This text is an excerpt from Küss mich, Libussa ("Kiss Me, Libussa"), a surrealist lesbian novel which tells the story of Marie, an Austrian student who, studying abroad in Prague, falls in love with Libuše, an imperious literature professor who seems to have a secret sadness about her. In pursuit of her queen of hearts, Marie has a series of transformative erotic encounters, closely intertwined with the Czech art and literature she is studying. The novel's prose style draws on the imagery used by the Czech surrealists, while seeking to add to the German literary landscape a more explicit portrayal of desire between women, with Marie as a "queer Casanova." I was especially drawn to this excerpt for its breathless Sturm und Drang and the febrile atmosphere, which reminded me, among other things, of Arthur Schnitzler's Dream Novella (the basis for the movie Eyes Wide Shut). There's something special about seeing that setting become the backdrop to a lesbian love story; about reading a queer story that takes place in the types of buildings and streets that I recall from childhood. So much of the queer writing I read is set in the US, so it's pleasing to find a text in which European cultural identity and queer identity converge. While reading, rereading and then translating this excerpt, I was struck by the array of light-related imagery: from the "glinting" of the grooves of the parquet floor in the sunlight to the "flash" of Libuše's white cheeks, her "twinkling" earrings, beads of perspiration "shining" on her face. It made the encounter between Marie and Libuše feel as delicate and precious as the pearl earring Marie ends up pocketing as she heads out the door. I sought to preserve that sense of carefully-cradled promise in the translation.
At the National Theatre we got onto tram number 22, which carried us across the Vltava. Caramel-coloured light fell slantwise through the vibrating windows of the squealing carriage, and the reflections dancing on the waves of the Vltava caught on the fine scratches in the windows, so that they appeared to be decorated with icicles. In this light, all people were beautiful and everyone was happy and good. On the far side of the river, the barely-developed buds glistened greenish-white and soft-pink on the many fruit trees on Petrin Hill, full of anticipation for the coming spring.
I wanted to tell Libuše how beautiful everything seemed to me, how wonderful. But she—the queen—sat quite still on the seat in front of me and looked at the passing Vltava and the long rows of sunlit houses with a half-dreamy, half-focused expression, as if she was embarrassed to turn towards me. But she didn’t need to: her neck and her fragrant hair, and
every now and then the flash of her white cheeks, were a thrilling spectacle all by themselves. Perhaps she is letting herself be observed, I thought, perhaps she is not looking at me in order to let me look at her? Each time she smiled softly at the window, my heart contracted painfully, a lump rose in my throat and I didn’t dare say anything out of fear that I would be moved to tears by her beauty and her nearness.
A few stops later, in the Malá Strana district, we got off. We continued down Karmelitská Street for some time, and then turned into a narrow alley and headed steeply uphill. We couldn’t talk here, because the pavement was narrow, and buses and cars came rattling past us. I hurried after the queen and caught a clear view of her waist, which oscillated back and forth like a cello string as she walked. She took small, but very quick steps, as if she couldn’t wait to finally have me in her home. She kept her shoulders elegantly back, and her neck inclined slightly forward, as if she were an exotic bird with a well-preened coat of silver feathers, a bird which knows both the high north and the warmth of the southern countries.
I noted the glimmer of her small, dangling pearl earrings, which twinkled beneath her fair hair like gleaming peas, like teeth behind smiling lips.
The alley took us along the castle wall, and the cobblestones assumed the colour of the ivy which climbed up the façades of the houses. Amid the baroque buildings stood one Renaissance house with a typical black-and-white graffito façade. I felt as if I’d been transported back to my childhood, when almost every weekend I would force my parents to take me on a trip to Retz, near Vienna, a town whose main square is graced by a similar Renaissance building. The main thing I remembered about the façade of the building in Retz, however, was the depiction of heroes from antiquity, whereas the one here in Prague depicted allegories of life and death: skeletons held hourglasses in their hands and reminded passers-by and the residents of the house of the ephemerality of life.
Next to this building, right in the middle of the short alleyway, stood the house in which Libuše lived. We crossed the small garden with its clipped lawn and the hint of a rose hedge, still awaiting spring. She opened the heavy gate through which Miloš had gone before me, and we entered a hallway with an ornate stairwell. I followed Libuše up to the first floor, and from this point on I had got farther than Miloš had ever managed to.
Libuše opened the door to her apartment. I stood in her silent, dark hallway, mechanically took off my shoes despite her protestations, and then we went through a tall glass door deeper into the apartment, into the still air of the sort of room that absorbs secrets, hiding them under the rugs and in the walls and keeping to itself. One of the windows was ajar, and the white curtains billowed in the light breeze. A dense bouquet of blue flowers protruded from a porcelain vase on a small table of dark, heavy wood. The dark parquet floor creaked beneath my small feet, the grooves glinting in the thin afternoon light. It smelled like linen, coffee, and lavender; like an early summer afternoon and cool, old stone walls.
So this is where the snow queen lives, I thought, as if to assure myself of the reality of the moment. I put my bag down on the floor and turned breathlessly to Libuše, who was just hanging her coat.
“The house is empty?” I asked, but it sounded more like a surprised observation.
“My husband is on a business trip, and my youngest daughter is away on a school excursion. The other two daughters have already moved out,” said Libuše. Climbing the stairs had given her cheeks a fetching pink glow, and her forehead shone with invisible beads of perspiration. A pale strand had fallen free from her perfect coiffure and hovered delicately like a dragonfly between her jaw and collarbone. I wanted to take her face into my hands, run my lips down her forehead, stroke her cheeks and kiss her parted lips. I imagined how I would carefully play with the collar of her white dress. The thought made my face turn red like an overboiled shrimp, and I had to turn away.
Suddenly I was gripped by fear that something like this might actually happen. Libuše was so close—all she had to do was take me by the hand and pull me to her. Then that would be it; we’d become one, and all at once that would be the end of all my goals, the siege of the castle, it would be completion and, at the same time, death. I wouldn’t know what to do, I would be lost, and there would be nothing left for me but to surrender my fearful, trembling body to the scrutiny of her gaze.
Libuše, however, had left me standing there between the hallway and the living room and disappeared into the depths of the apartment. From the study she motioned back through the doorway that I should hurry up, take off my coat and join her.
A massive oil painting hung above her desk, which depicted the likeness of a woman. I was drawn to it straight away. The woman was wearing a green dress and sitting in the nighttime undergrowth, amid which flowers glowed dimly, as if they were sleepwalking. In the top right-hand corner I thought I saw a nightingale, shrouded in countless brushstrokes like fog. Or was it something else that was lurking there—something sinister? At first glance, I took it for a typical Jugendstil painting, but then I saw that it was too crude, and its crudeness far too ironic even for the Jugendstil era. Most likely it was one of those post-postmodern works of art, which seek only to make fun of our love of beautiful gestures. But was this painting really making fun of me? The bare arms of the woman were too beautiful, too full; her white chest shimmered too brightly.
The most striking thing about the portrait was the woman’s hard eyes. They were grey like Libuše’s, but there was a reddish glint in them, which attested to an eerie shrewdness and brutality. They seemed to be hiding a secret, something mysterious and deeply sacred, which filled the room like a cloud of black smoke, coiling around me like tentacles in order to engulf and strangle me. The queen stood beside me, her hands folded in her lap, and contemplated her painting with me.
I gasped for air. “Please forgive me,” I said, as if I had strayed into her bedroom accidentally, uninvited.
“That’s alright,” Libuše said with a wonderful smile that flooded me with warmth. “The painting still exerts a powerful draw on me. Sometimes I just stand here, wondering what might be going on in her mind.”
I could hear her voice rushing in my ears; my head felt heavy, as if my blood pressure had plummeted and soared at the same time. “I’ve never seen a painting like this before,” I said.
“I was good friends with the painter for a long time. Květa Nepomucká is her name. I think she’s a terrific artist, but then I’m biased, of course.”
Libuše touched my arm and led me to a table full of magazines, books and loose prints. “These are first editions, very rare. This is Nezval’s Alphabet, and here you can see the covers of Nezval’s collections of poetry designed by Karel Teige. These images are by Jindřich Štyrský. And these are original prints of Toyen’s illustrations for Mácha’s epic ‘May’. Do you know Toyen?”
I didn’t want to lie, so I chose to remain silent.
“She was an artist that everyone—and I do mean everyone, male or female, whom she met between Prague and Paris and beyond—was in love with. Because she created such extraordinary paintings, of course; and because she was so unusual and full of secrets. She could be vulgar and crude. Often she’d dress in men’s clothing and go out on the town with the other artists, with Nezval, Seifert, André Breton and many others. But then—as you can see for yourself in these prints—she could also be unbelievably feminine and tender. After the Second World War she emigrated to Paris. Her partner, Štyrský, had died in the war. She lived until 1980. People say she could do magic.”
“How do you mean, magic?” I asked.
“Just as I said,” Libuše said, “black magic. As a young girl, she worked in a soap factory in the Prague district of Žižkov, that’s where they say she learned it.”
“Love spells, too?” I asked, trying to sound tongue-in-cheek.
“That too,” Libuše nodded.
In one image I saw a dungeon or attic with a small window. A gentle rolling landscape stretched out on the floor, but oversized human fingers hung from the beams below the ceiling. I put the paper down and wondered why it should so excite me, when it was so grotesque, revolting even. But the landscape on the floor was beautiful, and the window was longing, and the sun, and the chopped-off fingers were the inability to change anything, to say, write, paint, do anything.
I immediately recognised the flourish of Toyen’s signature on the piece of paper underneath it. The centre of the image was taken up by the stunning, giant, shining eye of a girl, topped by a delicate eyebrow, but the face to which it belonged was obscured behind craggy cliffs, with only a hint of the elegant nose peeking through. It was as if a goddess were peeping through a keyhole, as if a young Aphrodite had come down from Mount Olympus to spy on her lover. Passion in its purest, most intense form—that’s what was being shown here.
Together Libuše and I leafed through the prints, magazines and books, and I felt a little silly, because I was paying more attention to my hostess’s hands than to the things she was showing me. Once, our fingertips touched and I jerked back as though I had touched a burning hot plate.
She left me alone with the books, after she had discreetly drawn up a chair for me.
I looked out the window onto a courtyard with chestnuts that were just stirring from their slumber and, behind it, a cul-de-sac. Bay windows and balconies were stacked up, one on top of another, sweeping up into summits of towers and turrets. The castle jutted out somewhere high above.
I was restless, because I wasn’t sure which would tell me more about my beloved: the books she had prepared for me, or her study itself. Again and again I lifted my gaze, taking careful note of the objects that accompanied Libuše as she went about her daily life. Dried yellow roses hung from the bookcase; a snail shell sat on the window sill, carried in by children’s hands ages ago. The heavy conference table with the leather chairs at which I was sitting; the desk with the curved claw feet; the green desk lamp; the curtain; the bronze sculpture of a dancing woman. All this was hers. Every day she looked at all these things, even if only in passing; she touched them often. All these lifeless things spoke to her each day and were brought to life by her presence, and now they spoke to me of her.
The queen returned to the room with two cups of coffee and a plate full of pastries on a tray. The pastries were small větrníčky, a choux pastry with caramel icing and two types of cream filling. I felt like a child on a Sunday visit to their favourite aunt. Libuše understood my look and immediately downplayed things, saying “We get these sent to us frequently. An old friend of mine, a woman I went to school with, owns a pastry shop. She sends everything that’s left over to friends.”
Once again she’s mentioning a female friend, I thought, maybe a close one even. I bit my bottom lip to keep myself from grinning even more broadly. I wanted to bury my head in my hands, or hide it behind a forest of rock faces.
Now I was truly incapable of focusing on the artworks. Poetism, surrealism and romanticism had receded into the background; all I was interested in was the snow queen, nothing else. I wanted to find out every little detail about her; again and again I wanted to hear about all the minutiae of her life. But how could I ask about things that I knew nothing about?
She had consumed a větrníček with impressive deftness and elegance and now lit a cigarette to have with her coffee. “Go on, Marie, have a taste, they’re the best. Or don’t you like choux pastry? What a pity.”
Her mischievous look, which I hadn’t seen before, inspired a terrible yearning in me, paired with an even more terrible shyness. She looked at me over the rim of her cup. I was entirely defenceless and at her mercy. I lifted a cup from the tray too and gingerly had a sip of coffee, as if it were a magic potion with the power to turn stone back into flesh. I didn’t want to touch the pastry because I was afraid that, in my clumsiness, I would get the cream all over my face. “Living so close to the castle seems very appropriate for a queen,” I said, to distract us from the topic of food.
“For a queen?” Libuše laughed.
“That’s what the students call you. Surely you know that.”
Libuše grinned. “And you? Is that what you call me too?”
“Something like that,” I said and fell silent.
We looked into each other’s eyes for a moment.
“So you don’t want to try a větrníček?” she asked.
For a brief moment, the absurd thought came into my mind that the pastry was poisoned and that’s why Libuše was so adamant that I try it. But I wasn’t Snow White, and Professor Herzová was definitely not my wicked stepmother. When I noticed that even this absurd fantasy managed somehow to turn me on, I decided to distract myself. I nodded at Libuše and took a fork with which to at least halve the pastry, which I barely managed to do—instead, much of the cream burst out of its casing. Instead of dividing the cream into small portions with my fork, in my nervousness I decided to take the entire smashed větrníček into my hand. When I bit into it, my taste buds had an experience that was almost on a par with my erotic experiences thus far, but the cream distributed itself liberally all over my cheeks, and I felt so clumsy and unladylike that I wanted to sink into the parquet floor out of shame. The snow queen got up, took two steps towards me and lifted her hand making as if to stroke my hair. But then she handed me a napkin instead.
“It really is delicious,” I said, taking the napkin in an attempt to conceal my embarrassment.
“I’m glad. Yes, my friend really does make the best baked goods anywhere. If you like, I’m happy to give you the address of her shop, so that you can pay it a visit and try their other delicacies.”
“Thank you, I’d like that.”
“Her name is Karolína Konvalinková, and her shop is in Josefov, not far from the university. I just can’t recall the street name just now…”
A telephone rang somewhere in the depths of her domain.
I wiped my mouth while she serenely left the room. She turned back to me in the doorway. “You’d better get a pen and paper from my desk, given that you haven’t brought anything to take notes with.”
Again feeling embarrassed, this time because I hadn’t brought any writing material, I did as she said, got up, took a blue pen and a sheet of stationery with a Charles University watermark, and went back to the large table with the prints. I randomly jotted down a few dates and numbers. It was too quiet without the snow queen. She was too far away. The murmuring of her telephone conversation seemed to be coming from the other side of the world, and I couldn’t make out a single word.
I looked at the ash in her copper ashtray and the cooling coffee left in her cup. The red crescent of her lipstick shone luminous on the rim. I took a sip from the exact spot where her mouth had been. Our mouths touched each other on the other side of the world. I quickly put the cup back in its place. It was getting dark outside; a thick mist was putting the stirrings of spring back to sleep. The mysterious woman in the picture observed me with a dry, questioning gaze.
I wrote on my piece of paper: Libussa, Libussa, Libuše, Libuše, ó sněhová královno, o snow queen, ó sněhová královno, o snow queen, miluji tě, I love you, větrníček, little windmill, led, ice, sníh, snow, konek, end, začátek, beginning. Then I copied a collage from the magazine Moderní revue. Breasts and little birds.
By the time the snow queen returned, it was pitch-black outside the windows, except for a tiny wisp of blue far off to the left. The green lamp was reflected in the window pane. In the reflection, Libuše and I looked like ghosts. And suddenly I wanted to be gone from here, far away in a pub, with the fifth pint of the evening in my hand, but I wanted to leave part of me here, as a ghost, to roam this room from now on for all eternity, always on the lookout, forever on the hunt for the queen of its heart.
Libuše sat down in her seat. Her face was dark. With an angry motion she put out her cigarette. Her eyes had lost all their lustre. I noticed that she had taken off her pearl earrings. It was time for me to go, I realised that much. I folded up my piece of paper like a sleepwalker who never wants to wake up.
“If you want to learn more about the origins of poetism, please read ‘May’ again, and more closely,” Libuše said without looking at me. “Pay attention to the use of imagery. The Czech surrealists considered Mácha to be the first modern poet. So there you are.”
It seemed like she was talking past me. I wondered what she had heard on the telephone that had so shaken her. To at least make eye contact somehow, somewhere, I turned to face the oil painting, but the woman in the picture seemed even more forbidding than before. I stood up and made a show of checking my watch. Perhaps I should hug my professor goodbye? Was that what one did? She remained silent, her eyes fixed on the table top.
“I think,” I whispered, my voice hoarse, “it’s time…”
“Yes,” Libuše said coldly. “You look tired, Marie.”
I drifted into the hallway. Libuše remained motionless in her seat.
I put my coat on, and on the way to the door I passed a mirror I hadn’t noticed when I came in. From the corner of my eye, I saw my sad face, and took a few steps back to look at myself in the mirror, the way you do in shop windows sometimes to reassure yourself that you exist. While looking at my reflection, I saw the flash of a pearl on the floor in the middle of the hallway—one of the earrings that Libuše had been wearing earlier. I hesitated for a moment. Then I bent down and picked up the tiny piece of jewellery. I wanted to rush back to lay it at her feet as a loyal page would for his lady. But then my hand closed around the earring as if of its own accord, and slid into my coat pocket.
Libuše came to say goodbye. She touched my back lightly and gently nudged me to the door. I turned around. She held out her hand. But I was clutching the earring; I couldn’t shake her hand. My chin was trembling and I felt tears well up in my eyes. I hid my face in her shoulder and tried to make it look as if I had meant to embrace her. In this moment, the moment of the greatest physical closeness to my beloved, I felt watched. Maybe it was an unexpected movement outside in front of the dark window, maybe it was light reflecting on the wall. I looked around, but still no one was in the apartment except for me and Libuše. It must have been my bad conscience. Libuše stood there motionless, and I hoped that she might embrace me once again, and properly this time, but she didn’t. Finally she took a step back and said “Goodbye.”
I walked into the darkness and gripped the earring so tightly that it drove into my hand like the stinger of a scorpion.
Author Sophie Strohmeier is a bilingual writer from Vienna and Pennsylvania. Her surrealist novel in German, Küss mich, Libussa, was published in 2013, and her film criticism has appeared in a range of European media such as FM4, The Gap and Sissy. She was a 2016 Lambda Literary Fellow in Young Adult Fiction and lives in Alabama with her wife and two cats, where she is an MFA candidate in creative writing and the recipient of the University of Alabama's Alumni Award for Fiction 2016. (Social media: Tumblr) Translator Emma Rault is a writer and translator living on a canal boat in London. Her writing has appeared in British and American publications including Bitch Media, The RS 500, Brittle Star and Shooter Literary Magazine. She translates Dutch and German poetry and prose when she finds herself missing some of her past homes. (Social media: Twitter)