The Scorpion by Anna Elisabet Weirauch
A bit of meta to start us off here: this is a trilogy of books originally published between 1919 and 1932. In the US, they were translated and released first as The Scorpion (which comprised the first and second parts) and The Outcast, and later together as Of Love Forbidden. This is relevant because they were translated by different people and, for some reason, they decided to change the main character’s name, so, for ease of access, I’m just going to refer to her here as “Metta,” yeah? (Lol, "meta" about "Metta.")
Some quick, non-specific thoughts: I thought this was a really good bildungsroman! Seeing Metta growing up and coming into her own as a person was so satisfying! I think this is, like, the first time I’ve really felt a loss of a friend after finishing a book, but, also, I’m just so proud of her. She doesn’t see the changes in herself, but she begins to stand up more for herself, while still being a charming and frankly anxious mess.
To be honest, I think this was written for a very specific type of person living in 1920’s Germany, and there are pages and pages that just discuss topics like the character’s favorite German Romanticism authors and other culturally specific things that I just don’t have the context for. There were also multiple times where Weirauch would off-handedly mention something that would send me off into a Wiki rabbit hole for hours. But, also, I don’t think I’ve ever personally related more to a book in my life.
Before we get into the meat of it, I also think the sense of humor is definitely worth noting. In the first book, especially, everything is taken to such an emotional extreme. For example:
She had a feeling as if it were now her duty to do something infinitely great. It seemed to her as if Olga Rado must now rise before her in super-human greatness and demand some heroic deed of her.
Metta felt a holy determination to jump out a window at the slightest word, or to pierce her breast with a dagger and to proffer her palpitating heart in her own two hands.
They could be in a silent room having dinner, but everyone is just perpetually screaming internally – it’s great.
I also think it’s important to jump into a bit of cultural context here. Meghan C. Paradis’s article, “Shifting Understandings of Lesbianism in Imperial and Weimar Germany,” explains how this novel was written during a time with a critical shift in the conception, both personal and of society, of lesbians; particularly, between Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s idea of sexual inversion, in which homosexuals were either a “third sex” or “souls born in the wrong body,” and Freud’s belief that homosexuality comes from psychological factors, such as being mistreated or traumatized as a child (Paradis). I think Paradis summarizes it really nicely, at the end:
In early contemporary Germany, a lesbian could only explain herself as either a damaged woman or not a woman at all.
As painful as this is, it is critical to remember that these understandings resonated with many contemporary lesbians, and helped them make sense of themselves, when no other explanations were imaginable.
In the modern day, unfortunately, it seems like we haven't really fallen away from this idea... There's still constant discourse about how lesbians inherently are disconnected from femininity and have complicated relationships to gender and sex...
Another major thing that was going on at the time was an extreme increase in suicide rates, throughout Germany and Austria. According to Paradis, part of this was due to the results of the First World War, but also, because suicide statistics were only just starting to be collected and published in the news. Now, suicides were strongly connected to current events and considered by many to be “a sign of the times.”
Paradis later describes how many authors at the time were including suicides and suicidal themes in their works to try to exacerbate political change. She says:
Suicide became such a popular trope that a character in Vicki Baum’s popular novel, Grand Hotel, exclaims, “My God, does everyone have a tea cup of veronal [poison] ready?”
She stresses that, though, while lesbian women had particularly high rates of suicide, it was due to societal intolerance of homosexuality rather than any other psychological reason, which is a big deal because, at the time, they were trying to decide whether homosexuality itself was a mental illness or not.
For this book, Paradis discusses how Metta doesn't really find herself falling into either of these categories: she's neither particularly masculine, nor has she suffered trauma of any kind. She's just simply a woman who loves other women, a lesbian.
This is the summary section, so there are going to be spoilers, yes? But I really, truly would recommend reading this for yourself, honestly, not even just as a “historically important lesbian book,” but as a really good coming of age novel (with a female protag, no less!). Please, I want to be able to talk about this with someone!!
Anyway, as previously mentioned, the series is split into three parts. The first focuses on:
- Metta crushing on various women and eventually falling deeply, deeply in love with Olga Rado (an older woman who was somehow vaguely related to her “friends”),
- her family doing everything possible to keep them apart,
- which eventually leads to Olga committing suicide.
Olga’s a really fun character, honestly -- I got strong Ms. Frizzle vibes from her, if that tells you anything. (Also, of an old English professor I had…) She also has a tendency to go off into crazy rants, like talking about how much she loves an old Romantic author (Fraulein Günderode), to the point of straight up astral projecting to be with her.
But, the most relevant quote is this, describing a cigarette case an old lover bought for her, with a scorpion on it:
”Do you know that it [the scorpion] is the only animal in the world that commits suicide? It does not let itself be slowly tortured to death by human curiosity and cruelty. It struggles like a mad thing, and when it knows that it is no longer possible to save itself, it kills itself. Isn't that wonderful?”
I was really confused by how jokingly and light-hearted suicide is treated here, but I guess today we say a lot of similar things, don’t we? …
The second part starts with Metta finally turning 21, old enough to take control of her familial estate, rather than leaving all the management to her horribly strict Aunt Emily. She sells her house and leaves her small town for the big city, Berlin!
She moves into a pension and spends most of her time, alone, reading. The only time she really ‘socializes’ for a long time is to go eat in the café, during which she talks about how anxious she is, just certain everyone is staring at her and judging her… But, somehow, she accidentally ends up part of a friend group and is invited to a party.
Here, Metta is introduced to a whole cast. Nora is like the queen, presiding over her guests, and Sophie, her loyal page, stays by her side up in the balcony… (I love them so much, by the way, omg! <3) Also, Gisela, a young woman who’s life has apparently been ruined from falling in love with Fiamma (remember that name for later!).
Things go down hill fast, and ultimately end up, after a long night of clubbing, binge drinking, gambling, and cocaine, with her putting Olga’s gun down her throat. Her landlord, Luisa, manages to stop her just in time, though, and suggests she move out to the country for a while, perhaps with Luisa’s folks.
Everything is quiet, cozy, and boring – Metta spends her evenings knitting with the old ladies. She doesn’t really feel content. She doesn’t really feel much of anything, in fact. Then, she’s invited to go on a vacation with Luisa’s sister and her boyfriend (because a girl and a boy going somewhere together would just be improper!). She actually has fun… until they ask if she wants to have a threesome.
Now, Metta wants to pull away from the world. More specifically, she wants her own house in the countryside! She doesn’t know how to go about actually doing this, though, so she decides to pay her old friend, Peterkin, a visit. He seems like he’s always had his shit together – he should be able to help.
Once she’s there, it turns out Peterkin’s neighbor is none other than the infamous Fiamma, the woman said to be made of ice, who destroyed Gisela’s life. They’re all talking and it turns out Fiamma knew Olga back in the day, as well…
Metta begins to obsess over Fiamma. Every moment that isn’t physically spent with her is spent thinking about her. After a long night of obsessing over her getting home from a party, she finally resolves to move into her own place as soon as possible. Fiamma insists on coming, too! And Metta is so excited! But that falls through. Then, Fiamma insists on visiting! And Metta is so excited! But that keeps turning out to be fake, as well.
Meanwhile, Metta has been getting her life together. As a rich girl, she’s never really done physical labor, but she started keeping up a garden and hiking and all these other things and feels really fulfilled… until she’s inevitably reminded of Fiamma.
After a lot of teeter-tottering (ridiculously so! this woman really is a sadist!), Fiamma finally does show up towards the end. Metta shows Fiamma her pea plants she’s so proud of, and Fiamma just looks at her: “Don’t you have someone to do that for you?” She’d rather talk about current plays than the beauty of the changing seasons. She’s too out of shape to hike… This is nothing like Metta had hoped at all… But Fiamma changes her tune suddenly on the last day she’s there (to manipulate Metta into feeling bad and wanting her to stay, even though she’s adamant on leaving!). A real piece of work!
Finally, this experience, along with her previous long talks with Eccarius (a friend from the pension in the second book), help her realize that:
”I must first learn to be alone. Every person should learn how to be alone. So that he should not, in his fear of lonesomeness, cling to someone and suffer on that account or make someone else suffer. Everyone ought to be sent to a school of lonesomeness before he attempts to live with anyone. Why, one must be stunted and stunt others if one has to go through life as a clinging vine.”
She spends some time alone. And soon, Eccarius and Peterkin decide to build their own houses nearby, and they play cards and chat, and all is well.
Seriously, I cannot emphasize how much I liked that! I’ve been reading so many bildungsromans lately and they’re all just so great and really fill a hole in my heart. <3
Weirauch, Anna Elisabet. The Scorpion. Translated by Whittaker Chambers. Olympia Press, 2007. Digital.
Weirauch, Anna Elisabet. The Outcast. Translated by Guy Endore(?). Olympia Press, 2008. Digital.