In a post on Inner Emigration I wrote about some German writers who continued to publish in Germany during the Third Reich. There were, of course, a number of writers who were forbidden to publish, but who continued to write and keep their production hidden away in desk drawers (Schubladenliteratur). The Catholic writer Elisabeth Langgässer had a Schreibvebot imposed on her as early as 1935 since she was a "Half-Jew"; only her marriage to the "Full Aryan" philosopher Wilhelm Hoffmann kept her from deportation to a death camp after 1942 (her daughter, Codelia, a child from an earlier marriage, was, however, deported to Auschwitz).
Langgässer began work on her masterpiece, Das unauslöschliche Siegel (The Indelible Seal), in 1936, but was not be published until 1946. It was quickly seen as one of the most important novels to appear in postwar Germany, and was praised by Hermann Broch and Thomas Mann, among others. The book is Langgässer's reckoning with Germany's descent into darkness, but it is hardly a work of historical fiction. Rather it is a strange variation of the Baroque Welttheater, where humans are incidental players in a grand struggle between God and Satan. The core plots take place between 1914 and 1927 in the a village in the Rhineland and in France, but the book ends with an Epilogue 1943, a one-act play that brings the action forward to the present. Langgässer disrupts the narrative with seemingly unrelated scenes, dialogues, letters - for example, Bernadette of Lourdes makes an appearance - interjections that contribute little to the plot line but serve to round out the "theology" of the novel.
The central figure in Das unauslöschliche Siegel is the converted Jew Lazarus Belfontaine, the representative of the enlightened bourgeoisie. Belfontaine had received the sacrament of baptism (the"indelible seal") not because he believed in Christ the Savior, but in order to marry a German girl. Still, he had, in his mind, lived a blameless life. And yet Belfontaine is tormented by his inability to believe, his absence of faith. And so, in the first book (the novel is divided into three books plus the Epilogue 1943), we watch Belfontaine descend into the abyss of despair as every aspect of his life - and the daily life of the village - nauseates him. The other characters take on supernaturally grotesque features (Broch called the novel a "surrealistic" book). At the end of Book One Satan appears in one of his guises to lead Belfontaine into a new life in France.
Book Two shifts suddenly to a French novel of intrigue, following a parallel story of the aristocratic Hortense de Chamant who, in despair, eventually gives herself over to Satan and drowns in the Seine. Hortense is involved in a lesbian relationship with Suzette, In Book Three Suzette is married off to the bigamist Belfontaine, who meanwhile has built a prosperous new life for himself in France. But even here Belfontaine cannot escape the wretched ennui of his existence until finally (by page 585!) God's grace enters his heart as a lightening bolt, and Belfontaine is transformed into a holy, wandering beggar, ending up in Germany with refugees fleeing ahead of the Soviet Red Army. In the Epilogue 1943, the book returns to the village in the Rhineland, now being firebombed, as the remaining residents realize their suffering is a consequence of abandoning God.
The pivotal chapter of the book comes at the midpoint of novel. Two German officers - who appear nowhere else in the novel- climb the tower of a French church and discover the manuscripts of Juan Donoso Cortés a nineteenth century Spanish writer and diplomat. Langgässer lifts entire passages from his "Ensayo sobre El Catolicismo, El Liberalismo y El Socialismo" to put forward her analysis on the origins of the "German Revolution" (the Nazi Third Reich). Donoso Cortes served the courts in Paris and Berlin, and was equally critical of both the French Revolution and Prussian Protestantism. In his writings he stresses the utter impotence of all human systems of knowledge to solve the existential problems of mankind and that the only salvation is "blind faith" -
" blinder Glaube" - a recurring theme in Das unauslöschliche Siegel. For Langgässer, Rousseau and the enlightenment thinkers, along with Martin Luther, were historical embodiments of Satan.
Das unauslöschliche Siegel made an impact on a devastated nation seeking answers for its trauma. Today it seems an historical oddity; despite some modernist novelistic techniques and frank discussions of sexual relations (both heterosexual and lesbian), the novel seems dated. There is no psychological development of the characters, since they are only introduced to illustrate the novel's "theology". Even Belfontaine does not receive God's grace through any self-insight although he is something of an anomaly in the book for recognizing the absence of faith in his life. Langgässer excelled in her description of nature (she was an accomplished nature poet) but was oddly cold in drawing her characters.
Despite the international "buzz" surrounding Das unauslöschliche Siegel when it was released, I cannot find any evidence that an English translation was ever published. Her next and last novel - Märkische Argonautenfahrt- picks up where Epilogue 1943 leaves off, and did appear in English as The Quest (Knopf, 1953).