No Judgment, No Message, No Mercy


Arts & Culture

At ninety-five, Maria Beig remains deeply underread in America.

Maria Beig in her garden, sometime in the 1980s. Photo: Rupert Leser

No one captures the brutality and pragmatism of rural life like Maria Beig, who turned ninety-five last week. One of thirteen children, she was born in 1920 on a farm in Swabia, a few miles from Lake Constance, a landscape that informs her startling fiction. She didn’t publish her first novel until she was sixty-two, after a lifetime of teaching knitting and home economics in provincial schools. (Young writers, take note—there is another path, if an unglamorous one.)

Her debut, Rabenkrächzen (Raven’s Croak), has never been published in America, but it unleashed a good bit of venom in Germany: Beig’s treatment of Swabia was an arrow that struck the bone, jolting the skeletal structure of a closed society. Those who know Beig’s work like to mention the crowd at an early reading in Ravensburg, not far from her home village, who shouted her down with cries of “liar!” and “nestbeschmutzer!”, which translates roughly to “spoiler of the nest.” She took herself out of the reading business after that. Jaimy Gordon, who has translated two of her novels into English, writes that “as a result, the brother who had inherited the family property forbade Beig not only his house but even the small village where she had grown up.”

Why this response? Perhaps it’s because Beig captures the low thrum of gossip and gesture that binds families that live alongside one another for decades, if not centuries. It’s a particular type of writing, the novel as village gossip, one of my favorite forms, calling to mind William Trevor or (the very different) Book of Ebenezer LePage, reveling in open secrets and horse-trader’s morality. Beig’s Swabia, though Catholic, bears an uncanny resemblance to my own territory of West Virginia. The silences. The intimacy. The people toiling to defy the seasons, with little more than rough humor and faith in God to see them through, never surprised at the next disaster. Beig’s brutality is no literary device. It has the ring of true experience, of a heavy coin dropped into a collection plate.

But more likely, Beig’s controversy arose her from her candid portrayals of women’s lives, which stems, in turn, from the difficulty she had finding her own place in her large family and, by extension, the landscape itself. Her father scolded her as a backward, dreamy child who couldn’t even mind the cows. In one wretched episode, she was sent off to live with childless relatives who could find no use for her and sent her back—even the child’s free labor couldn’t sweeten the deal. She suffered periods of deep, sometimes debilitating depression.

Her novel Hermine: An Animal Life is a bestiary of sixty-four animals; each chapter is characterized by Hermine’s interaction with a different beast around the farm, with titles like “Tom cat,” “Bear,” or “Mole Cricket.” In lesser hands this structure would be a novelty and oh-so-cute, but Beig is so unsentimental and unsparing that one cannot imagine the book any other way. Her animals are characters, not props; she accords them proper respect. They, like the humans, live in wait of the next disaster:

[The horse] shied at a foreign curse and raced downhill. The harness swung around behind it and struck mother’s three-year-old dead. Now, no human being warrants such hopes as a three-year-old. Then you marvel at its intelligence. Then its mischief has the purest charm. And so it’s especially hard for a mother to lose a child of that age. This one was still telling tales of her child fifty years later; he must have been lovable beyond the common run.

Just when she thought she must go mad with the pain, the next one knocked inside her belly for the first time. “Be still, you,” she thought resentfully. Then it began to kick and flail. Now, all this thrashing around made too stark a contrast with the huge peace that streamed from the child in his coffin. It made the mother angry: “I don’t like you, I don’t want you” … When it was time, she refused to think about bringing in some woman to help with the lying-in. She didn’t want to hear about having the little white-bread eggs baked that new mothers ate in those parts; the father wanted still less to trim the chaise for a baptism, or even to hitch up the wagon in the grand style to fetch the midwife … The little thing turned out to be a female. The mother was glad of that. Its ugliness pleased her too … No, this child had nothing in common with her lovely slain one.

The inauspicious child, of course, is Hermine, and the situation is typical of Beig’s protagonists—unwanted, ever on the edge of things, occasionally offered some curdled tenderness, only remembered on the farm when she proves to be a nuisance. One has the sense that Hermine is only looked in the eye when someone is scolding her. She is born bloody and without fanfare, and the great act rolls on:

The mother was looking forward again to her next child. She knew from the start that it would be a boy. Yes, he even looked like the other one, and got his name. And so they had him back again … It was remarkable: After the bristly little animal, the mother gave birth to just as many children as she had had before; for she was one of those who simply had the children as they came. All were handsome, strapping children once again. And they were most welcome.

Thus the chapter ends. But something must be done with Hermine just the same. The family is always trying to find a way to eject her, this dreamy, difficult girl. Could she be sent off as a schoolteacher? Could a suitor be found? Most of us spend our lives trying be the types who are eulogized as “beloved characters.” Hermine is striving to be a tolerated character. She does marry, finally, and becomes a schoolteacher. Peace does not come.

From the cover of the German edition of Hochzeitlose.

In the same vein, Beig’s novel Hochzeitlose, translated by Gordon and Blickle as Lost Weddings, traces the lives of four Swabian women in the era of the World Wars. It’s a collection of four novellas (“Babette,” “Helene,” “Klara,” “Martha”) about women who, by what seems like chance, never marry. Once they begin to age, the conservative social order responds with slow-burning bewilderment and disgust. The women must navigate their tenuous social presence, relying upon the caprices of priests and philanderers, annoyed relatives and suspicious friends, stationed soldiers and half-hearted suitors. The cumulative effect is astonishing. The poet Rosmarie Waldrop wrote of this book that “there is no sentimentality, no judgment, no message, no mercy.” The sentences are terse, the phrases staccato, and the cold bite of Beig’s clarity makes for a bracing experience.

I find myself wondering, Will anyone in America give a damn about Beig? It’s hard to imagine our glittering zeitgest machine ever getting behind her, with her landscape, her women, her knowledge of the secret lives of animals born for the hatchet. Her writing, so invested in the disappearing rural world, is particular, yes, but universal: her characters love and long and pine away. She would be totally unknown here if not for the good labor of the novelist Jaimy Gordon and her husband Peter Blickle, a German academic, who have translated and published Lost Weddings and Hermine for small presses. Beig’s other ten books, including her memoir, have never been translated into English; I’ve never seen a work of hers in a bookstore.

I’ve long hoped that some adventurous American press would take up Beig’s catalog and champion her work as it deserves to be, but that’s the type of triumph Beig would never allow in her fiction—too pat, too sentimental—and perhaps it’s fitting that she languishes, overlooked, as the women of Lost Weddings do. In spite of that, I’ll hold out for a happy ending.

Matthew Neill Null is a writer from West Virginia, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a winner of the O. Henry Award and the Mary McCarthy Prize. His debut novel, Honey from the Lion, was published last month.