt heat in my neck.
Things stood there until one afternoon at work when I sent two emails off: one to Douglas Messerli, and one to the archive requesting contact information for her son. I got immediate replies. The archive had not spoken with her son since 2006, but had an email contact. I wrote immediately to him. Perhaps it is the lengthening days. Out of my head flew the plan: republish her out of print books, create a Wikipedia page, create a website, and write a critical biography. I have never done any of these things.
Messerli and Kirchberger replied immediately. Messerli said he would be happy to answer questions. Michael Kirchberger agreed to talk on the phone. I contacted my publisher, Miette, and she was enthusiastic.
I sent Messerli a list of questions that he has yet to respond to, probably because they were arrogant and naïve. It is an arrogant and naïve thing to do after all: who the hell am I to try to revive an obscure author? Aren’t these the feelings I have about myself? Shouldn’t I be promoting my own new book? Who cares. It just seemed (and seems) crazy that she is not better known. At least there should be a Wikipedia article. Because even a cursory biographical statement is extraordinary. Even if she were not a great writer she led an amazing life. That she was both feels like discovering a giant lump of gold in a garbage can. It’s not like she is unknown. Her first publisher was Random House. Her agent was Perry Knowlton, who became the executive of Curtis Brown. She was published by the major journals and newspapers of the 30’s-50’s, appeared in the Best American Short Stories of 1950, won an O’Henry Prize, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She counted among her many friends Anais Nin, Mary Sandoz and Marguerite Young. Before any of that, starting in 1932, when she was 22 years old, she wrote travel articles, primarily for an anti-fascist periodical in Switzerland. For 5 years she traveled around the world alone, living in China for year. She wrote and published two novels in German, before the age of 27.
In March of 1937 she was sent to New York by her Swiss publisher, Otto Kleiber of the Basler National Zeitung. Shortly after that she severed her ties with her Swiss publisher and started to write for Coby Gilman, the editor of Travel Magazine. He encouraged her to write her first novel in English, Dark Dominion. In New York she lived with her future husband, Fred Kirchberger, a German-Jewish émigré who was at Julliard and then in the US military. After the war they lived in North Carolina, Florida and Missouri, where he taught and she wrote The Choir Invisible and much of Prince Ishmael. In the early sixties she divorced and moved back to NY, where she lived until she died in 2006, at the age of 96.
When I talked to Michael Kirchberger for the first time he expressed enthusiasm for my project, even understanding how absurd it was, perhaps because of that. And really, the Wikipedia article and website are highly achievable. The reprinting of out of print works is more involved, but also doable. Getting an audience for those books and writing a critical biography will be far more difficult. They will only follow if the first three are accomplished.
With his permission I have been gathering sources and it is amazing even now how each avenue, each archive, each name opens up into a world of art and the life of an artist who lived her life absolutely on her own terms, and who cared nothing for what others thought of her.

    Jon Frankel

    Written by

    Writer of underground sci-fi noir novels, Specimen Tank (as Buzz Callaway), The Man Who Can't Die, and GAHA: Babes of the Abyss (Whiskey Tit Press

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